Posted: November 21, 2014
Did they pull it off?
I don't quite know what I was expecting when I first backed the Kickstarter. Wasteland was a beloved classic, my first proper PC game, and it showed me just what games were really capable of. Problems with more than one solution, missions that could be failed without forcing a game over, the player's responsibility to build a balanced team, the combination of descriptive paragraphs with the limited graphics to paint a more vivid picture; the experience blew my fragile little mind at the time. A contemporary title can do many or even all of those things, but whether they can match that feeling - the impression that I'm playing something truly groundbreaking - is a much more loaded question.
Many positive reviews of Wasteland 2 frontload the criticism, ending with some variant of "but I liked the game anyway because etc." It's easy to see why: bugs still being ironed out, a rather clunky interface, widespread locks and traps with long skill use animations, overuse of a limited pool of music, some weak story elements, large chunks of wasted space... you don't have to look too hard to see some serious flaws. The enjoyable aspects are likely to be subjective: how well the combat clicks for the player, whether they like the setting and overall fiction, the extent to which building a proper team is enjoyable, and so on. Indeed, in their bid to create a classic-sized PC RPG, it seems inXile could have made the game play better without sacrificing its hardcore appeal.
For instance, the locks and traps thing: consider the Baldur's Gate games, which also made use of frequent locks and traps on obstacles. Where BG has the advantage is that skill usage is practically instantaneous; the character moves to the trapped item and, if successful, the trap field simply disappears. WL2 added some needless visual flair to the process - your ranger rubbing their hands before working on the object, or kicking it repeatedly as a meter fills, or whatever - which adds a few seconds to each skillcheck. In a game with hundreds of them, those seconds start to add up. Little changes to things like that could have smoothed out a lot of reviewer complaints, with few if any adjustments to the core mechanics. No doubt patches will address this and other issues over time, but the impression has set in nonetheless.
I'll be blunt: I put a fair chunk of change into the Kickstarter, and I can feel the little nagging doubts in the back of my head. Would I be fair if I saw something that bugged me, or read criticism? Would I go easy on the game, knowing that some of my own money was somewhere inside? Would my opinion be more biased than others? It's a reasonable question, and I never did come up with a good answer. Even putting that aside, I'm not gonna deny I was a little nervous when this came out. It's been a long time since the Infinity engine was king of the hill. Did I still have the stomach for a big PC game? What if my appetites had simply moved on? Doubts upon doubts upon doubts.
Did they pull it off?
Like putting up with the wizard fight at the Friendly Arm Inn while you're still level 1, the appeal persists: a game that won't pull its punches, that will try its best to bring me down. WL2 definitely has the spark of those classic RPGs, that hard-to-define something that makes them hard to put down once I start. Fights were tactical, kinetic affairs: cover got destroyed, enemies repositioned, backup weapons were handy, well-timed explosives turned the tide, and even a difficult encounter could be mitigated with the right preparation. Environments presented their own challenges, and with several ways through a given obstacle I was more often than not encouraged to work around a failed skillcheck rather than savescum. Uncooperative plot elements or even bugged out triggers could be answered by force-firing, and there was no problem that the right size bomb could not solve.
Arizona did drag and suffer from design problems - the Prison being chief among them - but it held its own curious charms, and it presents a neat contrast with California. At the start, you control a bunch of customizable scrubs whose mission rapidly spirals out of control. Echo Team starts in known territory and gradually pushes the boundaries, earning their stripes in the process. Water is precious, communities are scarce, and civilization is on the knife's edge atop a pile of late 80s-early 90s rubble. By the time I did get to California, Echo felt every bit the veteran ranger squad, doing what rangers do best: venture into wild territory and bring order to chaos. There, the script is flipped: water is everywhere, settlements are common, and it's on us to put our best foot forward. Every arrival the base, every interaction with the public, every time we stepped in to right some wrong felt like it mattered somehow, like it could have gone differently - and like everything we'd done before had shaped us for that encounter.
That's a key spice to those old titles: variety. What happens if I do this instead of that? What does this guy say or do if I mention this? What if I didn't have that skill, item, or party member? What are the consequences if we just kill everyone? Is there a way to get what I want peacefully, and if so how bad do I want it? I was constantly asking myself those questions during Wasteland 2, and it's for those reasons that I know I'll be back. There's more to see, even if I think I've seen it all; there's more to try, even if I've already sunk some 80 hours into the campaign. Old PC RPGs sometimes get a shot of life from modding communities, but even before I had heard thing one about mods, there were some games where I knew - just knew - that I'd be back, just to see what happened this time.
And god help me if I didn't get drawn in at times, just a little. I searched frantically during a hostage situation, wondering if there even was a third option between 'take down the enemy' and 'save the hostage.' I debated whether to intervene in a loophole-ridden religious dispute, and if so how. I paid attention to the radio broadcasts in LA, making mental notes of who's who in the neighborhood. The villain was something of a one-note antagonist - there were moments of good writing, but his was a stock grand scheme - but there was a respectable sense that something was tracking Echo and the Rangers. There's a strange appeal to being stuck in uncharted territory, surrounded by potential enemies, with friends well out of reach and one hell of a longshot goal ahead of us. It's predictable in the end, but not without its highs; the trick of bringing back everyone you've made friends with for the final battle is an old one, but no less effective.
Sometimes it's not the game I'm after, but the adventure, the challenge. Sometimes it's the sense that I am probably going to lose if I play this game like I play every other game. So it was with games like Arcanum: flawed to hell and back, difficult to recommend, but special in a way that most games simply aren't for me. So it is with Wasteland 2.
Did they pull it off?
In my humble, flawed, biased opinion: yeah, I think they pulled it off.