The answer to that question isn’t in the visual, or so much in the mechanical, but in the writing. Led by Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, Wasteland 2 is written with all the verve, energy and wit you’d expect from a developer whose games include Fallout: New Vegas, Kotor 2 and Planescape. A narrative ticker tape running in the corner records all dialogue and interaction with the world. Each object you click on has some embellishing vignette attached to it. “This statue is so buff it looks like it could lift itself!” is one example that had me chuckling merrily.
More important than humour, however, is how the writing adds an extra dimension to your experience. On entering a new area, or building, the game describes that environment to you in a way that reflects but also enhances what you’re seeing on screen. The atmosphere of the place, how it smells, sounds that the characters might hear. It’s like having a little text adventure running in accompaniment to the main game.
The central plot is functional enough, centring around the Desert Rangers squaring off against the Prophet Matthias, leader of a newly founded cult in the Wasteland. More impressive is Wasteland's offering of choices, which are both abundant and expansive in their consequences. An early example forces you to choose between saving one of two settlements in the Wasteland, one of which provides the Desert Rangers with water, while the other grows food for the area. Figuring that waster is more immediately vital than food, especially in the desert, I opted to help the former. But I didn’t anticipate how far-reaching the consequences of ignoring the latter would be, opening up a whole avenue of side-quests that amounted to several hours’ exploration.
If you’re looking for a game to suck up your weekends like a thirsty camel at a water-park, you could certainly do worse than Wasteland. You’re constantly given new assignments via radio as you traverse the desert landscape, pulling you away from the main plotline. In addition, when your party moves between quest areas, raiders will ambush you in random encounters, and you'll frequently need to stop off at oases to replenish your water canteens.
In this I think Wasteland goes too far, crossing the line between making the Wasteland seem like a dangerous place, and outright wasting your time with fiddly mechanics. At one point I spent at least an hour going in a circle, refilling my water, getting stuck in random encounters, and then having to return to town to purchase ammo. It didn’t help that, because I didn’t understand what I was doing at the start, I had neglected the “Outdoorsman” skill which helps your party evade random encounters.
Aside from being unnecessarily slow, Wasteland 2’s main problem is that there’s nothing that makes it really stand out. The combat is fine, reminiscent of XCOM: Enemy Unknown in how it implements movement, cover and action-points. But it’s nowhere near as slick or entertaining as that seen in XCOM. The writing is largely excellent, but I never felt a particular connection to any of the characters you encounter. And despite the excellent detail lent by the game’s script, the world itself feels derivative.
If you’ve been waiting 26 years for a sequel to Wasteland, I’ve absolutely no doubt you will be utterly enraptured by InXile’s work on Wasteland 2. It's a well built RPG with (mostly) engaging systems and a fine, exquisitely detailed script. But I do doubt that, 26 years down the line, Wasteland 2 will be remembered with the same fondness that the original appears to generate.