Wasteland 3 review: A genre-defining, post-apocalypse, post-punk, RPG masterpiece

Wasteland 3 may be inXile's magnum opus.

Wasteland 3 Reagan
(Image: © Windows Central)
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TitleWasteland 3
PublisherDeep Silver
Play Time80-100+ hours
PlayersSingle-player, multi-player co-op
Xbox GamePassYes
Launch Price$60

In a world where big publishers are chasing microtransactions, service-type games, and trendy streamer-friendly gameplay mechanics, some time-honored traditions have been gradually fading away. For a time, it felt like more and more games were going to give players true freedom of choice, where their decisions would dramatically alter their path and playstyle through the game. Many games claim to do this, of course, but few actually deliver.

Wasteland 3 doesn't just deliver on these esoteric principles — it screams them from the mountaintops like a battle cry, spattered in warpaint and game industry viscera.

Wasteland 3 feels like it spits in the face of what video games are supposed to be in 2020. It's a carnival of unfiltered violence, relentless and deliciously twisted dark humor, and a sprawling nervous system built of optional narrative branches the vast majority of players may never even see. It scathingly satirizes the dark underbelly of humanity while giving you the freedom to either embrace the apocalypse or bring hope to a shattered world. This is gaming at its most punk. It's raw and unapologetic, but never heartless.

This is Wasteland 3, my favorite RPG in years, and quite possibly, my top game of the generation.

Wasteland 3 Graphics, sound, and setting

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

InXile has historically been a smaller studio, relying on Kickstarter-type funding rounds to get some of its recent games made, including Wasteland 3 itself. However, now as part of Microsoft's Xbox Game Studios, InXile has an opportunity to begin realizing its maximum potential. Led by the legendary Brian Fargo, who helped popularize the CRPG genre with games like Wasteland 1 and Fallout, Wasteland 3, in many ways, feels like a massive step-up for the studio, and the genre at large, joining the likes of Divinity Original Sin 2 as one of the best-looking top-down CRPGs to date. Wasteland 3 has a few extra tricks up its sleeve, though.

Wasteland 3 enlists some truly stunning lighting and particle effects that give weapons and environments some much-needed flair. Some of the most impressive weapons in the game fall into the "Weird Science" category, spewing liquid fire or shimmering ice on your foes. Wasteland veterans no doubt recall the overworld map traveling segments, represented by a simple character marker in previous games. For Wasteland 3, though, you drive around your very own customizable apocalypse truck, blasted by radioactive blizzards with your headlamps cutting through the dark.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Another area where Wasteland 3 impresses is via first-person in-game cutscenes, and the way it does it may help elevate CRPGs from their so-called "niche" status. This makes the story delivery a lot more personable and engaging. Unlike the modern Fallout games, though, the cutscenes are mo-capped and use bespoke animations rather than repeatable canned NPC "I'm talking" animations. This leads to some awesome scripted moments, such as early on when a character gets sniped right in your face, plastering your screen with brains and skull fragments. These types of scenes only occur during important, pivotal moments in-game, but they serve as great conclusions to important plot points, great introductions to new characters, or occasionally, just a way to add some flair.

There are things in Wasteland 3 even my wildest, drug-induced fever dreams couldn't reproduce.

When it comes to art and design, Wasteland 3 is just brimming with the sort of twisted creativity that I'm not sure many other studios are capable of. I found a cult that would build kites out of human skin, and then fly limbless torsos into the sky to try to appease their gods. There's an army of monsters who worship 1980s B-movie horror flicks and dress accordingly. There's another faction that reveres President Ronald Reagan as a God, and live in a building eerily plastered with Reagan photographs.

There are things in Wasteland 3 even my wildest, drug-induced fever dreams couldn't reproduce. I don't want to talk too much about the sights you'll see in Wasteland 3 — finding them is half the fun — but there's so much, restless creativity stuffed into every visual, with side orders of parody and 80s-90s nostalgia in equal measure.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Mature visuals are par for the course when it comes to post-apocalyptic media, and while Wasteland 3 leads with its humor, there are plenty of explosive moments that add a layer of impact and weight to your attacks. Paint the floors brain-colored with critical headshots, rip enemies in half with a powered-up shotgun, reduce enemies to ashes with the game's various wacky science weapons, and beyond. The monster designs, armor details, weapon variety, and character visuals are all a big step up from Wasteland 2, and help prevent the game from feeling stale or repetitive.

It also has a truly stunning soundtrack. InXile enlisted composers from Quentin Tarantino's movies and the OG Fallout games for Wasteland 3, creating a range of eclectic music that you wouldn't expect to hear in a game. Everything from American gospel blues-folk to gothic post-punk makes Wasteland 3's music tastes as frequently surprising as its gameplay twists.

Two areas of weakness pertain to its optimization and animations. Wasteland 3's first-person cutscenes have some truly wild facial animations that in some ways add to the charm, but some just seem glitched out. Regular character animations, particularly in combat, often get stuck in loops, and look a little on the rigid and cartoony side.

The game is also in dire need of some optimization, especially on the Xbox One S. I experienced crashing on the Xbox One X, even, and some of those first-person scenes can really crush the game's frame rate, almost like it's zoomed in too close to areas that weren't designed for it. Some of these types of issues can be fixed, though, and occur relatively infrequently, and didn't hinder my time with the game.

Wasteland 3 What about that story though?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Wasteland 3 is a beefy game, and I'm nowhere near done exploring all the game's branches, giving it piles of replayability. After dozens of hours, I can confidently proclaim the story delivery to be among the best I've experienced this gen, with a near-constant parade of quirky characters and villainous factions that interlink and overlap in strange and unexpected ways. Some of the game's fantastical situations and story options make me question the sanity of some of the game's writers (and I mean that in the best possible way).

InXile went to great lengths to make the Colorado wastes feel truly lived-in.

Wasteland 3 takes place in a world destroyed by nuclear war a couple hundred years into the future. It's a futuristic Colorado that's been blasted by an atomic winter and is filled with cultists and crazies. The Arizona Rangers represent one of the last vestiges of law and order in America, descended from the remains of the U.S. armed forces.

After the events of Wasteland 2, you join Team November on an excursion to Colorado to secure new trade routes, only to get ambushed by a bloodthirsty raider clan known as the Dorseys. After battling through the deluge of your disemboweled comrades, you eventually rendezvous with your primary Colorado contact, The Patriarch, who leads the beleaguered state with a bit of an iron fist. In order to secure a trade route with your Arizona HQ your comrades desperately need, The Patriarch asks you to arrest his daughter and two sons, who have taken up arms against him in various ways. As you uncover more about the factions in Colorado, you start to realize that things aren't as simple as they may seem.

Your path through Colorado will determine the future of the entire state, and is brimming with choices and dire, dire consequences. Who you support, betray, or make deals with will change how different factions perceive you, on a sliding scale that ranges from "loved" to "hated." The way NPCs treat you will also vary based on how their faction sees your behavior. After betraying a radio host, I am now treated to insulting remarks every now and then over the airwaves as I drive around the frozen wastes.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Wasteland 3 has almost 40 hours of dialogue across an 80-100 hour average playthrough campaign, and every NPC is fully-voiced. I noted above that some cutscenes have full first-person scenes, which come with scripted moments for each of your decisions. The Patriarch lets you decide how to deal with a Dorsey raider prisoner in his introductory cutscene, letting you arrest him, release him, or just outright kill him. Playing Wasteland 3 on both Xbox and PC really gave me a sense that your choices come with meaningful responses and reactions, rather than both "yes and no" leading to the same round of dialogue and results (hello, Fallout 4). This makes every choice all the more agonizing and meaningful.

Even the most innocuous side quests can have hilarious ramifications. Further into the game, I found a local who was complaining that teenagers had turned a nightclub I cleared out into their personal rave. The game gave me various options to deal with the problem, but being the jerk Ranger I am, I reprogrammed their disco robot into kill mode, chasing the teens away. I didn't think too much of it, thinking it to be just a simple side quest for some cash and EXP points. Later, I returned to my Ranger HQ base to find it had been plastered with spraypaint by those very same teens.

Wasteland 3 is just oozing with these kinds of gratifying details. Areas I cleared out earlier in the game often don't remain inexplicably empty. A new faction might move in, which potentially creats new quests. At the very least, wild animals will populate an area that previously contained a human gang you had wiped out. In most games, you're often locked out of past areas after you've made your choices and moved on, but it feels like InXile went to great lengths to make the Colorado wastes feel truly lived-in.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Wasteland 3 is in-your-face about its tone, with tons of inspiration from cinema and comics. The game is packed with unrelenting Paul Verhoeven and Quentin Tarantino-style dark parody, mixed with clear inspirations from Mad Max and similar post-apocalyptic media. You'll know everything you need to know about Wasteland 3's tone very early on, where against a backdrop of horrific violence you can recruit a nicotine-addicted cat with a cowboy hat into your squad. Most of the game's more wacky elements are entirely optional, too. It's certainly not all comedic by any means either, particularly so if you get attached to certain characters.

The game pays homage to all forms of 80s and 90s nostalgia, whether it's in the music, through "relics" you find throughout the game's pre-war ruins, or various fourth wall-poking references. It's like a digital museum of everything great from the era, wrapped in the grim reality that someday, indeed, all will be lost to the weathering of time.

Wasteland 3 is just oozing with gratifying details.

Mortality and the struggle for succession is a recurring theme in the game, as The Patriarch explores what comes next after he succumbs to age, given that his heirs are all, well, crazy. In true Wasteland style, you'll play a central role in how that future plays out, and Wasteland 3 gives you such a dizzying array of options for conflict resolution that I can't see any two playthroughs being the same.

The only downside to this, of course, is that all of these plot threads and options can lead to devastating bugs. Nothing I've encountered so far has been truly game-breaking, but I feel like it's only a matter of time before I encounter something, somewhere that will break the game. I've already encountered some impressive glitches where NPCs have gotten involved in a fight and ran far away from where they're supposed to be, making cutscenes flip across the whole level. An NPC follower I have has been spawning at the entrance to areas then standing still until I engage in a fight. I'm hoping some of these issues will be fixed with the game's big day one patch.

Wasteland 3 Combat, controls, and progression

Wasteland 3 is, at its core, a turn-based tactics RPG, drawing upon classic traditions from tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. Your stats determine your attacks and defenses, and your wits and predictions will help you navigate the game's more difficult battles. Wasteland gives you an absurd amount of options and toys to play with, though, with enough firepower to rip through the thickest cybernetic battle armor.

Wasteland gives you an absurd amount of options and toys to play with.

At the outset, you'll create four custom characters to fill up your six-man squad. As you play more, you can add other storyline characters to your team as you find and recruit them, and like in previous Wasteland games, they can abandon you if you make decisions they find morally reprehensible. If you end up making everyone hate you, or simply don't want to play with any of the story characters, you can recruit more custom characters to fill up your squad.

I did the majority of this review on Xbox One, but I also played with the PC version to get a sense of the different control schemes. The Xbox One controls take time to get used to, but ultimately work well. What is a bit more problematic is the fact your characters can get stuck on objects and stairs when using a controller, whereas with a mouse pointer they automatically figure out the path of least resistance as you click around. It's clear this game was designed for a mouse and keyboard first, and you'll have a more pleasant experience overall with the PC version, particularly when it comes to managing your inventory and equipment.

You have a vast set of options for customizing your characters, following similar paths to Wasteland 2. You can avoid battles all together sometimes with persuasion techniques, or negotiate using rifles, gigantic rocket launchers, or crazy sci-fi lasers. You can build a heavily-armored melee attacker, a nimble gunslinger medic, or a slow and methodical high-damage sniper.

You'll need a diverse set of characters and skills to take on the game's more difficult battles, and learning what each stat weight governs forms part of Wasteland 3's learning curve. It's quite possible to accidentally make useless characters, but Wasteland 3 gives you a lot of pointers about what stats govern, as well as some recommendations for each weapon.

Wasteland 3 is tough, and as XCOM players know all-too-well, you can and will miss a 95 percent chance-to-hit shot, at least five percent of the time. It's also never what I'd describe as unfair. I reviewed the game on hard difficulty and found that even the toughest battles give you plenty of opportunities to take advantage. Whether it's by sabotaging something in the arena, or by buying deployable turrets to give you an edge, or using one of the game's various drugs to give yourself a buff.

Wasteland 3 builds upon and streamlines the systems already found in Wasteland 2. I don't want to spoil it, but some of the battles you'll face as you play are truly spectacular. Wasteland 3 also lets you set enemy attacks simultaneously so that you needn't wait for long cycles of enemies taking their turns before you can attack. This alone makes it flow a little more rapidly than other similar turn-based tactical RPG-style games out there, coupled with the satisfaction of reducing enemies into red mist with a supercritical hit.

Bottom line: Wasteland 3 is a masterful labor of love

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Wasteland 3 is somehow both raw and meticulous at the same time, refreshingly unashamed of its often-times grotesque humor, while treating some of its darker, more emotional moments with heart and respect. Wasteland 3 represents unbridled creativity and is the sort of game that reminds me of why I love to be close to this industry, and why I love video games in general. It's also the kind of game that makes me feel humbled to write about. I can feel the love in every word in the script, every bar of music, every tiny weapon detail.

Wasteland 3 is everything I wanted in a sequel, and so very much more. I know full-well that top-down turn-based games aren't for everyone, but I dare you to push past your preconceptions. Wasteland 3 is a declaration to an industry that is forgetting how to do these types of games that they bloody well deserve to be here. They can and should compete at the very top of what we perceive to be so-called "AAA."

Wasteland 3 takes pleasure in shining a spotlight on the absurdity of our civilization, but it's never shy to point out the fragility of it. Despite its wild nature, it never forgets that the world is worth fighting for. This game will make you laugh, move you, and make you think.

Put it this way, this is one of the longest reviews I've ever written, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what you'll find in Wasteland 3. It's the medium in its purest form, and I've loved every minute of it.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!