Hands-on with Wasteland 3: A simplified but still satisfying glimpse of the post-apocalypse

If you backed Wasteland 3’s crowdfunding attempt, today’s the day it bears fruit. InXile has created a short, combat-heavy demo-slash-alpha for people to dig into and give feedback on. If you didn’t back? Then you’ll have to live vicariously.

We met up with InXile earlier this week to play the very same slice of Wasteland 3. It’s been a long time coming, and I was excited—after all, this is the sequel to our 2014 Game of the Year.

A life well wasted

Though to be fair, Wasteland 2 didn’t win those accolades based on its combat. It was enjoyable, sure, resurrecting the turn-based tactics of the isometric Fallout entries. But Wasteland 2’s writing did the heavier part of the lifting, carrying a somewhat-rickety collection of mechanics to the top of our podium.


Writing is in short supply in the Wasteland 3 demo. No surprise there—InXile took a similar tack with the Bard’s Tale IV backer demo, a linear combat-driven dungeon crawl that was (in retrospect) barely reminiscent of the full game. It’s a shame though, as what I really want from a Wasteland 3 demo is a look at this new corner of the world, post-apocalyptic Colorado.

We do get a glimmer. It’s cold, a fact that should be abundantly clear if you’ve seen any of Wasteland 3’s trailers. Your ragtag Rangers trudge through and battle over thick snowdrifts—whether because of natural or nuclear winter, I don’t know.

The demo takes place in Aspen, where the Rangers have gone to track down Vic Buchanan and his “Breathers,” a gang that circulates hallucinogenics through their eponymous gas masks. The gang can be wiped out, but Vic is the son of the Patriarch of Colorado and needs to be taken alive, as part of a deal the Rangers have made with the Patriarch to secure his help.

That’s the setup, and about the sum total of the demo’s writing as well. There is a neat bit towards the end, a glimpse of Wasteland 3’s “cinematic conversations,” wherein the camera cuts to a fully voiced and animated close-up of Vic. It’s a dash of modernity in an otherwise retro-styled RPG, and leads to a great sight-gag where Vic slaps a corpse on the back and its head falls off.

But it’s over far too soon, and aside from Scotchmo’s combat barks there’s not much more writing to judge. Given InXile’s track record I’m not too worried, but it’s hard to make any concrete statements.

As for the rest of the demo? Two combat sections and a handful of puzzles await.

Wasteland 2 veterans will notice some changes immediately. The biggest, and one that sends shock waves through myriad other systems, is a rework of Initiative. In Wasteland 2, Initiative not only governed how early a character would attack, but how often as well. This enabled some extremely broken builds, where one character might attack as many as three times for each turn an enemy received. Meanwhile, slower characters like Scotchmo might fire their weapon one time per fight.

In Wasteland 3, turns function more like a standard tactics game where one side attacks, then the other attacks, and repeat. Gut instinct? It’s a good and necessary change. It’s easier to flank enemies and to coordinate maneuvers between teammates, and probably easier for InXile to balance as well. You can even have one party member attack, then hop over to another, and then go back to the first to attack again. This opens up some neat possibilities.

On the other hand, Wasteland 2’s flexibility—that ability to completely break the game by exploiting the systems given—was in line with its retro leanings and (for me at least) part of the fun. I’m somewhat sad to see it go, at least in this one respect.

Some aspects, I won’t miss as much. Characters now share an inventory, which is a welcome change. No more need to allocate ammo or health packs to each character individually, as they’ll all draw from the same pool. And skill checks are now semi-automatic. There’s no need to right-click a door, then tell someone to unlock it. If it’s locked, the Ranger with the highest lockpicking skill will automatically move to the door and try to get it open.

Something is lost in the simplification, no doubt. I don’t know if it’s something necessary though. Wasteland 3 feels less like a time capsule from 20 years ago, and in a way that’s a shame. It’s more playable though, and if we agree that its strongest suit is the writing? Then there’s no real need to lament the loss of the more fiddly mechanics.

Plus, it still takes the opportunity to trip you up when it can. There was a great moment midway through the demo where the path led through a cage full of bears. I carefully moved my squad away from the gate, except Scotchmo and his trusty shotgun. The plan? Spring the gate, and then have Scotchmo hit them right between the eyes. I opened the gate and…

I’d forgotten to reload Scotchmo’s shotgun after the last encounter. Oops.

Scotchmo was pretty good-natured as he fumbled a few shells into the shotgun, and we came out of it relatively unscathed. Still, it’s great to see certain elements of Wasteland 2 have carried over intact. This is still a crunchy CRPG at heart, even if some of the rough edges have been smoothed over.

It’s also beautiful. I’ve saved that to last, as in some ways it’s the least important aspect. Wasteland 2 looked ugly on release, and only marginally less so with the release of the overhauled Director’s Cut a year later. It didn’t matter.

But Wasteland 3 is downright stunning at times. The overworld map has clearly received the biggest upgrade, even if you only see a few seconds of it in the demo. InXile’s ditched Wasteland 2’s semi-abstracted map marker, replacing it with segments where you drive an armored truck around Colorado. The truck then joins you on encounter maps and in settlements, even taking part in combat provided it’s close enough to the action.

Character models are better too, probably in part because of the aforementioned “cinematic conversations.” Your own characters get the same treatment, and I’m told that Microsoft’s purchase of InXile has given them more opportunity to flesh out character customization (though that’s not part of the demo). Equipped armor is now visible as well, which is a nice touch.

Bottom line

At the end of the day it’s a short demo, and not one that focuses on the parts of Wasteland 3 I care most about. It’s rough too, I’ll say that as well. There are interface elements that need to be cleared up, and certain systems are still in flux. For instance, there’s currently no way to carry over action points from one round to another, meaning you might as well use them all up every single turn. I’m told that’ll probably change before release next spring.

The demo does get the point across though, at least I think. Wasteland 2 was deliberately retro, Wasteland 3 slightly less so. The foundation is still there, but it’s been updated a bit, for better and for worse. It’s a smoother experience, which usually means a more even-keeled experience but also a less flexible one—though it’ll take more than a half-hour demo to know for sure.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. I’m here for the lore, the weird bits, the Breathers and Vic, the Patriarch and the Rangers. As long as I can plug through combat at a decent clip to get to more dialogue, I’ll be happy.

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