I am in post-apocalyptic Denver for less than a minute before I witness a giant, sneering statue of Ronald Reagan with laser beams for eyes obliterating a communist robot. It’s not the real president, obviously – America’s last commander-in-chief died centuries ago when the bombs dropped. All that’s left now is the old actor’s faulty, simulated consciousness, hidden in a bunker and watched over by a cult of priestesses all named after his second wife “Nancy”.
Like most post-apocalyptic fiction, Wasteland 3 is what you might call “dark and gritty” – its world is brimming with brutal murder, roaming slavers and unfortunate tinges of misogyny. It’s also an especially dark comedy. It’s an irreverent kind, too unwieldy and scattershot to be considered satire in the same way as the original Fallout.
The game concedes any notion of sophistication from the jump, with a pop-up that lets you know that any similarities to real-world events are purely accidental, and that everything you encounter is for entertainment purposes only. If the message feels a little like pulling the rug out from under your own RPG… well, that’s because it is. It’s hard to take much of Wasteland 3’s moralising or “difficult choices” seriously when the game introduces itself as a clown.
Moving past the odd pop-up message, you begin by creating two characters, choosing from a wide range of punk hairstyles and about 20 different gas masks. Wasteland 3 probably offers the greatest selection of masks and helmets in any RPG to date. When you’re done fiddling with the characters’ cosmetics, it’s onto the hardcore maths stuff like attributes and skills.
The game’s silliness comes through in the replacement of traditional skill names like “Stealth” and “Hacking” with “Sneaky Shit” and “Nerd Stuff”. But there are also a few genuinely interesting choices, like “Toaster Repair” and “Animal Whisperer”, the latter of which allowed me to befriend a pet cat pretty early on in the game. When you’re done with character creation, you’re introduced to the star of the show – Colorado itself, which replaces Wasteland 2’s desert with a similarly one-note perpetual winter terrain.
While its world looks a little dull and uniform, in actuality it’s anything but. One thing you can’t accuse Wasteland 3 of being is boring.
Despite its old-fashioned method of travelling – you use a vehicle to traverse an overworld that even comes with dreaded random battles, which can really kill the flow when you simply want to return somewhere to hand in a quest – everywhere I visited felt fresh. The areas were crammed full of colourful characters and zany groups that you want to learn a little more about. People will also contact you over the shortwave radio, announcing the various incidents happening on the map.
Wasteland 3 is a swamp of strange factions, gangs, cults and sects. You belong to the Arizona “Rangers”, with their sheriff badges and stetson hats a clear tip to the forgotten fantasies of the Old West. Your group is in dire straits, having nuked their own facility at the end of the last game.
In order to turn things around, you move North and wind up working for the “Patriarch” of Colorado, who promises you supplies. However, the cracks in the Patriarch’s empire are showing, with all three of his children having left and turned against him. It becomes your job to bring his children back under control. Or, you can kill them. Or befriend them. Or play them off against one another.
It’s an RPG centred around faction interactions – negotiating, settling beefs and ultimately making tough choices. You can do well-paid jobs for Colorado’s ruling elite, the “Hundred Families”, or help the refugees find their footing and settle down somewhere. You can play Colorado Springs’ mob off against the Patriarch’s own Marshalls, and even help them muscle in on a fabled underground bazaar, aptly named “The Bizarre”. There are also gangs of killer clowns, gas-masked “Breathers” who seem to be in a state of hallucinogenic transcension, and even deranged fanatics who fly flesh-kites.
Wasteland 3 is also largely a game focused around tactical turn-based combat – it’s basically chess but with hit percentages and lots of head-burstings. Pretty much all of the attributes in the game boast combat efficiency. Even charisma, which historically just made you better at talking to people, gives leadership bonuses that help you fight better and allow you to more quickly power-up a special targeting ability that works similar to Fallout’s “V.A.T.S.”.
You’ll quickly have the full six characters in your squad, and often be fighting rather than talking your way through encounters. But sometimes, it’s easier to use dialogue to get what you want, through schmoozing and intimidation skill checks. There’s also a few utility skills like mechanics, hacking and lockpicking, which occasionally crop up – a character with high perception will notice when someone is lying, for example.
With six Rangers it becomes fairly easy to build a strong team, accounting for all the different possibilities and play styles. Towards the end of the game, as well as being fully skilled up for their weapon-of-choice, my characters had all mastered at least one useful skill, and so I had pretty much every option available to me when dealing with situations.
If a quest involved mechanics in order to rig a bit of machinery, or hacking to bypass a computer, it was no problem. There was no obstacle my Swiss Army knife of a team couldn’t solve. Combat-wise, my squad also felt pretty powerful. I’d definitely recommend choosing one of the harder difficulties if you want a challenge, as on the regular one my sniper ended up picking off bosses with a single shot. No complaints here.
Wasteland 3 is a solid RPG, and absolutely massive. It took me about 40 hours to finish, and that’s with a ton of side stuff and a chunk of the map untouched. The search and stop overworld gives the game the feel of an anthology, with each area bringing its own little weird adventure. From conversing with a suicidal AI embedded in Reagan’s presidential car to helping an elf holed up in a Santa’s workshop, it’s frivolous fun, and sometimes quite funny.
The main plot, though, is what truly kept me engaged – it’s King Lear in the post-apocalypse. I found the Patriarch perched high on his throne of vertical warheads a compelling figure, and his children, each madder than the next, interesting antagonists to play off of.
And yet, sandwiched between last year’s Disco Elysium – which does so much more with dialogue and branching narrative – and Larian Studio’s upcoming Baldur’s Gate III, which is bound to retain the systems-based interactions and complex tactical combat of Divinity, it’s hard to think of Wasteland 3 as much more than a lightweight stop-gap before the more meaningful destination.
Wasteland 3 is a sprawling, combat-heavy cRPG that retains the wacky, slightly scatterbrained tongue-in-cheek tone that the series is known for. There are a lot of very strange, zany characters and factions, and even a central narrative that you’ll want to see to the finish line. But it’s hard to take any of it too seriously, or care for the bulk of its choices and consequences.
- Lots of inventive factions, characters and world-building
- Good character customisation with lots of cool equipment and a few interesting skills
- Central plot focussing on the Patriarch and his children is compelling to the end
- The weird and wacky comedy hits more than it misses
- A mass of unspectacular tactical combat
- Not the greatest looking RPG, with some very samey environments
- Easy to master every skill, see and do most things, and brute force your way through encounters
- Quite a few bugs, like stuck location names, enemy turns not ending, and even a couple of corrupted saves!