Mar 202011

A month or two ago, I had a feature telling you what games that you should play this year in case the world ends. It looks like there’s still time to do that, so you should hop to it. However, in retrospect, there are a couple of problems with the post. First of all, it was way too fun to do just once a year. Secondly, in a post describing eight different games, each game only got a couple of paragraphs, and I could write so much more. With that in mind, I’m starting a new, semi-regular (and of course, award-winning) series to talk about great games from the past. You’re welcome to disagree with these assessments if you like; that just means you’re completely wrong. But enough about your shortcomings; let’s move instead to our first game: the classic computer RPG Wasteland.

The world of Wasteland, aerial view. Note: Superman-crippling red sun not included.

One of the most awesome game covers in history. If they'd sold a poster of this, you had best believe it would be framed on my wall right now.

Maybe you’ve heard of Wasteland; maybe not. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a little game series known as Fallout (including the earlier PC games or modern incarnations like Fallout 3 or New Vegas), then you owe a thanks to its progenitor, this game. Released in 1988 for home computers by Interplay (who would go on to publish Fallout 1 and 2), Wasteland set the bar for radioactive apocalyptic RPGs, as well as establishing several conventions in the Fallout universe. Wasteland didn’t have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats system, per se (though it came close.) However, let’s be clear: Wasteland doesn’t really play anything like Fallout and you’ll only see the barest of references to anything that would later appear in the Fallout series.

Wasteland puts you in the role of a unit of the group known as Desert Rangers, and your objective is to explore the areas of the southwest desert, particularly Nevada and Arizona. You’ll pass through a number of towns and cities, each containing different people to interact with and factions to aid or turn against. As expected in a post-nuclear world, there are plenty of hostiles to take on, from generally vicious people to mutated creatures and on to futuristic death machines. Achieve enough experience and you can radio in to Ranger Headquarters for a promotion up through a bevy of military ranks, each granting additional stats.

Yes, it's the future. With nuclear weapons, laser rifles and... Catapults.

Exploration in Wasteland takes place in a top-down perspective, although people are turned perpendicular as if they were lying on the ground. Veterans of earlier Ultima games will feel at home here, except that you don’t have to worry about pesky things like hunger and thirst. Your character is a badass ranger; you live off the land. That doesn’t mean you’re immune to the elements. You still need to carry around some basic equipment–every party member has to have a canteen or they’ll suffer heat damage when passing through harsh areas, and radioactive sections can be a death sentence if you cross them. There are two statuses for radiation poisoning in Wasteland: you’ve got it or you don’t, and you don’t want to have it, since your character stops healing wounds and won’t recover from being knocked unconscious. None of the increasing radiation you would see in Fallout.

The only way to get rid of radiation poisoning, or to recover from serious wounds that your team medic or doctor can’t handle, is to go to someplace where you can pay for, er, “professional” medical care.

Normally, you'd go to a doctor not covered in someone else's blood, but this is the Wasteland, son. You're a beggar, not a chooser.

Don’t want to have to enlist the help of  a back-alley doctor? Then stop getting your butt kicked in combat. For that, you’ll want to make sure your characters are leveled up in a variety of weapons–ranging from combat knives and 9mm pistols to high-end energy weapons like the mighty proton axe and meson cannon. You’ll wear armor to protect yourself, starting with leather jackets and working your way up to power armor (no need for special training like in Fallout, however.) Radiation suits provide decent combat protection, but take note that they actually provide no defense against radiation. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a semi-glitched loot bag in the game which contains game-breakingly powerful loot like the Red Ryder and “Name AC” armor.

If you’re not careful, however, you’ll end up with a character in bad shape, in the middle of the desert. When that happens, the best you can hope for is to try and make it to a friendly town before the worst happens. Wasteland’s manner of handling injuries and death is both interesting and harsh. Unless you’re radioactive, hit points slowly recover over time and short of paying up a doctor, there’s nothing that can speed it up. Any time your character drops to 0 hit points (or a little bit below), they’re simply unconscious; enemies will stop attacking them (even if the entire party is knocked out) and they’ll eventually wake up with 1 hp. If the attack that put them under is strong enough, however, it will knock them to the next condition down: serious. At this point, unless one of your team members can use a skill to stabilize them, the affected character will begin losing hit points as time goes on. Their condition will worsen unless you make it to a real doctor… and the desert can be a large place to try and cross. If you fail to get there in time, the character is gone, toast. But along the way, you’ll endure the traumatic experience of watching their condition degenerate from serious to critical, then to mortal and eventually comatose, before their condition just becomes a skull, indicating death.

If this happens to any characters, you can recreate them (starting at first level), but your entire party will be wiped out any time they’re all reduced to serious condition or less, or even just knocked out while radioactive. At that point, you get reclaimed by the Wasteland, and you’ll see this:

Oh, you thought you might get resurrected at a temple or something? Nope, you're dead. Game over, man.

About now, unless you’ve pulled your floppy disc out or made a backup file along the way, your game is finished. Yes, Wasteland was one of those games that operates off the “Ironman” gaming prinicple. There are no game saves here. You get one game (tracked manually on the copies of game discs you make when you first start playing) and if you blow it, that’s it. This adds to what makes Wasteland such a great game after all these years: atmosphere and environment. You feel the desolation of moving through a ruined world as you pass irradiated mountains and explore crumbling buildings, scavenging for ammunition or anything you can sell for money used in turn to buy things to help keep you alive. You’ll have to practice inventory management: just as you wouldn’t actually trek through the desert carrying five thousand mimigun rounds (sorry, Fallout 3, I love you, but you know it’s true), you can only carry a limited number of items here. And you never really make friends, just people who will choose not to attack you. NPCs, far from being the puppets in other games, may actually refuse orders, especially if you’re trying to strip them of equipment.

Recognizing that the system limits of the time made it difficult at best to deliver graphical gameplay and a gripping narrative, Wasteland came with a booklet that contained numerous paragraphs of text (more than the discs it shipped with could handle) which the game would reference occasionally. While this also served as a form of copy protection (some passwords needed to continue could only be found in the book), it ultimately allowed for deeper storytelling.

In the end, Wasteland delivers a compelling experience. The look of the game won’t blow you away and, at least on the C64 where I played it, there’s no music, but you’ll nevertheless find yourself sucked in for hours, sitting in the cold of your parent’s basement, hands numb, as you attempt to make it past that one group of Slicerdicers and Octotrons that appeared as you left the building, and… Well, while you likely won’t relive any of my socially-inept fourteen-hour playing sessions, you’ll likely leave fulfilled. Wasteland isn’t available for download through any legitimate source (Good Old Games doesn’t have it yet), but you can’t find it in lots of other places and you’ll only need to install an old-PC emulator like DOSBox to make it work.

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