The Director’s Cut of Wasteland 2 does enough things right that you can forgive its awkward introduction. The phrase “What comes after the end? I don’t know” kicks off a corny live-action opening that pales in comparison to the “War. War never changes” refrain of the 1997 classic Fallout, itself influenced by the original Wasteland. Given that Wasteland 2 could pass as a traditional Fallout sequel, on the surface it appears that director Brian Fargo only wishes to cater to those who prefer the first two Fallout games to the sequels from publisher Bethesda Softworks. Yet the game’s focus on Desert Rangers, a soldier group that attempts to keep peace and help others survive, draws a powerful portrait of the best intentions and sentiments of U.S. armed forces, propelling Fargo’s direction beyond homage and cynicism.
The respect afforded to the soldier graves in the Ranger Citadel, the game’s primary location, speaks to the sense of camaraderie that the Fallout series has never articulated as passionately, and that director Hideo Kojima treats as a given in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. (There’s a nice point here about the lack of responsibility in Metal Gear Solid when the protagonist inquires about the Ranger leader: “So General Vargas used to be called Snake?”) Wasteland 2’s voice acting has a B-movie flavor that accentuates recognizable feelings rather than provides snarky or heavy-handed wartime observations: Rachel Robinson’s tough but sensitive performance as Angela Deth epitomizes the good-guy complex that rages throughout the game.
Radio communication in Wasteland 2 immediately carries more gravitas than The Phantom Pain’s tutorial-heavy drivel. Early on you have to act on one of two distress messages, and regardless of your success, destruction strikes due to a lack of time and manpower. The dark side of duty takes fuller shape if you first help the city of Highpool and learn of the Rangers’ infamous link to the deaths of innocent citizens. Restoring Highpool’s faith in the Rangers isn’t trivialized by the inclusion of reputation or hero points. In this instance and others, inExile Entertainment allows the politics and characters of the situation to speak for themselves, placing trust in the moral, philosophical, and intellectual response of the audience.
The game’s tense, methodical action complements the story’s attention to sacrifice (if one of your squad dies, he or she “will be remembered forever”). The creeping threat of death that abounds in the turn-based system—a juiced-up Fallout holdover full of cover-taking and ambushing—trumps the non-dangerous stealth of The Phantom Pain and the all-too-easy pause-button aiming of Fallout 3. Mark Morgan’s battle music is equally driven and anxious, reflecting the complex Ranger mentality. While the controllable camera is goofy when it allows buildings and other things to block one’s view of the layout, manipulating the frame during combat can be intoxicating, and there’s effective suspense in finding the right angle so that you can get the drop on enemies before the chess-like play initiates.
Wasteland 2’s empathy for soldiers and citizens doesn’t mean the writers don’t have time to revive Fallout’s pulpy humor (something that Bethesda has barely grasped with its sequels). The funniest moment in 2015 video games comes hand in hand with tragedy: The last known survivor of a takeover by murderous plants excoriates the Rangers for “circle-jerking” before revealing that an infection could have spread to other areas due to spore-infected pigeon droppings. Her final words, “Fuck you,” stick in the lower right-hand corner of the screen as a bit of hilarious defiance—a true American sentiment in the midst of so much absurdity.