I almost passed on Wasteland on the shelf of EB Games way back when. Like, way way back when. I had tried almost every other CRPG in the store, from the big companies like Interplay, SSI, Origin – checked out their games from Wizard’s Crown, Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Eternal Dagger, Might and Magic… until Wasteland was the only thing left in the store.
Yet I didn’t want to get it. It looked weird. I liked post-apocalypse, sure, but the player mechanics and the layout of the maps in the screenshots seemed to be an odd mix of Bard’s Tale and Ultima. Finally, two things lured me in: the Bard’s Tale character layout screenshot on the back cover, and the Interplay name. I loved Bard’s Tale, I trusted Interplay, and I trusted Brian Fargo. And when I sat down and plugged in this spiritual ancestor to Fallout into my Commodore 64, I could not stop exploring this unique, highly-imaginative world devastated by nuclear war.
I fought giant garden pests, communed with a drunken hobo who saw the future in snake squeezin’s, upheld the Desert Ranger tradition of bringing justice to the wastes and helping the downtrodden, cloned my party members (!), repaired toasters, fired howitzers, got wasteland herpes from a three-legged hooker, and fight a menagerie of enemies from killer robots, leather jerks, to rad angels that glowed with a life of their own.
At the end… and I didn’t want it to end (you can still keep playing, too!)… I was floored. I didn’t realize CRPGs could be this way. I still refer to Wasteland’s mechanics today in game design, a brilliant blend of area design context and RPG systems used to create some amazing scenarios.
Wasteland has numerous strengths and weaknesses, but the strengths definitely overshadow the weaknesses. The area design, ambiance, the system spread and applications, and the narrative itself were top-notch, while the system balance, attribute use, healing and the rare applications of one of its pillars: the ability to divide your party, diminished the experience somewhat.
The narrative shines through in the game content itself, and also in the well-written (and amusingly so) narrative book included in the game, filled with richly described characters. The wasteland is simply an amazing blend of raider-occupied towns, mutant agricultural centers, robot factories, Las Vegas… and even the inside of an android’s brain, where I almost feared the game had jumped the shark, it was so amazing. The quests and encounters there are innovative and interesting, and although the overall quest doesn’t kick into full gear until over halfway through the game, there’s plenty to keep you going. The people of the world respond to your actions, even as soon as the first area of the campaign, and remind you of the harsh world that you’ve found yourself in.
Wasteland comes with a slight learning curve not present in other RPGs at the time, reflected first in its character creation.Its skill-based and attribute-based system for character creation and development was a bit more complex than say, Bard’s Tale, but allowing for that attribute and skill-based advancement made role-playing your characters richer (something it shared with Wizard’s Crown and its sister, Eternal Dagger). If I wanted to do a Russian explosives expert who liked to throw knives, I could, and that was a much richer development tree than “Fighter.”
The system design is elegant, difficult, and confusing at the same time. The elegance comes in the simple mechanic of being able to select any attribute, item, or skill, and then select an object in the environment for that to act on. An adventure game mechanic taken to the extreme with brilliant results. If you want to use Intelligence on an object, you can. If you want to use your proton axe on a wall or door in front of you, you can. Being able to re-arrange your skills and items on the character display is key (usually Doctor being the top of the list), a welcome feature since the skill and item list is lengthy, and the skill list can even grow beyond what’s presented in the rulebook.
It is touches like this where Wasteland shines. The fact the skill tree grows beyond what’s in the manual added a powerful element of mystery, drives you to explore more of the world and see what’s in the next library, and made the world deeper as a result. You also want to use your skills often, trying them out in the environment, as using them in combat and non-combat situations can reward you with a surprising level-up that makes you stronger, whether climbing, shooting, or swimming.
That said, Wasteland has its share of design confusion in the skills presented to the player and the value of attributes as well. It is often difficult to see the differences in combat between Pugilism, Melee Weapons, and Brawling… and some skills break the compact with the player, in being largely useless over the course of the game, while other skills are absolutely critical and the party cannot do without (Doctor, for example). The same is true for stats: Some attributes, such as Charisma, hold little value at all.
Wasteland also had an annoying auto-save function that could sometimes trap you in dead-end situations (some area designs can push you out of an area, say, by falling into a river and irradiating everyone, then saves the game right after, almost guaranteeing a slow death). This often forced me to quickly yank the disk when this occurred or, when I was older, set up individual copies of the game in sub-folders to prevent being trapped in a deadly situation that would wipe out my party members with no hope of salvation.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the hallmarks of Wasteland was you could split the party, and except for a few forced segments of the game (to solve puzzles, or even to choose who enters the men’s and women’s restrooms), the interface required to handle this via turn-based was largely a hurdle and seemed to have little return for the investment. While some of this may have been due to the fact that few RPGs included this feature at the time, overall, it was not enough to justify its inclusion.
Wasteland is one of the best role-playing games I’ve ever played, and it’s echoed in the design philosophy and how they accomplish so much by exposing their systems to design. That, matched with the sheer creative brilliance of the levels and the novelty of the setting, has kept it in my heart for over 20 years, Scorpitrons, androids, bloodthirsty rabbits, and all.
I swore that if I ever had the chance, I’d want to work on a sequel, and thanks to Brian Fargo, I got the opportunity, with Wasteland 2 coming out in 2014. I hope the next generation enjoys the wasteland as much as I did. Chris Avellone