Before Wasteland 3 begins, the developers at inXile Entertainment present the player with a message. “Wasteland 3 is a work of fiction,” we’re told. “Ideas, dialogue, and stories we created early in development have in some cases been mirrored by our current reality. Our goal is to present a game of fictional entertainment, and any correlation to real-world events is purely coincidental.”
It reads like a warning. What you’re about to see, inXile is saying, may seem like the dreaded “politics in our video games” thing, but it’s not, because we came up with this nightmarish vision of America before America became the nightmarish vision it is today.
As I ploughed my way through post-apocalyptic Colorado – and ploughed really is the word, given you spend a lot of time driving a hulk of a car through the snow to get from settlement to settlement – inXile’s statement became more and more irrelevant. It is impossible to disassociate Wasteland 3 from the context of the now. At times, the allegory is almost too on the nose. And rather than find inXile’s message annoying in that context, I spent my 55 hours and counting with Wasteland 3 revelling in its politics. I chose to read this hilarious and depressing, disgusting and dastardly old-school role-playing game exactly how it should be: as a devilish satire of modern America. And I have come to fuck it up.
In fact, you begin the game getting fucked up. Your Ranger convoy is ambushed on its way to Colorado Springs, and only you and one other Ranger you’ve either created or selected from a handful of pre-built options survive. Colorado is a cold, harsh place, battered and bruised from the nuclear winter. The snow keeps on falling and the people keep on freezing. But you’re a Ranger. You’re from the desert, and you’re determined.
It’s not long before you’re in front of the Patriarch, a man who rules Colorado with a toxic mixture of propaganda and violence. You have come to ask for help. The Rangers back home are in dire straits and they have sent you to work for the Patriarch in exchange for the resources they need to survive. This work turns out to be solving the Patriarch’s family squabble. His kids are playing up, and he needs someone to bring them in.
Three kids, each holed up in some part of Colorado, each plotting against their dictatorial father in their own way. One son is a sadistic drug dealer who’s got an army of “Breathers” off their tits on drugs. Another son is a genius level nerd who has joined forces with the Gippers, a religious cult that worships a Ronald Reagan AI. And the other, his daughter, is the most dangerous of all – but perhaps the most reasonable. She wants power for herself, but at what cost?
This is the setup: you deal with the Patriarch’s children, and the Patriarch will help the Rangers out. But things are so much more complicated than that – and brilliantly so. As you slowly build up your new Rangers headquarters, filling it with essential staff such as a cook, an armourer, a doctor and mechanics for your garage, you start to realise just how broken Colorado is. Not just on the surface, either, but underground, near the core.
This is the brilliance of Wasteland 3. It sets its stall out early, telling you how fucked up everything is, and then just keeps on ramping up. The Marshals are the Patriarch’s police force – or maybe that should be private army – and yes, they are corrupt, they are violent, and they are brutal. A former member of their ranks joined my party, and I’d have conversations with him about the Marshals and their… tactics. They are made in the image of their leader, the Patriarch, a man who has erected statues of himself in his honour, a man who sits on a throne of guns and bombs in a palace drenched in gaudy gold.
It gets better. Colorado Springs has a refugee problem. The Marshals want to put a stop to the flood of people who are desperate enough to make the dangerous journey to the city in the hope of finding food and shelter. You see these people huddled around fires on the freezing streets. They are a faction. You have a reputation gauge with them. They are begging for help.
You see where this is all going, how it all feels in this, the year of our lord 2020. I hate it all, but what’s brilliant about Wasteland 3 is it lets me hate its monsters, and its monsters hate me back. I am venting, unleashing my rage on the monsters of Wasteland 3. I want to burn it all to the ground, and Wasteland 3 understands this, and reacts. Every turn of events comes with a handful of choices. You can steer Colorado, almost micromanage it, turning the oil tanker, pressing the self-destruct button. As one of the game’s standout songs proclaims: are you washed in the blood of the lamb? By the time this game is over, I certainly will be.
Colorado is a place rich with detail and, most impressively, dialogue. The writing is wonderful, the voice acting tremendous and it’s everywhere – as you walk past NPCs, as you mill about your headquarters, even between your party members as you’re exploring. Wasteland 3 is a funny game, and all sorts of funny, too. It’s slapstick (I accidentally blew up a vendor in town and one of the bystanders commented to say, that’s got to hurt, and I couldn’t help but laugh). It’s juvenile (I stopped to listen to a few Rangers complain about farts). It’s thirsty (you can star in a porn movie – or ask one of your companions to do it). There are some solid puns, which I respect. One dialogue option, after meeting a poor man who has his feet nailed to the floor, reads: “You shouldn’t stand for that.” And then there’s the black humour that runs throughout Wasteland 3. This is a depressing, gory, disgusting, sadistic post-apocalyptic world, with death all around. Corpses are common. People are insane. There are cannibals, creepy clowns, fanatics, evil scientists, ultra violent gang leaders, mob bosses, hermits who really should take those posters down, synths who only want to be understood, and bounty hunters who want nothing but to destroy them. I’m really quite impressed with how inventive inXile’s character designers have been here. And with such characters, terrible things happen. But then Wasteland 3 makes a mockery of it all and all you can do is laugh. America has become one sick joke and I find it pretty hilarious to be honest.
I press on, and pressing on is one of the best and worst things about Wasteland 3. This is a mammoth game, and it’s really, really long. I’m 55 hours in and it feels halfway through. I’m doing most of the side quests, exploring every nook and cranny as any RPG completionist should, and stopping to investigate when I spot cool distractions. There is a lot of game here, not particularly in-depth, or punctuated by game-changing new ideas, just solid game I’m having a blast working through. Explore, your party of six running about the map from an isometric camera angle, then turn-based combat. Back to HQ for repairs and supplies, have a chat and then it’s out again, your tank trundling through the snow out on the world map, the occasional random encounter disrupting your progress. You might even see a giant enemy mech stomping about, a looming large world encounter I failed the first time and am scared to try again.
The combat is fine – not as good as XCOM’s, but along those lines. It packs a punch, though I love the spectacle of it all. There’s a decent variety of tools of destruction, and lots of different types of characters to use. I’ve got a sort of mad scientist in my party, a character who uses an energy weapon to scramble the minds of my enemies so they attack each other. I recruited a cannibal who wants revenge on the Patriarch so bad he was willing to join my party, and all I use him for is running up to people and blowing them up with a punch. It’s great fun.
The settlements, though, are where this game shines. Denver is up there with the best Wasteland 3 has to offer. It’s home to the aforementioned Ronald Reagan AI and his “wives” – yes, plural. Reagan lives in a creaking metal statue that shoots lasers from its eyes, dishing out justice in the name of AMERICA! Next door is a Machine Commune built into a spaceship that was in orbit when the bombs fell. Inside I had one of the most memorable chats I’ve ever had with a computer in a video game. I still feel lucky to have made it out alive.
Eventually, I travelled up to Aspen, to a fancy getaway lodge favoured by the Patriarch and Colorado’s elite. This incredible setpiece is multi-layered, demands you’ve got a decent spread of skills in your party, and is home to one of the most creepy characters in the game: a wheelchair-bound woman who exists in “reality”, such as it is, but leads a terrifying group who are lost in the “dream” – a drug-fuelled state they have come to worship. Aspen goes places. It really does. Whatever you do, don’t drain the pool.
Where Wasteland 3 falls down is that it is rough around the edges. Undoubtedly, Wasteland 3 is more polished than its predecessor, with fewer significant bugs and user interface annoyances. But it still has its problems. Sometimes things don’t work quite as they should, a tooltip here, an effect there. I encountered a bug that prevented me from progressing the story because a robot I spawned during a fight ended up blocking a hallway. Thankfully I was able to go back to a previous save and fight the encounter again, with only half an hour lost. You do get this kind of thing every now and then.
And much of Wasteland 3 is good for the genre but not quite standout. It has all the old-school RPG stuff you’d expect it to: character progression, a focus on character builds, options only available to you if you pass skill checks, turn-based party combat, all that good stuff. And it is good here. But I’m in it for the world, for the atmosphere, for the music (oh, the music is brilliant!), for the characters, their dialogue and their voice acting – all American twangs, a throaty Wild West drawl dragged through a voice box. inXile really has done a fantastic job nailing the Wasteland tone and atmosphere here. It’s the kind of Fallout game I’ve missed, which has a wonderful “circle of life” ring to it.
As you explore and level up, as you work your way through the primary and secondary quests, you come to realise a confrontation with the Patriarch is inevitable. You’re going to have to do something about him, the man who’s made Colorado great again. inXile’s message is irrelevant, really. Wasteland 3 is a no-holds barred teardown of the American Dream, a parody of a nation that is now beyond parody. It is a satire you get to direct, and I heartily recommend doing so.