I can't think of a quest more emblematic of Wasteland 3's relative strengths and weaknesses than the encounter with the Gipper cult, which should be one of its best moments, but is instead one of its worst. It illustrates how the series that once inspired Fallout is now stuck in its shadow, recycling many of the same ideas that Bethesda and Obsidian did better 10 years ago. It even has a giant statue of Ronald Reagan that fires laser beams from its eyes—a fun but ultimately derivative version of Fallout 3's Liberty Prime.
Such is the plight of Wasteland 3, which launched on PC and console late last week. Developed by inXile Entertainment, a studio that styles itself as the direct heir to the PC RPG tradition of the 80s and 90s, it tries hard to live up to its billing as an epic RPG. In some ways it succeeds: the vast number of interlocking factions scattered through Colorado make for an intriguing world to explore. In other ways, it just feels like a snowy rehash of Fallout: New Vegas.
Like so many Fallout games, Wasteland begins with a tragedy, as a group of Desert Rangers from Arizona are ambushed by a bloodthirsty gang in Colorado. You control two of the survivors, who can range from a father-daughter duo to a pair of science nerds in love, though it doesn't much matter who you pick given that their background hardly seems to factor into the main story. They eventually find themselves working for the Patriarch, the hereditary ruler of Colorado, who is at war with his own rogue children.
The story subsequently splits into a familiar multi-part quest structure, which can be tackled in roughly any order. They are buttressed by side-quests designed to add additional texture to post-apocalyptic Colorado, ranging from rescuing a dog from a giant robot scorpion, to uncovering some of the darker secrets of the Patriarch's reign. Your actions influence the opinions of the various factions while enhancing your overall fame, which in turn impact individual interactions.
As listeners of Axe of the Blood God know, all of this is precisely my jam, so I've been a little surprised to find Wasteland 3 leaving me so cold, and not just because it's set in what seems to be a perpetual blizzard. There's a real "been there, done that" feeling to Wasteland 3's story, which is compounded by some pretty ragged design. Even its "epic" moments have a way of overstaying their welcome, as when a Western remix of "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" plays over a particularly important battle... and then just keeps going... and going. One of the viewers on my stream likened it to a ringtone, and they weren't wrong. Even now it remains stuck in my head, much to my chagrin.
The seams are especially apparent in the quest involving the Reagan cult, which has pretty much everything you expect from a bog standard Fallout quest: a wacky premise, some binary choices, and a fair dose of humor that doubles as social commentary. The choice between the crazed Reagan God-President cultists and the mostly harmless machine commune next door is a fun one, but most of the options boil down to extended mass murder as you painstakingly kill everyone in the Gipper base. If that wasn't enough, "American the Beautiful" plays for a chunk of it, which like "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" rapidly goes from darkly amusing, to aggravating, to agonizing.
It's in these sections that Wasteland 3 seems to be grasping for something bigger, but can't quite reach it. The result is a kind of budget Fallout; one that features missions that are merely good, and turn-based tactical combat that is often slow going. Having just reached Aspen for one of the main quests, I find that the battles have become a grind, and that it's becoming more and more difficult to retain interest in the story.
I feel a little bad about dragging Wasteland 3 as a "budget Fallout," since Wasteland basically invented the sub-genre back in the days of the Apple II. But Fallout has long since eclipsed its spiritual progenitor in popularity, and it's now Wasteland that is borrowing from the game it once influenced. It makes me think of the comparisons made between Disco Elysium and The Outer Worlds late last year, with one being called the future of the genre, and the other being firmly rooted in the past.
The thing is that I wouldn't even mind Wasteland 3 leaning so hard on traditional RPG tropes if its execution wasn't so middle-of-the-road. If it's not going to have the scope and the scale; if it's not going to have the graphics, then it at least needs to have some solid role-playing. For all the focus on worldbuilding, my characters are basically ciphers; a gang of robots wielding assault rifles and rocket launchers who never appear to interact with one another. Even pre-generated characters seem to have little to add to the story outside of their individual quests.
With Baldur's Gate 3 ready to grab the hardcore RPG space, and Cyberpunk 2077 looming in November, Wasteland 3 appears destined to be forgotten. Indeed, even with strong reviews and a Game Pass release, I've been surprised by how little traction Wasteland 3 seems to have achieved so far. It already seems to be fading from sight.
With inXile Entertainment joining the Xbox Game Studios family, bigger budgets should be coming in the future, and with them more ambitious RPGs. I just wish I could muster more than a shrug for an RPG with as much history as Wasteland 3, which promises so much, but in the end is merely okay.