Wasteland 3 opens with chaos. An ambush, explosions, everyone on your side is more or less dead—it is what it is. Such is the world of Wasteland 3. There is a weird sense of humor at play in the cruelty of this world. All of your Ranger brothers and sisters are wiped out in an ambush by a comical caricature of cannibalistic backwoods killers a la something like Wrong Turn. It is weird and dumb but it works. That sentiment extends to the entirety of Wasteland 3.
Granted, I am only four hours in so this game could drop the ball at any moment and lose me completely, but for now, I am completely enraptured. It is a well-written, large, and compelling CRPG with the tactical combat of XCOM thrown in for good measure. Wasteland 3 is an absolute blast, but what makes it stand out for me beyond the fun gameplay and good writing are two design choices that just really, really work. And they are design choices that, while not original, feel original in the western roleplaying game space.
The first choice that really makes Wasteland 3 work for me is how it treats some of the animations and camera during important dialogue-driven scenes. The camera will pull in while a fully animated character talks at the player while the player’s dialogue choices are shown on-screen (as seen in the image above). It seems like a simple choice, but it is more than that. This small change makes the conversations feel alive as if anything could happen. And getting a close look at who we are talking to really does a lot to help ground the player in a world that we mainly see from a bird’s eye view. Furthermore, it lets us directly see how our dialogue choices affect the situation. The NPC’s posture or face might change, if ever so slightly. Relaxed joy to tense anger. It is simple but it works. Where this system really starts to become interesting is when action is introduced to these moments of relative (physical) inaction. Certain dialogue choices will be tied to an action that is in brackets (i.e. [kill] or [threaten]) and these choices might dramatically change the outcome of the conversation, mission, and game itself. But they also change the structure of the conversation from a camera perspective, and from a general feel of how these moments of closed in dialogue work throughout the game. Choose to kill someone in a moment like this and the camera might pan left to another character and a gunshot will ring out as that person’s body slumps over. Once again, it is such a simple choice but it makes the conversations feel dynamic and active. But the tenor and camera placement of these closed in conversations are not only changed by the player—moments in the game sometimes act on these dialogue sections before the player even has a chance to. For example, there is a moment towards the start of Wasteland 3 where the player starts a dialogue exchange with an enemy faction leader. He twirls a knife while threatening to spill our guts. We make a few dialogue choices, the conversation seems to be going on like all the others, and then out of nowhere—mid-sentence—that enemy’s head explodes as the report of a rifle rings out. He was killed by a character far away and far offscreen. Wasteland 3 wants us to feel as if it is always alive, moments of dialogue happen in the world and the world does not happen pause around these moments as they do in a Bethesda game. The dangers of the apocalypse don’t go away while we talk to NPCs, they are always there. Everything can turn on a dime and it often will. Violence can occur mid-conversation—one moment we are choosing a line of dialogue and in the next, we might be diving for cover. The fluid nature of these exchanges goes leaps and bounds to make the world of Wasteland 3 feel alive, formidable, and they go a long, long way in making the player feel like a genuine part of this world in a roleplaying sense. Character imbues every facet of the game, from the world to the items strewn about it and the NPCs who live within it, and sometimes pulling the camera in eye-to-eye can go a long way in making us feel like a part of that world, too—even if that world is a cold, weird prepper hell.
Wasteland 3 is also special to me in how it uses music. There are lots of ambient tones and general world music that gives the game character and sets the tone in almost every situation. But in key moments the game will introduce completely non-diegetic (but thematically) fitting music into the game, and it is in these moments where Wasteland 3 really comes together to show itself as one of the most interesting roleplaying games this year. They sort of just went for it, and it works—like it really, really works. These music choices imbue the moments they occur in with a sense of poetic grandeur that, had the music not been there, would just read as any other combat encounter in the game. For example, one of the first major combat encounters is with a faction that worships blood and entrails, and as you take on some of the stronger forces in their unfit, “Are You Washed in the Blood” starts playing. It is poetic, somber, melodic, wholly on-the-nose, and yet it is incredibly effective. I did not expect music like that to kick in and they space these situations out enough that by the time another non-diegetic music cue hits, it feels surprising and impactful all over again. Style meets substance and these songs help flesh out the story and tone of certain combat encounters, and most songs pair with the general vibe/aesthetic of the enemies that you are facing. It is not that deep, but it rules. And sometimes just doing something that rules and is just cool is good enough. Put cool music in a game that makes even the most mundane moments feel impactful and you’ll already have me half in the bag. Wasteland 3 implements this so well. But the game never gets lost in its own bombast and style. Only a handful of encounters feature these sort of music cues while almost every other combat encounter is met with only the sound of gunfire, viscera, screaming, and explosions. But sometimes a choir will kick in that is singing a song about being Saved as my characters fire their machine guns at a gang of religious zealots and, as I said before, it just works.
I cannot wait to keep playing Wasteland 3 and I can already see six hours turn into sixty hours as I continue to get lost in this world, the characters that inhabit it, and the stories that give these characters purpose. CRPGs hardly click with me but the general tone and world of Wasteland 3 are fantastic. And the writing feels like it does what Fallout wants to do, but it actually works and has a lot to say. Yes, it is weird and grim and violent and funny, but it is also richly textured and deep. And then the way that major dialogue encounters play out and how non-diegetic music is used only grounds me in the world more and really sells me on what the project of the game is, and how it goes about doing the work of what the game lays out both in how we as players interact with it and just from a purely thematic level. Don’t sleep on Wasteland 3. Give it a go and you just might find yourself falling into its postapocalyptic embrace, and be sure to talk to every NPC that you can. You never know what you’ll find. RPGs are my favorite genre and this already feels like one of the best ones that I’ve played in recent memory, and if you are in the mood for a big game to get you through the holiday season, then I’m hardpressed to think of a better choice than Wasteland 3. Every way that it asks the player to interact with it both works and feels good, even if the choices it leaves us with are often heavy. A woman’s ex-boyfriend let bandits into town and they killed her family. She joined my party and when we ran across that ex-boyfriend, he sniveled at her and talked about how everything he did was for her, was for love. She leveled her pistol at him and I told her to shoot. Hands trembling, she fired—a solitary round to the belly. He writhed in the snow and his death was set to be a slow one. He looked at the woman who shot him and never looked away. She went to raise her gun to finish him, but my character unloaded his automatic rifle into his head. She is still in my party, she is one of the best gunslingers around, but she still talks about that boy writhing in the snow. And I can’t shake that image either.