I was one of the 32,781 people to woft $15.00 USD gently in the direction of Wasteland 2 when it first showed up on Kickstarter, which means I’ve now got access to the game’s beta build. Earlier this month, InXile opened it up to everybody who’d backed the title at any level. Which was jolly decent of them.

You can decide for yourselves whether this makes me more likely to be forgiving (because I’m invested in the game) or more likely to be critical (because I’m invested in the game.)

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Travel to exotic locations and wrestle with computers.

The current beta version of Wasteland 2 allows people to play through pretty much all of the quests and locations planned for the Arizona portion of the game. That’s estimated to be about 25 hours, or half of what the final release will contain.

Thing is, I don’t really want to play through anywhere near that much yet. Not because I’m lazy, but because I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far and I’m scared to get “too far” in. The early access/beta nature of the game means any save files will be useless by the time Wasteland 2 shows up in August.

I know some people get their kicks from min-maxing the hell out of party-based RPGs like this, but for me the fun comes from blundering into situations I’m not prepared for and having to bodge through with characters and skills which all of a sudden don’t look as useful as when I chose them. Knowing what’s coming up can somewhat spoil that feeling.

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Just look at the sexy stat potential of this character creation screen.

So far, Wasteland 2 has excelled in giving me choices I’ve actually needed to put some thought into. The character creation is a proper throwback to the days of agonising over whether to bump a point in charisma or reduce the chances of a gun exploding in your hands and leaving your powder-covered face looking like a scene from Looney Tunes. You have four characters to add to your party (either custom-built or chosen from a few pre-created options,) but this is nowhere near enough to cover all eventualities.

You’ll want a medic, of course. Nobody wants to be stuck in the desert with four people who don’t know how to work a bandage. Dangerous situations are a dead cert, so some kind of firearms expert will help (handguns, shotguns, rifles or others is your call.) You might be out of ammo though. Better take a melee bruiser too. Lockpicking sounds useful. Leaving without an electronics wizard seems foolish as well. Crap, that’s five people already. Time for a re-think.

After you’re satisfied with the skill-point allocations, then comes the truly important part: deciding how your team will dress. I’m pleased to confirm that Wasteland 2 allowed me to clad my de-facto leader in a comedy sombrero, pink skirt and blue pumps. Just as videogaming intended.

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The overworld Arizona map is how you travel to individual locations.

No matter which choices you make, Wasteland 2 seems to do a pretty good job of both rewarding and punishing you for them. One minute you’ll be trudging smugly past a rowdy bandit gatekeeper after intimidating her with your ‘Hardass’ dialogue skills, the next you’ll be stuck in a basement with killer maggots, bereft of ammo and relying on the only person in your group who can kill things by hitting them with blunt objects.

Relatively early in the game, you’re forced to make a choice between saving an Agricultural Center or a settlement called Highpool. Going with the food-producing building seems like an obvious priority, until you learn that Highpool is the place supplying most nearby areas with water.

I chose the Ag Center, purely on the basis that their problem was “our plants are out of control” and that sounded funny. After killing a tag-team of giant flies and maggots in turn-based combat, the commander of the Ag place yelled at me for being late. That’s one of the refreshing things about Wasteland 2. Nobody treats you like a hero or some kind of post-apocalyptic Jesus. You’re just a bunch of Desert Ranger recruits who nobody really believes they can rely on. You’re the DMV with guns and a can-mostly-do attitude.

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Don’t worry everyone, this rabbit problem is fully under control.

The game’s tone stays just the right side of absurd to still be able to pull off convincing pathos. Even while I was fighting off massive rabbits and exploding pod people amidst the Ag Center’s oversized vegetable garden, the radio calls for help from Highpool were getting increasingly desperate. I was engaged in a ridiculous situation, but still feeling some weight of that initial choice.

And while some of the voice acting could be described as “within budgetary constraints,” most of what I’ve run into has been pretty solid and backed up by a decent script. Not everybody is fully voiced, but it seems like the intent is to cover all the main, plot-centric NPCs.

Some aspects are missing or non-functional due to Wasteland 2‘s beta state, of course. I was tasked with sneaking up on a bursting plant pod, but seemed unable to do so because a proper sneak function isn’t in place yet. Either that or I was going about that quest all wrong. Luckily, as appears to be a trend in Wasteland 2, there’s an alternative solution. Quest design in the first few hours is in pleasing harmony with the title’s willingness to let you outfit parties with all kinds of different ability-sets.

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You will find all manner of delightful science treasures.

Map movement occurs in real time until you bump into some nasties, at which point it automatically switches to a turn-based set up. You can also opt to take the first shot to trigger combat if you’re careful enough about it.

As befits a traditional-leaning party RPG of this type, combat is action point based (which, in themselves, are based on your character stats) and tactical. You have options for crouching (for added stability when shooting) and an ‘overwatch’ equivalent in the form of an Ambush function. Attribute effects like poison need to be taken into account, and members of your team can sometimes ‘lose control’ and act upon their own initiative rather than waiting around for your orders. Weapon jamming is a constant threat.

It’s a system that’ll be familiar as a cloth map and a beefy paper instruction manual to the people who funded this game, and should be straightforward enough to anybody who’s played (say) the recent XCOM reboot.

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100% hit chance eh? It would be rude not to take that shot.

The user interface is clean and functional, with (mostly) redefinable hotkeys and a simple system of dragging and dropping for things like arranging usable skills, equipping weapons or transferring items between characters. It seems a little strange that there’s no mini-map of your immediate surroundings, as this means you can’t ever really tell if you’ve exhausted a given area. But, in line with Wasteland 2‘s admirable lack of quest arrows, this may be a design choice.

Though I didn’t delve too far beyond the opening couple of quest branches for fear of uncovering more than I actually wished to experience, what I did see of Wasteland 2 was impressive. Character creation allows for a wide range of roles, which appear well catered for in quest design. Throwing the big Highpool-Ag Center dilemma at players nice and early is a great sign of what’s to come, and I know I’ll be heading off to Highpool next time through to see how that pans out instead.

So far, Wasteland 2 is looking exactly what it’s backers were hoping to fund: a traditional, party based RPG with roots in a historical important series, and not a quest arrow, quick-time event or “cinematic” cut-scene in sight. Not bad for $15.

Wasteland 2 is currently available as an Early Access title, giving access to the beta for rather more than $15 ($60, in fact.) The final release version in August is likely to be closer to $30.00.

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