Wasteland 3 delivers '90s isometric RPG action with a modern twist

Articles: Gaming
Sep 19, 2020 Written by:Eric Born

If you’d asked me whether I thought there was still life in the isometric RPG genre 15 years ago, I might have laughed at you. Like many other role-playing fanatics, I was too busy with World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Even so, I never forgot about those ‘90s adventures. Games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Fallout, and the original Wasteland are deservedly venerated landmarks in PC gaming thanks to innovative gameplay, detailed storylines, and unforgettable characters.

The latest entry in one of those franchises proves that the isometric RPG isn’t ready for quiet retirement. Wasteland 3 strikes a difficult balance: it shows that there’s still room for innovation in the genre without losing sight of its roots. The game sends your party of Rangers to snow-draped Colorado to earn some badly needed supplies from the Patriarch, the territory’s embattled authority figure. Your convoy is attacked en route, and your powerful team is reduced to a lone pair of survivors.

Image courtesy Gamesplanet

From there, it’s an uphill battle to gather gear, rebuild your team with local recruits and companions, and establish a base of operations. The Patriarch’s three scions have all initiated uprisings across the state, and you’ll have to negotiate a tangled web of factions and storylines to bring them to heel and drag them back to their father—unless you’d rather side with one of them, of course.

Image courtesy Gamesplanet

Meaningful choices abound as you explore the world and get to know its inhabitants. One place where your choices matter is in learnable skills. The Leadership skill might help you rally a reluctant ally, or Weird Science might let you exploit some bizarre technology to overcome an obstacle. You’ll frequently see dialogue options tied to these various skills, and you can use that information to shape your choices. An important part of building a party in Wasteland 3 is making sure that you have access to all the specialized skills that you might need, and this title does a better job than its predecessor at streamlining similar ones together while still retaining a healthy array of options.

Image courtesy Gamesplanet

You can solve many problems in Wasteland 3 with smooth talking and mechanical ingenuity, but the bullets will start to fly sooner or later. This game’s deep turn-based combat required me to really think about what I was doing when I initiated battles. Guns aren’t the only tool in your arsenal. You’ll have to take advantage of the landscape with careful positioning to survive, especially at higher difficulty levels. The game’s interface does a stellar job of communicating the information you need to fight well without overloading your cognitive faculties. Hover over a location in the game world, and you’ll see at a glance if you’ll still be able to perform an attack when you get there and what enemies will be in range. That information made it easy to plan rather than guessing, clicking, and hoping.

Thanks to a wide variety of weapons, distinctive skill trees, and ever-changing battlegrounds, Wasteland 3 encourages a wide range of playstyles. If you prefer to operate in the shadows, you can ambush your enemies and reap the damage bonus of sneak attacks. If you’d rather armor up a bunch of bruisers and charge into battle like a barbarian horde, the gear and skills are there to let you make it happen. 

Image courtesy Gamesplanet

For all the grim violence and tough choices you’ll face, the game leavens its bleakness with a quirky sense of humor underneath its frozen environs. Play with the Animal Whisperer skill, for example, and you’ll find yourself charging into battle alongside an array of critters that might include a hat-wearing cat named Major Tom or a cyborg chicken. Level up the Toaster Repair skill and you’ll… well, learn how to repair toasters. (Trust me—that’s more useful than it may sound at first.) Enemies can be just plain menacing or unabashedly silly. One of the first hostile factions you’ll run across likes to wear antler-adorned headdresses, and from there you’ll knock heads with cultists, clown-faced gang members, and crazed loners.

Wasteland 3 certainly caters to my nostalgia for ‘90s gaming, but its appeal doesn’t end with fuzzy feelings of days gone by. It serves up the classic overhead view, outsized personalities, and strategic turn-based gameplay from the greats in its genre, but it’s also a compelling and modern experience in its own right. It presents the familiar elements of the isometric RPG in a way that’s both accessible for newcomers and captivating to veterans of the genre. Even if you’re not familiar with the trappings of this storied series, Wasteland 3 offers up a rich world for all comers to dive into.