13th Sep2018

‘Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

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It’s the brand that would spawn the Fallout franchise, and this throwback to late-‘90s roleplaying was directed by none other than the prestigious Brian Fargo. Sadly, while this sequel – which arrives on Switch (in its 2015 Director’s Cut form) 30 years after the first game – shows fleeting flashes of old school charm, as a game it is ugly, clunky and unwelcoming, and it’s a technical mess on Switch.

The post-apocalyptic setting here is barren Arizona, and your four-person squad operate as Desert Rangers, policing the titular wastes. You go with the default team or create your own – selecting skills, perks, appearance etc – and then, via the tried and tested world map, you make your way through the sprawling gameworld toward your objective, dodging radiation zones and trying not to die from dehydration. Find a settlement and the view moves closer in, and you explore the region in real-time. There are various camera modes, but by default you move your party with the left stick and control the view with the right.

If you come across friendly settlers you can talk to them, with various dialogue options on offer, most of which are voiced. If the settlers (or beasts or mutants) are of the less polite variety, you enter combat, which is tiled and turn-based. There is an option here for precision aiming, targeting certain body parts, although it’s less of a focused gameplay feature than, say, V.A.T.S. Combat and quests bring experience, which can be spent on skill points. Applying skill points unlocks the potential to apply perks to your characters. These traits give you additional benefits, such as reducing the point cost of certain actions, improved healing, more dialogue options and greater loot gains.

Plot-wise, to its credit, the game gives you key moral decisions from the very start, as the player is forced to choose between helping one of two towns, and your choice means sacrificing the other. As the story unfolds and expands toward Los Angeles, various familiar dystopian sci-fi elements are introduced, such as cyborgs, rampant A.I. (Fargo was also designer on 1989’s Neuromancer), fundamentalist factions, and of course a crazed church. Ultimately you will discover the truth behind the nuclear war that ravaged the world. The holocaust is humanity’s reset button, and as always it makes for an appealingly bleak setting with plenty of scope for oddball characters and their twisted stories. The writing is decent, if occasionally juvenile. (“Explosives are both heavy and expensive, like my ex-wife…”) As a fan of the 2D Fallout games, I was eager to dive in. But that eagerness waned swiftly.

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There was a mechanical function to Fallout’s setup. It (and its sequels) worked because you were a lone wanderer who was new to the world. We shared the sense of the unknown, and this gave us a reason to ease us into combat and gradually expand the world. Wasteland 2, however, overwhelms the player with named characters, locations and quests from the very start. It doesn’t help that the game is staggeringly inaccessible. I worked out most basic functions through trial and error; some several hours into the game (I can’t bear to think how long I left my characters suffering from poison before I worked out how to fix them up).

Transitioning a control scheme specifically designed for keys and mouse to the control pad will always end in tears, but this is a new nadir of inelegance, raising a host of selection problems. For example, when attempting to heal a character, you select the medic skill (using one of the two trigger-based skill wheels) and then press the bumpers to cycle through the friendly targets. But while it’s the character portraits that show the health bar, the actual selection is done using the text name of the character. So you need to remember which of these generic party members is named what in order to select the correct one. This is stuff we can work out, but why should we? For some reason, Fargo and his team felt it would be nostalgic to resurrect the lack of quality-of-life features we struggled to abide twenty years ago, let alone in 2018.

The UI is a ghastly array of muddy browns and greys juxtaposed with gaudy orange text of varying size. The in-game menu is a mess of tabs pertaining to inventory, skills, character, perks and quests. Quests are then broken down into further tabs. But the quest text sometimes doesn’t give any details of location, so you either have to remember where a quest-giver resides, or wander aimlessly until you stumble upon one of your targets. Also, the lack of a real-time mini-map is a pain, especially when the typewriter (which shows the world descriptions) takes up a quarter of the screen.

Then there are the technical shortcomings, many of which are unique to Switch. The initial load is so long I genuinely thought the game was broken – and all for an FMV introduction of Albert Pyun-level filmmaking during which the sound skips. You are treated to lengthy loads between zones in the game also. The in-game text is borderline unreadable in handheld mode, and blurry in docked mode (the resolution surely can’t be threatening 1080p). The graphics are hideous, going for gritty realism but coming across as cheap and janky – remember that transition period between 2D and 3D, when textures were stretched over minimal polygons? This might be bearable were it not for the atrocious framerate and frame-pacing. More than once the FPS dropped to single digits during combat – and not as a result of visual effects; this was during turn transitions. Diablo 3 is around the corner, folks, running at 60 glorious frames.

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There are bugs, too. At one point my characters simply stopping following each other. I had to exit the zone and re-enter to activate following again. Another time, I found a random shop symbol floating in the middle of a corridor. Sometimes monsters are able to shoot through apparently solid scenery, making a mockery of combat tactics. Amusingly, if you hammer the reload button the screen becomes a wall of error text. Button presses are often unresponsive, in part due to the slowdown. Other times, there’ll be a button prompt on the screen but when you press that button, nothing happens. Not even an error message. This lack of care is unacceptable for a game whose development began six years ago.

If you can push through the horrible first few hours, you may find some basic pleasure in the exploration and the combat. But even then, only if you’re in love with the post-apocalyptic atmosphere (and assuming Fallout Shelter is too slim a proposition). Purely in terms of battle systems, superior turn-based fun is available on Switch in the form of Mario + Rabbids, Octopath Traveler, Darkest Dungeon, Disgaea 5 and Into the Breach.

On the plus side, the death animations are good fun. It was great to see original Fallout composer Mark Morgan in the credits, and he brings that familiar dark ambience blended with dusty guitar. The world map works well, with the player drawn toward radio signals as they plot a route through the irradiated, mountainous terrain. And the ability to “Distribute All” is a great feature, designed to automatically hand out loot to the party member best suited. Although you realise it’s not that smart when an energy rifle is handed to a melee expert.

So, it seems the wait for a great post-apocalyptic roleplaying game on Switch continues. Wasteland 2 is the detritus we find when scouring the scorched earth for scraps. It may resemble a tempting proposition, but in practice it’s a terrible port of a bad game.

Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut is out on Nintendo Switch from today, 13th September 2018.

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