Sunday, November 17, 2013


Big news: Wasteland, the post-apocalyptic RPG first released in 1988, has been re-released - all set up to run on modern computers, with improved graphics and other nice enhancements - at and Steam. (Note: The song above has been created for the upcoming Wasteland 2, which I'll get to in a moment.)

Why is this big news? I'll try to explain. For its time, Wasteland was an incredible game. Set in 2087, 89 years after global thermonuclear war, the American Southwest is a dangerous place, full of bandits, mutants, radiation, and even worse dangers.

Like many RPGs back then - and virtually none today - Wasteland was a turn-based, party-based role-playing game. You started with four Desert Rangers, which you could create, name, equip, develop, and operate directly, and you could recruit other NPCs - some just temporarily - as you went.

It was probably the setting which really grabbed people - the harsh desert, still dangerously radioactive in places, with a mixture of high technology and hardscrabble poverty, all dependent on the leavings of pre-war days. And lots and lots of guns, of course. :)

The Fallout games are the spiritual successors of Wasteland, and I've loved every one of them. They're not, however, Wasteland. So when I heard of the Wasteland 2 project on Kickstarter, I just had to support it. (So did many people, apparently, since it received nearly $3 million in pledges, more than three times its goal.)

As I noted, in Wasteland you control a small group of characters, both in combat and out. You can do this because the combat is turn-based, so you don't have to worry about how much time you're taking to give orders.

And this lets you create specialized characters which will have available far more skills than any one character alone (Toaster Repair is one of the many skills in Wasteland!). Part of the fun of party-based games is in developing those characters, and equipping them, so they complement each other. (All characters need combat skills, though not necessarily the same skills, but you only need one lockpicker, for example, and only one person skilled in disarming bombs.)

We used to see a lot of RPGs like that, because it fit with the computer hardware available at the time. These weren't games with great graphics - not by modern standards, certainly - because that capability just wasn't there. As computer technology improved, though, games started to change.

After all, there's no point in spending tens of millions of dollars on fancy graphics if the player can't see it up close and personal, so games turned into single-character, 'real-time,' first-person shooters. This was a gradual progression. The first Fallout game still had turn-based combat, but by Fallout: New Vegas - a great game, don't get me wrong - your single-character wanders through post-apocalyptic Nevada where little is left to the imagination.

But I still loved those old turn-based, party-based RPGs. They were a different experience - not necessarily better, but not worse, either. The video clip below is a very early prototype of Wasteland 2, made just to give people an idea of the game. But you can see that it's a much more deliberative kind of game than first-person shooters, and that the graphics - while important - aren't what you'd expect to see in a mainstream game these days.

Of course, inXile Entertainment - the indie developer of the game - doesn't have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on graphics, either. If you're a graphics whore, nothing may suit you but the latest mainstream blockbuster. But if you like games, you can enjoy fancy graphics without thinking they're the most important part of a game, or even necessary at all.

But that's Wasteland 2 - at least, a video showing the very early development of a game which still hasn't been released yet. 1988 was a far different world for computer games. We didn't have the capability to create or play something like that, let alone a first-person shooter. But clever people could still make great games.

Wasteland is very primitive when it comes to graphics (although they've been improved a bit in this re-release). You see your characters as just portraits on the screen - and enemies, too. You can move in combat, but you can't really see it, and you can't use cover (except for moving somewhere you can't be shot at all). But it's still a great game.

Originally, Wasteland came with a printed book of text, with each paragraph bearing a unique number. When you got to the appropriate place in the game, you'd be directed to read a particular paragraph. Well, text on the screen would take up scarce computer resources. Yes, even text. This was 1988, after all.

For the re-release of Wasteland, inXile Entertainment not only put those paragraphs on screen, within the game, but has them read out, too. (They missed a few, but they've included that paragraph booklet as a pdf file, so that's not a problem.) They also spruced up the graphics a bit - just a bit - and added music, plus a few other enhancements.

Paragraphs are on screen now (and even the background text has been sharpened)
(all screenshots from inXile Entertainment)

Mostly, though, they've got the game - a very old DOS game - running fine on modern computers. At least, it works great on mine. I've had the game crash a couple of times, but frankly, that's no worse than my usual experience even with modern games.

All of the people at inXile Enertainment are huge fans of the original Wasteland, as you might expect, and they arranged this re-release partly for that reason, I suspect, and partly to publicize their upcoming game. As one of the backers of Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter, I got it free. But it's only $5.99 at and Steam, even at full price (inevitably, there will be sales).

And I'm having a great time with it.

Note that Wasteland doesn't hold your hand like modern games. You aren't told where to go, and you can easily stumble into places where your whole party will be slaughtered almost instantly. From that experience, you're simply expected to know that you should go somewhere else for awhile. :)

One important thing to know is that there's only one save file, which is over-written by the next save of the game. And the game automatically saves when you change locations, too. You can exit the game without saving (and save the game without exiting, for that matter), so you can go back to an earlier save if a character dies.

However, if you change location when a character is dead or fatally poisoned (or otherwise in a no-win situation), that will be written into the automatic save and you'll be stuck with it. You can go back to the Ranger Center and create a new character as a replacement, but that character will start at level 1.

Note that, if everyone dies - which will happen, sometimes - the game will end. But your last save will still be OK, so you can re-start the game and continue playing from there. It's not completely ironman mode, but you really have to understand how this works.

Wasteland character improvements

Wasteland can be hard, too - especially if you're not used to such games. On the other hand, it's a game I've completed twice, when I rarely ever complete an RPG even once. Of course, when I played Wasteland all those years ago, I know I missed a lot of it. As I say, the game doesn't hold your hand. And the Internet wasn't available to tell me everything about a game before I'd even played it.

If you get this game - and for the price, I'd really recommend it, if only to see what great games were like back then - there are a few things you might need to know. Melee skill is very useful, especially at the start of the game, when most enemies also use melee. You get double the normal experience for killing an enemy with a melee weapon, it doesn't require ammunition, and if you start with a Brawling skill of 2, you'll get two attacks per round.

Many skills only require one person in the party to have them, because you can choose which character to open a lock, for examine, or disarm a bomb. They all need Medic, though, because you never know who might be the only character to survive a battle without a serious wound. I'd give them all Swim, too, and probably Perception (and maybe Climb?), and they all need multiple weapon skills.

For the most part, you only need one level in a skill, because you'll get better by using it (sometimes that's easy; other times - like with weapon skills - not so much). However, I'd recommend starting one character with Bomb Disarm at level 2, because the consequences of failure are so severe. And as I noted, I'd start Brawling at 2 as well - assuming you plan to use melee weapons at all.

Another tip, which doesn't seem to be documented very well, is that you can use macros to make your gameplay much easier. Ctrl + a function key turns on a macro for that key and will record the next keystrokes you make. When you've finished, ctrl + that same function key will turn it off again.

For example, press ctrl and F1, then press Esc 30 times or so, followed by another ctrl + F1. Now, when you press F1, the game will quickly run through 30 presses of the Escape key - basically, causing time to pass in the game. You will use this frequently in the game, since passing time will restore lost hit points.

Similarly, I set up F2 for my lead character to use his Perception skill (basically, a search command), F3 for him to pick a lock, F4 for my main medic to heal someone, and F5 to order my lead character (and the rest of the party, by default) to climb. This is very, very useful. And note that invalid commands are simply ignored, so you can set up some clever combinations (for fighting, for example) even when the circumstances might change.

Wasteland combat screen

Wasteland is an old game, and I expect a lot of improvements in Wasteland 2. Indeed, as I said, the Fallout series is great fun, too - with Fallout: New Vegas being one of my favorite games of recent years. And yes, there's probably a lot of nostalgia in my enjoyment of Wasteland. What can I say? It brings back such fond memories. Games like that are the reason I've become such a big enthusiast of computer games, certainly of RPGs.

But it's worth seeing what us old-timers enjoyed, don't you think? Yeah, in part, it's like our tales of walking to school in the snow - uphill both ways - I guess. Modern gamers really expect to have their hands held at every step of the way! Darn whippersnappers! Heh, heh.

But classic games are like classic books. You might have to cut them some slack - in certain ways - but they're still fun. If you've never played Wasteland, you might be curious at what inspired the whole Fallout series. And if you have, well, I don't have to tell you how much fun it was, do I?

Note: More posts about computer games are here.

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