Apocalypse #7: Wasteland Remastered
Blurring the line between a remaster and a remake
Initial release: 2020
Platform: PC/XBox One
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Wasteland! The seminal 1988 RPG following in the footsteps of 1985's Ultima IV, Brian Fargo’s Wasteland stands tall as the daddy of story-rich guns-and-morality post-apocalypse RPGs, as well as helping redefine the modern “western” RPG genre, nearly a decade before Fargo’s Fallout would do it again.
But 1988 was a long time ago, and the world that created it — and the computers it was created for — are long gone. Sure, you could run it in DOSbox, or a Commodore 64 emulator if you like that version. Or you could get Wasteland 1: The Original Classic, which bypasses most of the work getting the game to run for you.
Or you could play Wasteland Remastered.
While it’s billed in marketing and in the title itself as a “remaster” of the 1988 RPG, the term feels misleading as video game “remasters” are typically the same game running the same assets or slightly upscaled versions, just with important quality-of-life features the original game didn’t have — such as support for widescreen resolutions. Wasteland Remastered is altogether a different beast, a from-the-ground-up remake of the original game. But even that feels like not quite the right term, because video game remakes often tend to be pretty different from the source material: new engine, new assets, things have been changed around, the differences in design ethos from one era to the next are obvious… and when you’re talking about remaking a game that came out 30-plus years ago, you would ordinarily expect some major changes in design conventions, indeed!
But inXile Entertainment, Brian Fargo’s continuation of Interplay following the latter’s decline, decided to take a different tack. While 2014’s Wasteland 2 was more in line with what a modern isometric Fallout might be like, Wasteland Remastered is that rare beast: a remake that is so close to the source material that you can even use the same walkthroughs. The conversion is so reliable that all the map info at Wasteland Decrypter is still accurate.
I’m not kidding. It’s all here: the six million nested menus, the obtuse character creation, the esoteric hints (aided helpfully by a quest menu at least), the tile-based game-world, the sometimes unfair combat — even some of the old bugs and exploits have been replicated, such as improving a particular skill by camping or walking back and forth along some rooftop windows.
Helping the game along however, besides the aforementioned quest menu that even keeps track of passwords for you, are some important quality of life features that vastly improve the experience. The UI has seen an overhaul, for starters, allowing for things like easier reorganization of inventories, a full instruction manual has been included, and story segments, once relegated to a physical booklet due to memory concerns, now have their own quasi-animated cutscenes complete with narration (originally recorded for the Steam re-release of the original game.) When you get tired of dealing with all the menus, there’s a macro option, just like what was included in the DOS version of the original game, though here it’s significantly slower. One of the more important differences is that whenever you exit a shop, you’re pushed back one tile; in the DOS version of the original game, saving and reloading while on top of a shop tile will break that tile, which can be bad when the only place to get assault rifle ammo at that point in the game no longer functions. While I imagine no such issue would exist for Remastered, given that it runs in Unity, it’s clear they had that bug in mind when they included this behavior.
The character portraits all got an overhaul as well; all are beautifully painted and animated, albeit generally attempting to recreate the originals, EGA graphics and all — with the exception of some of the player character profiles, which got some more variety (with some looking more like Snake Vargas and Angela Deth, two of the canonical party members of the first game and important characters in the second.) The soundtrack that was included with the re-release returns for Remastered, and it’s no less beautiful here.
Of course, a 1:1 remake of Wasteland also means a 1:1 remake of its frustrations. The menu-based gameplay can be a frustrating abstraction on what might otherwise be entertaining combat or interactions with the game world; the game’s attempt at pretending to be dynamic by having blood splatters on shaking profile images are less than convincing. No concessions have been made for the difficulty curve; if you’re not toting absurd amounts of assault rifle ammo when you enter the Vegas sewers do not expect to progress very far. Keeping your crew alive will prove to be a challenge as there’s no way to heal lightly-injured characters save via time-consuming resting, and a lot of the time combat will devolve down to your characters taking turns being unconscious and firing their weapons.
There’s also the occasional oddity in that while the in-game maps, in terms of what each tile does or doesn’t do, are identical to the originals, inXile has made the in-game environments more realistic — such as making what was once an abstract room in Sleeper Base into a cafeteria, but the lunch counter does not obstruct your progress as it sits on what was previously just an empty tile. It’s not a game-breaker by any means, or even anything I’d call immersion breaking (immersion can only go so far with a game as abstractly menu-based as this) but it shows that Wasteland Remastered is, at heart, a glorified reskin.
Still, though, if you’re looking for a way to play the original Wasteland (perhaps you’re weird like me and like playing post-apocalyptic RPGs) I can safely say that unless you really like crunchy 8-bit pixel aesthetics, primitive UIs, and late 80s video game memory limitations, you should give Wasteland ’88 a skip and play Wasteland Remastered. It’s the same game, just prettier, and the less time you spend fighting the UI is more time you can spend fighting mutants and robots.