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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (444)

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Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
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Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5

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Wasteland 3   PC (Steam) 

The Definitive Post-Nuclear RPG    4.5/5 stars

Seven years after Brian Fargo’s inXile Entertainment reignited the torch of post-apocalyptic RPGs with the release of “Wasteland 2,” a team at the studio consisting of many people who worked on “Torment: Tides of Numenera,” released yet another sequel to the original post-nuclear RPG. Having returned to crowdfunding – using Fig instead of Kickstarter this time – inXile managed to come up with triple the budget as their previous ‘Wasteland’ effort for “Wasteland 3.” I was somewhat trepidatious about this sequel. I enjoyed “Wasteland 2,” primarily for the fact that it was a spiritual successor to the origins of the ‘Fallout’ franchise, which was, itself, a spiritual successor to the original “Wasteland.” However, between the bland writing and unfortunate difficulty spike of the preceding game’s finale, I had a hard time getting excited about “Wasteland 3.” In a rare turn of events, though, it turned out that my concerns were for naught, as this sequel’s extra budget was well spent, making inXile’s last independently published game – prior to the studio’s acquisition by Microsoft’s Xbox Division – one of the best RPGs of the last decade, and cementing the studio’s position as a role-playing powerhouse.

Presentation
“Wasteland 3,” like its predecessor and every other inXile game, is built in the Unity Engine. Renowned for its ease of use for novice game developers, the Unity Engine also has a reputation for producing products that all feel a bit iffy or janky. Sadly, “Wasteland 3” can’t shake this, in spite of the team’s years of practice and previous Unity game releases. In general the visuals in “Wasteland 3” are fairly standard and ‘adequate,’ with regard to the basic environments and simplistic character models and animations employed throughout the majority of the game.

However, there has been some significant effort put into certain character designs and animations, as there are a handful of major non-player characters who have fully-animated 3D character models during dialogs instead of static character portraits. These detailed models look fantastic and are incredibly well-animated and lip-synced. I just wish more characters had received this treatment and that the ones who did were used more frequently! One of my complaints about the previous game was that there weren’t very many character portraits in general, and thus important NPCs would end up being dopplegangers for party members with uncomfortable frequency. This issue has also been resolved. Additionally, the world map in “Wasteland 3” is much more detailed than its predecessor, and is rendered as a fully-3D frozen waste, where the player can drive a vehicle around at their leisure.

Audio in “Wasteland 3” is massively improved over its predecessor. Not only did inXile hire more voice actors and squeeze excellent performances out of everyone this time, they also hired-on Quentin Tarantino’s go-to music supervisor, Mary Ramos, to manage the soundtrack. Yes, there’s still plenty of terrible, droning, ‘ambient’-inspired ‘music’ in “Wasteland 3,” but there are many seminal moments throughout the game’s narrative that are accompanied by incredibly quirky (and thematically appropriate) covers of a handful of ‘80s theme songs and pop music, as well as the occasional patriotic anthem and religious hymn. The result is a series of spectacular combinations of music, scenario, and mood that give the game’s happenings an extra bit of punch. This is the biggest and boldest upgrade to post-apocalyptic soundtracks since “Fallout 3” introduced the radio!

Technically, though, as mentioned previously, inXile insisted on keeping the Unity Engine instead of upgrading to something else. While the game has gotten many post-launch patches to fix bugs and issues, there are still a handful of small annoyances, ranging from a random NPC with error text in his dialog to the fact that interacting with objects almost always requires the player to hit the A button twice. While I personally never had any major technical issues with the game, other players – specifically console peasants – have complained about the game’s load times, among other severe issues. Even the Steam version allegedly has always-online DRM for the two DLC packs, which I never experienced due to owning the game on GOG. In general, though, while the Unity Engine and the game’s level of bugginess aren’t it’s strong points, it does, like its predecessor, support Xinput controls out of the box, and the DLC packages are tightly integrated into the main story, providing more meaningful choices for the player, and never feeling like afterthoughts or codas.

Story
“Wasteland 3” continues the story of the previous ‘Wasteland’ titles, but both takes the action to a new location and stops beating the drum of ‘robots take over the world’ in favor of an all-new scenario. Furthermore, while “Wasteland 2’s” world-building felt unambiguously weak, “Wasteland 3” compares much more favorably to the world-building that made ‘Fallout’ such a well-regarded IP, only creating an alternative future of perpetual ‘80s instead of perpetual ‘50s, which just oozes pop-cultural charm.

The game opens with a team of Arizona Desert Rangers – the main organization at the ‘Wasteland’ series’ heart – traveling far outside of their irradiated desert to the perpetually-frozen mountains of Colorado. While, in the events of the previous games in the series, the Rangers saved Arizona from an existential threat posed by a genocidal AI, with that threat eliminated, Arizona is facing an existential threat that’s far more pedestrian: A famine. Scouring the radiowaves of an America destroyed by thermonuclear holocaust, the Rangers make contact with an unexpected savior: The Patriarch of Colorado, who has restored the state to a semblance of civilization, and offers the Rangers a steady supply of food shipments to Arizona in exchange for assistance with his unruly children.

General Woodson of the Rangers accepts this bargain and dispatches Team November to Colorado post-haste. Unfortunately, the Patriarch’s transmission wasn’t 100% secure, and Team November is jumped by a very organized gang of hillbillies, who kill nearly the entire platoon, leaving only a handful of survivors. Our heroes – a duo of pre-gen characters or custom creations – must fight their way to Colorado Springs, both to begin their mission for the Patriarch and to beg his help in tracking down their mysterious attackers and any possible survivors.

The Patriarch turns out to be an aging brick shithouse of a man named Saul Buchanan, who rules Colorado as a benevolent dictator, suppressing the gangs and tribes that terrorized the population, while bringing back trappings of civilization such as public utilities, law enforcement, manufacturing, and the press. Unfortunately for the Patriarch, each of his three kids is an absolute monster in one way or another, and he needs an outside group to bring them into custody so he can ‘deal with them his own way.’ The Patriarch grants the Rangers ownership of an abandoned U.S. Air Force base just outside of Colorado Springs, which the Rangers must staff themselves by rubbing shoulders with the locals and making friends.

In the pursuit of their overarching goal, the Rangers will explore a twisted and quirky vision of the post-apocalyptic future, populated by bizarre gangs, like Latino clowns who worship Clown Jesus, gruesome soothsayers who amputate the limbs of their human victims before strapping the still-living torsos to huge kites and sending them to the ‘sky gods,’ a cult called ‘the Gippers’ who worship the God-President Ronald Reagan – who still lives on among them in a similar state to ‘80s icon, Max Headroom, and (in one of the DLCs) a cult of mutants who worship a time-dilated nuclear blast in a secret facility beneath Cheyenne Mountain. And that’s just a sampling of the unique things to be found in the wasteland.

Throughout their interactions with these various and sundry groups, the Rangers will have the opportunity to recruit a number of followers, who act as full-blown party members, but also have unique interactions with certain plot threads. While “Wasteland 2” always felt like a matter of being forced to choose between equally-unappealing factions, “Wasteland 3’s” factions are much more detailed and nuanced, leading to a number of weighty, impactful choices that don’t always feel bad.

In general, the writing in “Wasteland 3” is extremely well-done. This is one of those all-too-rare games that manages to tackle social and political satire without coming across as preachy or Woke. Indeed, there is a major story thread in which a Strong Female recurring character from the ‘Wasteland’ series quite literally tries to convince Team November to help her ‘smash the patriarchy’ by deposing and arresting the Patriarch. Most modern games would make following this route the only ‘good’ path through the story and the only way to achieve a satisfactory ending. “Wasteland 3” actually has 4 major endings – which all depend on a lot of things, ranging from Team November’s relationship with the game’s various factions to the team’s pivotal decisions – and there are ‘good’ outcomes with or without the Patriarch’s support.

“Wasteland 3” features 2 optional DLC packs: “The Battle of Steeltown” and “The Cult of the Holy Detonation,” both of which integrate seamlessly into the game world, and with ties directly to the core narrative, even though they both take place in closed locations with a handful of unique mechanics. The world-building and writing remain just as great in these expansions as the base game, with numerous impactful choices and intra-factional intrigue.

Combining the base game and the DLCs, “Wasteland 3” is about a 70-hour experience, which is right around the RPG sweet-spot of not being too long and grindy, but also leaving plenty of time for the world to unfold, the characters to develop, and the plot to thicken. I never once felt bored while playing this game, and always found myself looking forward to what was going to happen next.

Gameplay
“Wasteland 3” is, in essence, built-upon a refined and polished version of the gameplay mechanics we saw in “Wasteland 2.” It’s a very traditional Turn-Based RPG using an Action Point (AP) system. Characters move on a grid, with each square of movement taking a certain amount of AP based on the character’s speed stat. As the player moves the cursor across the grid, the game helpfully shows that the selected character’s hit percentages would be against any targets in-range, allowing for excellent tactical planning and far less trial-and-error than most similar titles. Team November itself consists of the player’s two starting Rangers, two additional custom-created Rangers, and up to two NPC companions (who can be commanded in battle exactly like any other Ranger on the team), for a total team of 6. Outdoor encounters, however, allow the player’s team to employ their vehicle, the Kodiak – which somewhat resembles a cross between a Jeep and a tank – as a 7th team member, which can be commanded like a person due to its AI module.

Character building, in general, is quite a bit different than “Wasteland 2,” with far more stat points, skill points, and perks handed out as the player’s Rangers level up. Creating a team with a diverse set of skills is important, with each character on the team specializing in around 4 different skills – including a weapon skill. Non-combat skills come into play ALL the time, making them essential. Fortunately, like “Wasteland 2,” it’s possible to respec the team’s stats at any point by paying a little bit of in-game money to a specific NPC at HQ.

Some character perks provide unique combat skills, which typically work on a cooldown and usually require a specific weapon archetype (making it important to have everyone on the team specialize in a different type of gun). One combat skill that everyone has by default, though, is the return of Strikes, which are similar to ‘Fallout’s’ V.A.T.S. system. While in “Wasteland 2,” Precision Strike was useless due to the massive accuracy penalty associated with it, in “Wasteland 3,” this skill, which now needs to be charged up, Limit Break style, is incredibly useful, as the accuracy penalty is gone, replaced with a blanket 95% hit chance. In addition to ‘precision’ Strikes, there are also ‘barrage’ Strikes for appropriate weapons, which can obliterate a number of enemies in a cone of death.

There are plenty of Quality of Life improvements across the board. Inventory management is incredibly simple and, most importantly, doesn’t require any kind of micromanagement for weight/carrying capacity. The downside in this revised inventory, though, is that it encourages the player to keep everything… but outside of a filter for broad item categories, there’s no way to search for a specific item. The other major QoL change is the fact that reviving a downed ally in combat no longer requires a consumable or any special skill. Instead, a downed character will simply be ‘dying’ for 4 turns. Moving next to them and using a universal action to revive them brings them back to the fight with a permanent injury – which must be removed using a common consumable – but they come to their senses with a minimal 3AP, which they’ll probably use to eat a first aid kit. Likewise, winning the fight causes all dying characters to recover, with permanent character loss only coming into play if the player ignores a downed character for too long.

In general, I found that the balance in combat encounters in “Wasteland 3” is a step-up from “Wasteland 2,” with no particularly-egregious encounters sticking in my craw and my memory. Of course, players who poorly optimize their team or neglect the Survival skill, which allows the team to avoid random encounters on the world map, might have a harder time, as some of the random encounters contain a butt-load of enemies. In the base game, combat is entirely cut-and-dry: Kill all hostiles. However, the 2 DLC packs re-introduce some mechanics from previous ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Fallout’ games. “The Battle of Steeltown” introduces the idea of ‘non-lethal’ combat, which is just regular combat, except using stun-guns instead of real guns and stacking a stun debuff on enemies to ‘kill’ them without ‘killing’ them. “The Cult of the Holy Detonation,” on the other hand, re-introduces the mechanic I hated in the final battle of “Wasteland 2,” with infinitely respawning reinforcements joining the fray each turn. However, these battles are all very well-balanced and always clearly point out what the player needs to do to stop the reinforcement spam. While I was perfectly happy to play on ‘Normal’ difficulty, there are plenty of options for masochists to make the game worse (even enabling friendly fire… giving me PTSD flashbacks to “Fallout 2”). Overall, though, “Wasteland 3” has an excellently designed, excellently balanced, excellently executed suite of tactical gameplay, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Overall
While no amount of money and talent, it seems, can overcome the jankiness of the Unity Engine, in every other respect, inXile Entertainment has created an absolute gem of a game, here. Between the amazing soundtrack, the quirky and in-depth perpetual-‘80s world-building, impactful choices, and excellent tactical battles, “Wasteland 3” is a fantastic experience. If you like RPGs, play this game. If you like RPGs, the ‘80s, and Quentin Tarantino, DEFINITELY play this game! I can’t recommend it enough!

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 5/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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