Review: Wasteland 3 (Sony PlayStation 4)

7 mins read

Review by Matt C.

Post-apocalyptic stories in video games are tired, to say the least. Hell, they were already tired a decade ago, and the market saturation hasn’t slowed down in the least since then. That puts Wasteland 3 in a tricky position: it’s the continuation of a series that dates back to 1988 (and, in fact, was the precursor to the original Fallout games) and needs to stay true to that, but also needs to find a way to make its own mark in 2020. It certainly delivers on the former, but stumbles a little bit with the latter.

Wasteland 3 continues the story of the Desert Rangers, a group of peacekeepers in an America that’s been ravaged by nuclear war. When a supply run to Colorado goes wrong, a group of Rangers finds itself caught up in the turbulent local politics—warring gangs, civil unrest, and a blood feud between the ruling “Patriarch” and his three violently-minded children.

If you’ve ever played any post-apocalyptic game, this will sound very familiar. Wasteland 3 does its best to carve its own niche with its oddball characters, unique factions, and dark sense of humour. It’s a game that depicts a bleak world, but isn’t so interested in trying to drag players down into that bleakness the way so many other games do. And so you get a game where gangs of psychotic clowns coexist with religious fanatics, where shocking character deaths take an almost comical turn thanks to how exaggerated they are, where you might be lucky enough to find a hat-wearing cat as a companion. 

It’s bizarre, but the quality of the writing makes all the eccentricity work. These larger than life characters have so much personality, and that really comes through in the game’s script—in the narration as much as the dialogue. The major characters tend to have some welcome complexity beneath their quirky personas, but even the bit parts that exist solely as a source of manage to make those punchlines work thanks to the sharp writing.

That’s backed up by plenty of freedom in how you approach each situation and the decisions you make. The main storyline sees you tracking down the Patriarch’s kids, but there are so many different paths to take and optional storylines to discover along the way. If you’re the kind of person who likes to take a break from saving the world in order to wander down a rabbit-hole of sidequests, Wasteland 3 will really scratch that itch.

Each different problem has plenty of potential solutions, depending on what kind of crew you’ve assembled, the skills they have, and just your general outlook on post-apocalyptic life. I managed to diffuse one early-game encounter that seemed almost guaranteed to turn into a shootout by letting a gang holed up in a fashion store pick a few choice items off the racks and walk out looking—in their view—incredibly stylish. 

The choices you make always come back in one way or another, usually in unexpected ways and far down the line. So many games love to tout “your choices matter!” and “no right answers!” as selling points on the back of the box, but Wasteland 3 is one of the few that really delivers on that.

This isn’t always enough to shake the feeling that you’ve done this all before (unless you’ve somehow avoided the whole post-apocalypse trend, in which case, congratulations!) But even when it can’t avoid those genre tropes, Wasteland 3 manages to find something interesting—or at least something funny—to do with them.

As much freedom as there is, combat plays a big role in Wasteland 3, so you’ll inevitably find yourself caught in plenty of firefights. Battles play out in a turn-based tactical fashion–if you’ve played XCOM, you’ll know exactly what to expect here. Each character has a set amount of Action Points (AP) to spend each turn on either moving, attacking, using items or skills, or some combination of the above. Positioning is key, especially in terms of finding cover; even the most tank-like soldier won’t survive long if they just stand out in the open. 

In true tactical RPG fashion, Wasteland 3 can be punishing. Even in the easiest difficulty settings, getting careless can quickly see things go south. Healing items are somewhat scarce, and health doesn’t naturally recover between encounters. If you want some extra challenge (and laughter from things going hilariously wrong), you can also turn on friendly fire.

Wasteland 3 doesn’t do too much to break away from the familiar turn-based tactics setup, but it understands what makes the genre tick and delivers on that. It has one neat unique touch, though: your squad’s heavily-armoured vehicle, Kodiak, can be brought into some encounters as an extra, very effective combatant.

Unfortunately, Wasteland 3 does suffer from some bugs and technical issues, at least on PS4. Loading times are very long, an issue made worse by how frequently loading screens show up. I regularly ran onto weird UI issues, like the cursor disappearing on menu screens, and a few outright crashes. These are all things that can be fixed over time with patches (and hopefully will), but at the time of writing, at least, they’re a common annoyance in an otherwise very enjoyable game. 

And Wasteland 3 certainly is enjoyable. It’s true to the series’ roots and the proto-Fallout, and understands what it is that makes XCOM-style tactical RPGs so captivating. But most of all, it uses its sense of humour and sharp writing to keep its post-apocalypse interesting, despite how well-worn that path has become in the decades since Wasteland first hit.

– Matt C. 

The critic was provided a code for the purposes of review.

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