Failing to escape the base in an hour still ends the game on a satisfactory note.
A lot of people seemed upset that I didn't enter Project Darwin and encounter Finster, so I took my winning party there to see if he'd still be around, and he was. First, I had to leave Darwin Village through a special avenue that just looked like a normal way out of town before:
I had read minimal spoilers--just enough to note the base's existence--so I found it a legitimate challenge. First, I encountered Finster, a cyborg, who fell quite quickly to my energy weapons.
Then, I took his head and attached it to some android body, and one of my characters--Stetson--was pulled into his mind like in Inception or something. There were numeric puzzles, which I love, although I only got the first two. See if you can get these:
- 2, 4, 8, 16, ___
- 4, 2, 8, 4, 32, 16,___
- 4, 6, 8, 12, ___
The answers to the first two are 32 (it keeps doubling) and 512 (it alternates between half the previous number and a product of the previous two numbers), which I got. The last, I guessed 16 and was told no, it was 20. If it had gone 5, 6, 8, 12, I would have guessed 20, but I don't see the sequence in this one.
I had to face a creature called a "night terror" that had thousands and thousands of hit points. It barely did a lick of damage to me, but it took me about 200 rounds to kill. At the end, I got 64,000 experience points, so I guess I shouldn't complain.
This was followed by a bunch of puzzles that involved the use of particular skills and attributes. I confess I cheated at this point; it would have taken me a long time otherwise: many of the skill and attribute uses seemed nonsensical, and I just wanted to get it done. At the end, I killed Finster a final time and got a security pass that was probably what I needed to avoid RPG-ing all those gates. Finster had one last rant and then died.
The puzzles in the dungeon were interesting--some of the first truly challenging puzzles in CRPGs--but it didn't add a lot more to the game's lore.
Let's move on to the rating.
I've been doing this for almost two years, but I don't think people really understand the nature and purpose of my rating system, which I dubbed the GIMLET. The purpose of the scoring system is not to rank how good a CRPG was for its time, nor to assess it's value in the history of CRPGs. It is, rather, to assess how enjoyable it is to play the game today. The "historical value" stuff is hard to quantify, so I don't even try. I do my best to cover it in the text. But the score is supposed to allow you to rank games against each other regardless of the era. If I give Pool of Radiance a score of 65 and Fable II a score of 55, it means I think you will honestly enjoy Pool of Radiance more, even though it's more than 20 years older. I'm sick of people complaining that my scores don't take into account "how important the game was in the history of CRPGs." That's not the purpose of the score. Got it?
On the historical relevance, there is no question that Wasteland is a landmark. Matt Barton notes:
Wasteland remains remains the favorite CRPG of many gamers who played it back in the late 1980s, and for good reason--it's a captivating and highly innovative game that deserves its place beside The Bard's Tale. It's a testament to the game's enduring legacy that the best-selling Fallout, released in 1997, is in many ways little more than a graphical revamp of the older engine.
No argument. It is the first game that I have played since starting this blog that I felt was truly "replayable," in that different party a skill choices would result in a fundamentally different game. (Demon's Winter is perhaps the closest I've felt before this.) I don't want to replay it immediately, but I certainly wouldn't mind revisiting it at some point in the future. This is game that, I'm sure, improves with second playings, when confusion over basic gameplay elements has been conquered and you can just focus on the story and tactics. It had the first inclusion of skills that advance through usage, the first true splitting of party members so they could act independently, and the first romance (such as it was).
My first major problem with the game was that I feel stories set in the real world ought to be somewhat realistic. It was Aristotle, writing about dramatic structures, who said that "probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." There are a lot of interpretations of this quote, but I basically interpret it to mean that if you establish at the outset that your novel, film, game, or whatever takes place in a fanciful world in which different laws apply, but remain internally consistent within that world, then you have a better story that if you relate an entirely improbable series of events in a real or familiar world.
Hence, we give a pass to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Morrowind because, even though their worlds are impossible, they establish the ground rules at the outset and remain faithful to them (generally). On the other hand, I simply didn't find Inception remotely plausible (as good as it was) because the implications of technology that allows you to enter someone else's dream would have so many reverberations that it would fundamentally change the nature of human society. If Inception had been about psychics, on the other hand, it would have been probably impossible but not improbably possible. I probably would have enjoyed it more.
Wasteland establishes at the outset that it's set in a post-Cold War, post-apocalyptic United States. As much as I'm turned off by the overall scenario, I can accept that as probable. What I have trouble accepting is the subsequent revelations of undead, artificial intelligence, cloning, energy weapons, cures for diseases that we don't have cures for now, mind linking, and entire cities built in the aftermath by starving, scavenging hordes. Entire scenarios, like the Temple of Blood, were just goofy.
I'm not saying it was a game-killer, though. I would have liked a grittier, more honest setting, but I mostly got past it and enjoyed the game.
1. Game World. The game establishes itself in the real world, following a nuclear holocaust, and slowly reveals the back story that constitutes a threat against the current inhabitants of the American southwest. Post-apocalyptic fiction was fairly common at the time, and the game seems to borrow liberally from The Terminator and similar films and books, so I can't quite call it "original," although the specific factions (the Rangers, the Temple of Blood, the Guardians) are somewhat original. Although the main quest isn't clear at the outset, it's not supposed to be, and I admit enjoying the slow revelation of the game's mysteries (even though I didn't really like the revelations). My biggest complaint in this area is the lack of change in the game world. It's not as bad as, say, Might & Magic, where you encounter the same people and quests every time the map resets. But neither is it as good as Pool of Radiance, where the game world fundamentally shifts as you solve quests. For instance, Finster made no acknowledgement that I had destroyed Cochise, and Faran Brygon never wanted to see me again after I finished his mission to find Max. Score: 6.
2. Character Creation and Development. The game is particularly strong here. I mentioned the skill system repeatedly in my postings, and I like it a lot. It is legitimately difficult to determine what skills to choose, but awfully fun to watch them develop through use and additional training. I never found uses for forgery, sleight of hand, confidence, bureaucracy, or several other skills, but that doesn't mean there were no uses in the game. This is also one of the games to allow you to directly use both skills and attributes to try to solve puzzles and get out of problems. This is probably the best aspect of the game. Skills are not just handy add-ons, as in Might & Magic II, but an absolutely essential part of the game. On the other hand, I don't think the character's sex or nationality ever had any affect on gameplay.
Stetson's final character sheet.
Leveling is a fairly satisfying process by which you not only increase in rank, but you can assign points directly to your attributes (including intelligence, which then gives yo more skill points). One thing I can't complain about is level caps. My highest-ranked character at the end of the game was a cadet, or Level 22 (which I guess is the first officer rank; below that are sergeant argent and master sergeant). But the game has up to 183 ranks, progressing through a series of somewhat silly-sounding positions that exist in no military: fireteam colonel (81-84), lance commander (93-96), technical general (125-128), imperial scarscalp (139), 1st class Fargo (150), photon stud (161), and, at last, supreme jerk (183). The idea of someone grinding this long is simply staggering, although I suppose you could get pretty high in a normal game if you just played one character. Finally, the ability to clone characters was an interesting (if nonsensical) touch. Score: 7.
3. NPC Interaction. The game has several types of NPCs, and most of them are somewhat interesting. There are those you can talk to in free text, much like Ultima IV, those that give you special encounters in the form of paragraphs, and those that will join your party. I always appreciate free-text chats, but someone please tell me where I was supposed to find out that CHAT was the keyword that prompts so much dialogue! It's not in the manual, as far as I can tell.
This would have been helpful.
NPCs that join you behave much as in The Bard's Tale or even Pool of Radiance: they'll fight for you but won't allow you to direct their specific actions. As far as I could tell, their presence in your party had no bearing on your quests; for instance, Ace asks you to go to Vegas with him to investigate the robot attacks, but having him in your party accomplishes nothing special once you get to Vegas.
I do have to give the game a bonus point for the first NPC sex. We're not yet in the era of truly memorable NPCs, but it's not far away. Score: 5.
4. Encounters and Foes. For foes, there wasn't a lot that excited me. Enemies come in several classes--animal, human, robotic--but within each class, they didn't really distinguish themselves from each other. Harder enemies were harder because they did more damage, but none of them really had special attacks that caused me to adjust my tactics, and even by the end of the game, I couldn't tell you the difference between a steel reaver and a silver strangler, or between a gunman or a desert dweller. I was surprised to find there were hundreds of different foes; I would have guessed less than 30. The one saving grace about enemies is that they respawn and give you plenty of opportunities for grinding.
Encounters are another matter. There are several scripted encounters with bosses in which you have to use various skills and wits to survive (or at least come out on top): deciding whether to kill Ugly John (and risk the booby-trapped Mayor Pedros's wife) or let him go; flirting with the barmaid; choosing between Faran Brygo or Fat Freddie; dealing with the priestess in the Temple of the Mushroom Cloud; deciding whether to kill the brats that mock you in Highpool. There were several ways to role-play these scenarios, and none of your choices seem to hamstring you for the rest of the game. Score: 5.
Incidentally, killing the youths turns Highpool into a ghost town.
5. Magic and Combat. As I covered a couple of days ago, I just didn't like it. It was boring, repetitive, mostly too easy, and not very tactical. I didn't like it in The Bard's Tale II-III, either, of which this was largely a copy. Score: 3.
6. Equipment. I have to give it props for this. There were a huge variety of items to find, test, and carry, including weapons of various types, armor, radiation suits, gas masks (which I never used), canteens, ropes, fruit, machine parts, shovels, keys and passes, and other quest items. It was so difficult to tell what would be useful (I carried a clay pot to the end of the game and never found a use for it) that I had to carry a bunch of stuff around, or at least be prepared to re-buy it from a shop. A lot of the items served as alternate puzzle solutions; you can get through a door by forcing it with strength, picking it with the picklock sill, blowing it up with TNT, or smashing it with a sledgehammer. Some of them are in fixed locations but a lot seemed random. I wouldn't have minded some more armor choices, but it seemed like every area gave me some improvement to a character's offense or defense, which I like. Score: 5.
7. Economy. The dollar-based economy, aside from being a bit unrealistic, never really did much for me. You start off with only a little cash, but you accumulate it fairly quickly. There was one brief period of the game where I worried I would run out, but only because I was using a shop as storage and buying back items for twice the selling price. I ended the game with almost $70,000, which is a sign of a poor economy; on the other hand, I was a bit too conservative with my ammo and demolitions, and I probably could have stood to spend more on rockets. Score: 4.
8. Quests. There is a fairly good main quest with a reasonably satisfying ending. Technically, there are two possibilities to the ending--your party lives or dies--but no real "role-playing" choices that go into it, and you can't decide to join Finster's faction. This is one of the few games of the era to feature side-quests; you don't have to do any of the stuff in Highpool or the Agricultural Station, for instance, and one of the things I love about the game is that you don't have to help anyone--you could just march through every area, guns blazing, killing everyone, taking quest items off their corpses. (This isn't universally true, but generally so.) These side quests offer role-playing opportunities that few games in the era do: witness how I destroyed Savage Village instead of bargaining with its leader. Score: 6.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I thought the graphics were good enough. Ultima V was better on the iconographic display, but the monster portraits and end-game cut scenes were good here. Sound effects were very limited and not very good, as is par for the course in the era. I honestly can't think of a game with good sound effects yet except Dungeon Master. I thought the controls were intuitive enough. One element I neglected to cover during my gameplay was the ability to create macros. When I realized the battle with the Night Terror was going to take a while, for instance, I recorded a macro in which my lead character simply (a)ttacked with his proton axe and then said (y)es when the game asked if I wanted to execute that command. I did this about 10 times in a row, assigned the macro to F2, and just blogged while the battle was happening. You can assign similar macros to waiting between combats or trying to use skills multiple times. Score: 5.
10. Gameplay. The game world is fairly small, with a limited number of places to explore, but it's mostly non-linear. If you go out of a specific order, you have to backtrack a bit, but this isn't too annoying, and if I played it again, I might hustle to Las Vegas sooner and rack up my skills and experience against the robots. As I said above, I think it's a very replayable game. I'd like to try it with a single character, or with different skill combinations. It also doesn't wear out its welcome. I know it seems like I was playing it forever, but I had a month-long break in which I didn't play anything at all. Overall, I found it to be fairly fast-paced. One walkthrough I consulted after winning suggests that, if you really know the game, you could win it in less than an hour. That might be worth trying.
The game's use of puzzles is worth discussing in this section, because it was really the best part of the game. There were number puzzles, word puzzles (UQTU), skill puzzles, inventory puzzles, riddles, and passcodes and clues to find. The journal was a nice touch, too, fleshing out the game world and giving hints about the main quest.
Finally, the game allows you to split up your party in ways not available even in modern games. As far as I can tell, you can create as many groups as you have full party members (not NPCs), and those groups can go anywhere. You could have one character exploring each of the major cities simultaneously. This is something I mentioned in my "wish list" posting and didn't imagine was available in 1988.
Aside from the limited size of the world, I only dock points for one thing: I thought it was too easy. I only suffered full-party deaths a couple of times, when I deliberately wandered into areas well outside my level. I only suffered one character death, too, and that was very early on when I didn't know what I was doing. Score: 7.
This gives us a final score of 53. It ties with Ultima IV, Starflight, and Omega for my fifth-highest rated game so far. But I maintain that the two Might & Magics, Ultima V, and Pool of Radiance are better games. You can find pitchforks and torches at your local Home Depot.
Before we go, I want to talk briefly about the adventurer's journal, because it's a lot of fun. Much like Pool of Radiance, it has a bunch of fake entries to lead you astray if you read the journal when you're not told to--in fact, the very first entry is:
You creep up to the window and, in the soft, muted lights, you see a tall woman with long, blond hair. She sits before a mirror and brushes her hair, then stands and walks over to the sunken tub off to her left. She kneels and her blue, silken robe drops to the floor. She turns the water on and steam slowly fills the air. You watch in fascination as she reaches down into the tub, whirls, and points an Uzi in your direction. "Stop reading paragraphs you're not supposed to read, creeps." She sighs deeply. "Next time I'm going to demand they put me in a Bard's Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous."
There are also a lot of fake paragraphs that give you phony passwords to real locations. But the best part of the fake entries is that there's a whole series suggesting that the main quest of the game involves an alien invasion. The fake entry for the encounter with Finster reads:
The Director, a slender, handsome man, stands as you enter the room. "Rangers, thank the heavens." He follows your gaze as you stare out the window behind his desk and study the alien landscape below. The Director smiles. "As you can see, that lurid, red landscape is the closest approximation we have to the surface of Mars. We have Martian raiders coming to our world here and stealing animals and slaves. We hope, by breeding hunter-killer animals we can take the Martian starships and mount a counter offensive against the extra-terrestrial raiders." He nods. "Will you Rangers join our effort?"
Altogether, there are , I think, more fake entries than real ones, including about 34 fake entries from the "alien" storyline. The creators really put a lot of effort into this.
I understand there was a sort-of sequel to Wasteland in 1990: Fountain of Dreams. It's on my list, as is another 1990 game called Escape from Hell that uses the Wasteland engine. But of course the most famous sequel is the game's spiritual descendants, the Fallout series, none of which I have ever played except one attempt to play the first game before I found it too buggy. I look forward to giving it another try, but I hope it does away with the sentient robots.
On to Wizard Wars!
Shantih shantih shantih