GamesCom is one of the largest events in the calendar of the gaming industry. This year, it was also one of the most important events in the life of a Wasteland 2 fan, as the inXile team headed down to Cologne, Germany, to demonstrate the game to the press. The Guru was also there and had the pleasure of sitting down with the Ranger team (composed of President Matt Findley, Leader-in-Exile Brain Fargo, Project Lead Chris Keenan, and last, but not least, Line Producer Thomas Beekers) to see the game live.
First Things First: Recapping Wasteland 2
If you're reading this article, chances are, you've already played Wasteland and know what the sequel is all about. But for everyone else, here's a short recap: Wasteland is a computer role-playing game first released in 1988, set in a world destroyed by nuclear war around 1998. The players take control of a party of Desert Rangers, formed out of a unit of U.S. Army Engineers that was operating in Nevada building bridges when the war hit. Occupying the Arizona Maximum Security Prison and forcing the inmates out into the desert, they formed the Rangers to bring safety and stability to the neighboring areas, where life, including human life, somehow survived. The game takes place in 2087 and combines quirky science-fiction with good gameplay and a non-linear storyline. The game gained immense popularity and a dedicated following.
Brian Fargo intended to make a sequel to Wasteland for years, unsuccessfully. There were numerous obstacles in the way, the first of which were legal in nature. The chance to make a sequel to the game came in the 1990s, but could not be used. Although Wasteland was developed by Interplay, it was published by Electronic Arts and the publisher retained the copyright to the original game. EA was unwilling to part with the rights. Following Fargo's departure from Interplay in 2000, he attempted to pitch the idea of a sequel to several publishers, none of which were interested.
The Kickstarter campaign was a last ditch effort to see the game developed. The campaign started on March 13, 2012, with an initial goal of $900,000. By April 14, the game reached $2,933,252 from Kickstarter alone, becoming one of the highest funded videogames on Kickstarter. Now, over a year after the campaign's conclusion, the game's in its final and most difficult stretch.
The State of the Game
Wasteland 2 is currently at the Feature Complete stage, meaning that every function it offers, every attribute and skill test, is implemented and working, even if it's a singular instance at this point. As estimated by Chris Keenan, project lead, the game is around 70-80% complete at this point and is entering the final phase of production, where it's going to be polished and refined.
The level showcased during the presentation was the former Desert Rangers headquarters, the old Arizona Maximum Security Prison, which won over the Rail Nomads' camp (pictured above). Since each slot was just 30 minutes long, inXile could not demonstrate every feature of the game, but the team made every effort to comprehensively show every aspect of the game and at least provide us with a brief description of it. Of note is the fact that the demo ran on an actual level from the game, with no scripts specially written for GamesCom.
What's Going on in the Wasteland?
Wasteland 2 is set in 2102, 15 years after the events of the original game. The success of the Desert Rangers has brought many changes to the wastes. After the Desert Ranger team under Snake Vargas wiped out the Guardian Citadel, it was adopted as the new headquarters of the Rangers. The old prison was abandoned to the wasteland. New factions emerged in the wasteland, along with new challenges. The player takes command of a new Desert Ranger team that is assigned to investigate a murder that occurred in unclear circumstances. The team soon discovers strange radio signals mentioning the Rangers by name, originating in the Los Angeles area. The game is going to include throwbacks and references to the original game, such as Ranger General Snake Vargas and other members of the Ranger party from the original game. However, the game is designed in such a way that knowledge of Wasteland will provide bonuses to the player, such as the ability to type in keywords from the original or insight into the affairs of the wasteland, but is in no way mandatory to understand the sequel. It stands of it own.
The first part of the game will take place in Arizona, revisiting several locations from the original game. The playable area does not match the original game, however. The Ranger Citadel is located in the upper left corner of the map, with areas beyond inaccessible to the Ranger party. That means no Darwin, Needles, Quartz, or Las Vegas. Returning locations include the Rail Nomads' camp, the agricultural center, Highpool, and the old Prison. Supplementing them will be a host of new locations in Arizona, like Damonta (above), and other parts of the game, bringing the total amount of maps in Wasteland 2 to between 40 and 50. As noted during the demo, the game will include a working economy. Goods will have different values depending on location.
Story-wise of the game is intended to be be non-linear, in the best traditions of the original game. However, Wasteland 2 goes beyond that and also introduces non-standard game endings. Fargo elaborated on this concept, stating that one of these results from the player straying too far away from the Rangers' code and values. If the player's team gun downs everything that moves (and shoots everything that doesn't until it starts moving), then General Vargas will cut them loose and deploy kill squads to track down and kill the player's team, leading to a different storyline and ending, at the expense of some 40% of the game. Yes, you can actually kill everyone you meet. Yes, the game will shut you off from certain content or alter it depending on your choices. No, you won't see everything on one playthrough. For example, in the first 30 minutes of the game you will have to make a decision and save either Highpool or the Agricultural Center, leading to tangible consequences both in the long and short term.
Many choices will be related to the factions inhabiting the land and their attitude towards you. As the game has no arbitrary karma or morality meter, what matters are the choices you make and how you handle the consequences they bring. There will be plenty of organizations to offend, including the well mannered cannibals called the Mannerites, the half-man, half-machine Children of the Citadel, Reagan-worshiping Gippers, and the Red Skorpion Militia, among many. The Red Skorpions are important for another reason: the Prison is firmly under their control and the player's interactions with them form a big part of the demo.
Dial S-K-O-R-P-I-O-N for RSM Industries
When the Desert Rangers abandoned the Prison, the Red Skorpion Militia moved in and secured it. By 2102, the Militia (styling itself RSM Industries, Inc.) has set up the Happy Valley community around it, allowing people to lease land for scrap and enjoy the Militia's protection. The Skorpions loathe the Rangers, particularly their commander, Danforth, who proclaims that unlike other trespassers, Rangers will not be shot before being fed to his hounds.
However, the Rangers' interactions with the RSM aren't as simplistic as the above suggests. The first encounter with the Militia happens when the player's team meets Assessor van Overbake and his security detail, disciplining one of the farmers in Happy Valley. Usually, this would lead to a combat scenario and bloodshed, but the Rangers are given the option of paying the local weapons tax and avoiding a hard combat encounter. This also makes the Assessor and his security team friendly down the line, giving easy access into the Red Skorpion Militia compound (though not a Get Out of a Firefight Free card, as you still have to fight the militants inside the base). The alternative is to just gun them all down, which is also a viable choice with its own consequences.
Consequences are divided into two types: short-term and long-term. A more vivid example is an early encounter on the Prison map. The Rangers come across Fred Darvis, a trader whose trading cart got stuck in the mud. Since his goat is of no help, he asks the Rangers to provide help. If they help Darvis with his problem, he gives them the opportunity to browse his wares and restock on supplies. In the long-term, he will appear a few maps later with a much larger selection of wares and a proper security detail. Or you can shoot him and loot his cart immediately. Or shoot his goat. And then him.
Another example of shooting people and living with the consequences is an encounter with a sick woman, Anne. The Rangers come across a radio signal where Anne calls for help. Tracking down its source, they find her in terrible pain, asking them to end her suffering. If the Rangers oblige, they can loot her cupboard for their reward. However, just moments later they come across her husband, Elroy, who was just returning with the medicine. Understandably, he is less than thrilled by his wife being dead and attacks the Rangers. The alternative solution, if you have a high enough Surgeon skill, is to heal her or go out and find Elroy with the medicine. Of course, her broadcasting thanks to the Rangers over the radio, while in the middle of Red Skorpion territory, may lead to complications down the line.
Radio signals in general will play an important role in the game. Apart from leading you to interesting people (and potentially killing them later), optional missions (which may be mutually exclusive with another objective), they will also be used to provide additional feedback to the player. For example, if a low-level party decides to wander into a dangerous area, they might be contacted by General Vargas, informing them that they're about to step into a world of pain. Of course, the player is still free to go in and get ventilated. Or not, depending on their party make-up.
A New You(TM)
The players will control a party of four Rangers with space for additional three non-player character followers. In other words, just like in good ol' Wasteland. The only exception is that you are not permitted to make less than four characters. If you want a smaller party, you'll have to amputate that extra character with lead (and brace for a higher difficulty level, since the game's built for a quartet and doesn't scale down).
The characters will be defined by the CLASSIC system, a variation on the original Wasteland's modified Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes role-playing system. CLASSIC is an acronym built from the statistics: Charisma, Luck, Awareness, Strength, Speed, Intelligence, and Coordination. Attributes are passive, used by the game in the background as a factor determining derived statistics and success with each of the 32 skills in the game. These are divided into three groups: combat skills (Blunt Weapons, Bladed Weapons, Anti-Tank Weapons, SMG, Shotguns, Energy Weapons, Assault Rifles, Sniper Rifle, Handguns), science skills (Picklock, Safecrack, Alarm Disarm, Toaster Repair, Computer Tech, Synth Tech, Demolitions, Brute Force), and general skills (Silent Move, Salvaging, Kiss Ass, Hard Ass, Smart Ass, Outdoorsman, Evasion, Leadership, Folklore, Animal Whisperer, Field Medic, Surgeon, Weapon Smithing, Field Stripping, Perception, Combat Shooting, Barter). Skills are active by contrast, used in the environment directly. In the aforementioned Fred Darvis example, the player can use the Brute Force skill to move the cart out of the mud. The chances for success and the duration of the action depend on the character used.
Development of the character's statistics and skills happens in two ways. First is accumulating experience and gaining levels. The other is developing them through use, again, like in the original Wasteland. The aim of the developers is to provide plenty of opportunities for using the characters' skills and rewarding different builds. The most basic example in the demo was coming across a locked safe in a trash pile, which can be opened by your team's safe cracker. A more interesting example was shown on a small plateau, where loot is guarded by mines. There are multiple ways to handle the situation, from finding them with Awareness and defusing or edging around them, through triggering them with your own feet and patching up the Rangers afterward with Field Medic, to luring goats onto them with the Animal Whisperer skill. The inXile team chose to demonstrate the latter, exploding the poor goats to much rejoicing.
Emphasis is put on maintaining consistency and balance in the system. The original Wasteland, while featuring both attributes and skills, was heavily biased towards the latter, to the point that attributes mattered little as long as you had a high enough skill. Wasteland 2 will seek to rectify that, while maintaining consistency. Chris Keenan likes consistency in his systems. And in case you feel like skills and attributes aren't enough, characters are also defined by other elements. The game allows you to also select their nationality, religion, and even animation set, giving them a distinct visual identity). If you're particularly patient, the game also provides a space for writing the character's biography.
Under certain circumstances, your team may be lacking a particular specialist. you can choose to hire a non-player character and fill one of the three spots. inXile plans to make the selection of followers more involved, going beyond simply choosing the most effective fighter (i.e. no useless characters like Jackie or Mayor Pedros in Wasteland). For example, that expert in disarming alarms and lockpicking? He might be an alcoholic, stealing your party's Snake Squeezins and drinking himself into oblivion. That master thief you hired? They may start filching items from your own team.
All of these factors will be used by the game to change the adventure and adapt it to your party's make-up. Attributes, skills, gender, and even different followers can and will affect the progress of the story and the reactions of characters in your way. That weakling that seems to have no purpose? Keep him around until later, he may factor into the story and change it tremendously. But of course, the principal changes come as a result of your interactions with the world.
Meeting New People (and Killing Them)
The demo demonstrated both types of interaction. Dialogue is handled through a keyword system, which displays the full text of the Ranger's response on mouse-over. New keywords can be gathered just by talking to other characters, but can also be entered by hand. As mentioned earlier, this allows to have some fun with the game if you know the original Wasteland, such as asking Bobby of the Red Skorpion Militia about his dog, Rex. The system is quite fluid and easy to use in practice, as demonstrated in the interactions between the Rangers and Fred, Anne, and the Assessor.
Combat is an entirely different pair of shoes. Conflict resolution in Wasteland 2 is turn-based, using a square grid for movement and determining ranges. The focus of the team is to make combat open-ended and allow the player to use different tactics, skills, and equipment to help them on their way to victory. Weapons are divided into several categories based on skills, with different applications. A sniper rifle is a dedicated long range weapon that can't even be used if the enemy's too close. For this purpose you have the submachine gun, perfect for close range engagements, but wasting ammunition on longer ranges. Weapon damage is determined by a variety of factors, from weapons used, through the target's armor, to ammunition. The latter is particularly significant, as each ammunition type is determined by two statistics: penetration and expansion. Penetration is compared against the armor class of the target. If the latter is lower, then all expansion damage is applied, potentially leading to devastating results, especially with a weapon that has a good range and good base damage. In case you were wondering, yes, melee weapons have their niche, against enemies that would be tough to crack with firearms, such as robots.
An integral element of combat is terrain and the options it offers. In the demo, inXile demonstrated a larger encounter with several Red Skorpion militiamen in a kennel. The tin-walled area had several entry points and an elevated ridge to the side. A Ranger with a sniper rifle was deployed to provide fire support and overwatch, while the rest of the team carefully bunched up near the entrance and entered the area, engaging the militants. As the sniper was in an elevated position, she had a bonus to accuracy and evading enemy attacks. The Rangers behind cover enjoyed improved chances of avoiding enemy attacks. Of course, the same applies to the enemy. Accuracy bonuses are very important, as weapon ranges are a crucial part of determining whether you hit your target. inXile chose to avoid the miss-enemy-at-point-blank-range debacle common to turn-based games. If it stands next to you, you will have an excellent chance of hitting them, unless their Evasion is very high or your own skills scrape the bottom of the barrel. That's why keeping the enemy away from you and reducing their chances of hitting the Rangers is crucial.
Of course, this might be hard to do. One of the reasons for this are support bots, which can completely change the combat situation. In the demo, this was showed off with the Disco Bot. This type of robot is essentially a disco ball of tracks that rolls up to the Rangers and deploys a fancy lightshow accompanied by a bass disco tune. It's hilarious. And then it becomes mortifying, once you realize that the bot gives a flat accuracy bonus to Skorpion militants, making it much easier for them to hit you. The worst part? It has a high armor class, meaning you have to unload plenty of ammunition into it, send up your melee specialist, or just step up the killing of the militants. The support bot category is going to include other types of robots, including jumping ones, chasers, and others. The intent is to not only provide another type of enemy, but also to force the player to vary their tactics, adapt them to the situation, and simply provide another level of challenge and tactical decision making.
In case cards don't play your way, the Rangers might end up knocked down. In the original Wasteland, this meant they became Seriously wounded and without medical help, they'd only worsen as time went on. Wasteland 2 will mark a return of this mechanic. Characters gunned down will eventually bleed out if they are not saved by someone with medical skills.
Interfacing with the Harsh Wasteland Reality
From combat, through conversation, to inventory and character management, there's no escaping the user interface. Wasteland 2's is an interesting case. The interface is clunky in terms of aesthetics, with protruding wires, plenty of metal, rust, and exposed electronics, but appears to be very workable. The character sheet is organized in a logical, intuitive way, as is the inventory screen, leveraging the strengths of the mouse and keyboard combination. The main gameplay interface is intended to be easily customized, giving the ability to break up and reposition nearly every element it includes. The most notable feature of the interface is definitely the matrix-dot printer, which acts as a message window. It's intended both as a throwback to the original Wasteland and a fully featured element of the interface, giving the developers much more room for expression. You can see the latest incarnation of the interface below, compared to the first look that came with the Highpool screenshot:
A notable feature of the interface is that it aims to minimize redundancy and pointless busywork. For example, echoing the macro function of the original game, you can place frequently used skills in quick use spots on the main bar. Further examples include the game automatically calculating the estimated difficulty of a skill test and displaying it, allowing to choose the best character for the job without having to navigate back and forth through the character sheet. In combat, weapon range is highlighted on the square grid, from green (good) to red (don't even try). Basically, the developers want to allow the players to focus on meaningful management, rather than fighting the game for information that should be available to them instantly.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
In terms of appearance, Wasteland 2 looks good. The texture and model quality of the Prison map shows a lot of care and effort, as do the individual character and creature models. Unlike many post-apocalyptic games, this one embraces its heritage, resulting in a vibrant experience that nonetheless doesn't compromise the post-apocalyptic feeling. The quality of animation deserves a separate mention. Character movements and actions are fluid and lifelike. Even seemingly static characters, like sick Anne, have high quality animations assigned to them.
It has to be noted that the game looks much better in action than it does on screenshots. This is especially true when it comes to earlier ones, which feature low resolution textures that have not been scaled up yet and tend to show rough edges. The Prison map, which has been polished and revamped for the GamesCom presentations is much more representative of the end product and it looks good. Real good.
The sounds are well done too. The Mark Morgan music playing in the background was partially drowned out by the noise of the conference, but the much more pronounced sound effects in the game sounded appropriately satisfying. Especially the explosions, such as the one that tore apart the poor goats.
What Will It Be, Ranger?
In summary, the game is heading in the right direction and shows hints of future greatness. If inXile manages to fulfill the ambitious goal it set out for itself, then Wasteland 2 may very well become a true next generation game. A game distinguished not by its photo-realistic graphics or amazing physics, but by things that actually matter in a game: reactivity, evolving storyline, intricate gameplay, and sheer replayability.
Basically, what a next-gen game should be.