Developers: inXile Entertainment
I have had a Rolling Stones track stuck in my head for days. "You can't always get what you want..." It keep going over and over in my mind. And it's not because I've been listening to the increasingly pained warblings of Mick Jagger, but rather because I've been playing an awful lot of Wasteland 2, and that sort of message is drummed into you from the very start.
It begins at the character selection screen, where you choose the four men and women who'll make up the ragtag bunch of rookie Desert Rangers that you'll control throughout the game. Naturally, if you're one of the die-hard, old-school RPG fans for whom this game has been made, you're going to want to create your own character, and the game allows you to do so, complete with the option of importing character portraits of your own. But the smattering of Attribute and Skill points is paltry: you can't have you cake and eat it to. There's simply not enough to go around, and the game knows it. And revels in it.
There are ten weapon skills to begin with, meaning that the combination of your team is enormously important. Characters tend towards specialisations, because there's simply no way to be a jack-of-all-trades, and the general skills are broken down far more than one might usually find in games such as these. Lockpicking and Safecracking are two different disciplines, and Charisma-led speech checks come in three separate flavours: Hard Ass, Kiss Ass, and Smart Ass. Creating a healer involves stuffing precious skill points into both Field Medic and Surgeon classes, with the former allowing the character to restore health, and the latter used to revive downed compatriots. The message from the very beginning, before you even get into the game properly, is very clear: choose carefully.
Though it bears the less familiar Wasteland name, there's a sense that actually Wasteland 2 is the sequel to Fallout 2 that we might have gotten had things turned out differently. Stepping into inXile's Unity-crafted landscape is like stepping back in time, which isn't surprising given that Brian Fargo has wanted to make this game for a quarter of a century. That works both for and against Wasteland 2 here in 2014. It rides the nostalgia card well and though you can certainly enjoy the game without ever having played the original, there are a large number of throwbacks and references for series stalwarts.
By far my favourite thing about the whole experience is the text printer that serves as your log, situated towards the bottom of the screen. The an enormous amount of voice acting in the game, and the dialogue is snappily written, but the environmental context given out by the log is outstanding and brilliantly detailed. It's the sort of vivid, descriptive-yet-frugal prose that one would have expected from classic text adventures: conjuring up images easily, but never indulging in verbosity.
Combat is slightly problematic at this early stage. It feels clunky and archaic because it's predicated on old systems that haven't really been updated. It's turn-based, as old-school fans would expect, but at this stage it's very bare-bones, with little of the tactical depth we might have been expecting evident in the beta. As you'd expect, balancing out your squad between ranged and melee specialists, knowing when to conserve ammunition and when that shotgun will prove to be your very best friend, knowing when to move and when to use up those precious action points, all are crucial considerations. The lighter more mobile members of your squad will go first, of course, their order determined primarily by their Initiative rating. Purists will be happy -- cover is the only real addition to the formula, and even then Wasteland 2 still proves to be a game more about distance and specialisation than one particularly concerned with environmental dynamics and how they affect things. But this is no XCOM, that's for sure, and while that may well delight early backers, the minimalistic combat may well alienate a more modern crowd.
Even for someone like me -- a lover of the classics and yet appreciative of many of the progressive mechanics that have been brought to bear on the rich templates of old in recent years -- Wasteland 2's combat can seem lethargic and uninspired at times. As with everything in this beta, though, the key phrase is early days. There's a long way to go when it comes to certain aspects of the experience, but the game is hardly in a complete state yet, and it's not helped by a shuddering, stuttering framerate (though more recent patches certainly seem to have helped) or occasional crashes.
However, it is clear to see some flashes of magic already. There's a classic fork in the narrative that sees you having to choose between two calls for aid: one is the Agricultural Centre that handles food production in the area, the other is the town of Highpool, whose community is responsible for collecting fresh water. Knowing that saving one will mean the destruction of the other, and coming across the ruins and the charred bodies later on is striking, but the radio amplifies that immensely.
Not only the means by which you can report back in to your commanding officers, and occasionally earn a laughably paltry reward for levelling up when you have the chance, the radio provides some real-time feedback on your decision-making. There's the fear and the desperation and the pleading and then the anger and recrimination: you picked them, over us?! The consequences of your actions hit home hard, and although it means it's no surprise when you come across the site you failed to save and find it turned into a carnival of horrors, it adds weight to every decision you make from then on. It's often a little too easy to see the underlying narrative processes, but overall the impact that you can have upon the world and the characters therein is impressive.
Between the limited skills and abilities that you can muster, not to mention these divergent narrative points that effectively seal off certain parts of the game depending on the decisions you make, what's clear is that inXile are crafting a game that demands to be played through time and time again, encouraging players to attempt different approaches, just like the games -- virtual and tabletop -- whose legacies Wasteland 2 finds itself channelling.
But Wasteland 2 also highlights the problem with the new "Early Access" culture that's rapidly becoming de rigeur. What's on offer here, for a rather premium price, is the opportunity to get involved with a fraction of what the main game will become, in a state of supreme undress. First impressions can often count for a lot, and if you're someone who values that first playthrough highly, then I'd suggest holding off on handing over money just yet. There plenty of old-school charm here, but it's tempered with old-school frustrations too, and wrapped up in a bundle that would actually struggle to earn an alpha tag under normal circumstances. More than anything, the "Early Access beta" simply affirms the direction of Fargo's 25-year vision at this point. For some, that will be enough; for others, there's nothing wrong with holding off for a few months and waiting for opening night rather than settling for snippets of rehearsals.