Most of the players who are trying out an RPG for the first time will immediately hit a wall known as a character creation. Why is there a problem?

Early choices

Well, character creation is a decision making process where players are to make step by step decisions on their character’s looks, skills, specialization, etc. Importance of these decisions may vary from game to game, but most likely they will shape player’s experience for hours to come, therefore, making a poor decision may result in a negative experience for the rest of the game. This is the point where we, as developers, are trying to decide which type of information are we going to give to the players to base their decisions on: perfect, imperfect or incomplete. Why is this important?
Stats and Attributes

If we look at the Attribute system of Wasteland 2 with above mentioned in mind we will see that developers are giving players both incomplete and imperfect information to decide on Attribute Points [1] assignment. Whenever players are dealing with incomplete information in the game, they, most of the time, are simply guessing. Which isn’t that great, because wrong decisions will most likely result in negative experience from the game (unless these decisions are based on moral choices and players are willing to accept the consequences, like in “Heavy Rain”). On the other hand, something more trivial that is based more on players tastes and doesn’t have large impact on the game process is absolutely fine to be left incomplete (like choosing character’s gender).

Derived Stats [2] window will tell us everything we need to know about the stats. Hovering over attributes will conveniently highlight those being affect. This is the example of the imperfect information: having previous experience with RPG games we can assume understanding of AP, SP, Weight, Critical Chance, etc, and how their are going to affect our game, we can even calculate the optimal number of Attribute Points we want to assign to every Attribute of each character to create a balanced four man group.

But there is one exception: Charisma. This Attribute has no affect on stats (apart from Leadership Radius and Bonus XP Reward) and it’s purpose is to increase the number of dialogue options (as it is described). Charisma is an example of an incomplete information:

Are those dialogues important? Will they add more options and endings to the game? How many points do I need?

There is no way of answering these questions unless you are a developer or tested all dialogue in the game with all levels of Charisma. For players who are trying to be efficient with their attributes: Charisma is a nightmare. But why does it exists here in the first place? Is it a design flaw?

Doubtfully so, but it’s certainly not the most elegant design either. My hypothesis it that developers are trying to interest players who like experimenting and dig for secrets in the game, by finding hidden solutions to problems, while having Charisma maximized. At this point I’m yet to find any proof to that or hear of any practical application of this Attribute in the game. But it’s still there, it’s still a mystery and that just might encourage some players to give a game a second run.

How do attributes work

Any assignment that players will be doing at this point is completely based on their experience of games of similar genre, character archetypes that their are trying to create and personal preferences. Here is a reference table of Attributes and their bonuses for future reference:

  Coordination Luck Awareness Strength Speed Intelligence
AP ++ Chance +   + + +
Ranged hit bonus ++          
Crit Chance   ++        
Initiative     +++   ++  
Evade   + ++      
Con       ++    
Speed         +++  
SP/LvL           ++
Weight       +    
CON/LvL   Chance +   ++    

So let’s say we want to create our 4 characters of the following archetypes: a Sniper, a Melee fighter, a Handyman and a Ranger.

Possible Classes

[1] Sniper rifles are expensive to use, AP wise, therefore we will require a large amount of it. Our Critical Chance is also very important and we may opt to increase our Initiative a little bit to take down important targets before they have a chance to move. Our main Attributes will be Coordination, Luck and Awareness.

[2] Melee fighter needs Strength to hit harder and Speed to close the gap between himself and a target. Awareness is also important as it allows us to have a greater chance to Evade and have a first turn advantage over enemies.

Strength and Speed provide AP bonuses that, combined, are similar to Coordination 

[3] Handyman is all about Intelligence: we will need those Skill Points to level our skills over time. Any other parameter is based on our weapon of choice as there is still a bonus to AP points from Intelligence.

[4] Ranger. This is the class that we can assign the use of Assault Rifles and/or Heavy Weapons, thus making it similar to a Sniper with few more points into Intelligence or Charisma (hell, why not give it a try).

Coordination provides additional AP at 1-4-6-8-10 and Intelligence at 1-4-10

With that in mind I do think that Attribute system in Wasteland 2 is completely fine, however, it does overwhelm at first glance and might scare some players.

Thankfully, there are premade characters that can be used as templates for creating any character archetype player might have in mind.

Skills

There’re 29 skills available at character creation phase, they are split into three categories: Weapons, Knowledge and General.

Weapon skills are nothing much to talk about: they decide which weapon type character will be using and we will touch on this subject later. So far weapons increase Base Hit Chance and Base Critical Hit Chance.

Next are Knowledge Skills, namely: Alarm Disarming, Computer science, Demolitions, Lockpicking, Mechanical Repair, Safecracking, Surgeon, Field Medic and Toaster Repair. These skills are there to give players a slight edge in a game by by rewarding them with extra equipment, ammo, give tactical or positional advantages in combat, avoid unnecessary damage and discover alternative ways to resolve conflicts. What’s important to understand is that skill choice, in this particular game, doesn’t dictate play-style, how it does in Fallout series. Having max of seven party members allows players to cover all of these skills, and with proper management and patience, have them at required level to resolve any given problem.

Bruteforcing
If your Brute Force skill is too low to wreck the wall – use a grenade. 

The difficulty, however, lies in balancing these skills in a way that player, who decided to choose them over others at the character creation process, didn’t feel cheated when the game starts. Sadly, that is the case with Wasteland 2: Demolitions and Field Medic are by far the most used skills; Safecracking, though sometimes substituted with Computer Science, is far more useful than Mechanical Repair, which arguably isn’t even worth taking; Alarm Disarming isn’t required until the second half of the game and Brute Force (which works in a similar way, though belongs to a different skill category ), most of the time, can be “brute forced” with a grenade toss. That is very unfortunate, because, although we have a large number of skills, from the game design perspective, they are very similar. It’s like developers decided to go “the more the better” route instead of giving each skill distinct gameplay application.

The last category are General Skills that are the most controversial part of the stat system. 

There are three skills for conversation, why? It would have been justified should players were able to choose the time when they want to intimidate NPC, roll a dice and find out a combination to the safe, in case of success, or bullet to the head, in case of failure. But, in reality, there are set points in dialogues where you have to have skill A at 7 in order to make a dialogue line available. So instead of affecting dialogue in an interesting, interactive way we have a skill point sink that adds nothing, but frustration, because players don’t know what to do: choose one or choose all – at this point it’s a gamble.

Barter, sounds useful: you buy cheaper and sell at higher prices, however, 10% increase at maximum rank is a joke. Sure, the developers might prove that 10% both ways is a significant increase in money saved and earned, but that’s not information available to the players when they face this decision, hell, even after finishing the game I still question it’s benefit (players will be actively using trading system to sell junk and buy ammo, medical supplies, armor and best weapons, but in the long run the amount you save pales in comparison to price incrementation).

Leadership skill reduces the chance of party members going rogue and increases their Hit Chance from 2% to 20% (Charisma will actually increase radius for that bonus). This is a skill that is very useful at the highest game difficulty, just because it’s reduces the chance of party members going rogue (that part only affects our followers, not 4 main characters). Some encounters require some pre-planning and can last for significant period of time, which means that loading won’t save player from poor RNG. Increased Hit Chance is a nice addition to it. The problem that I see with this skill is: without prior knowledge of a game process player can’t figure out how useful these bonuses are (in reality they are only worth price of admission on the highest level of difficulty, because most of a time you wouldn’t care if 1 or 2 of your party members will start attack on their own initiative, they still do damage and rarely make significant mistakes).

Outdoorsman is a skill that allows you to avoid random encounters that waste your ammo and give little to nothing in return (unless you are purposely farming them for extra XP). Weather finding water chances will significantly increase is hard to say and the worst part is that our very first companion will have this skill set so high that we won’t need to bother finding out. Should player choose to remove that companion he/she will find that this skill holds a lot of utility.

Perception is the most useful skill in this category and for a good reason. Being able to see traps is extremely important, in addition, it will tell players that some objects are rigged, have alarm set on them or locked just by inspecting them (it’s not a lifesaver, because player can also check those things by trying to apply skills on the object and traps, once discovered, can simply be blown away, if players don’t care about being spotted).

Brute force works in the same way as knowledge skill, there are a lot of objects that can be destroyed for one reason or another.

Weaponsmithing is also very interesting because it allows player to extract installed mods as well as acquire them by salvaging weapons that player doesn’t need or can’t carry. Avoiding this skill also makes weapon modding feature useless, because you can’t even install mods without it (questionable decision, but it helps players to understand that this skill is important and worth taking).

Animal whisperer is more of a roleplaying skill as it’s application in the game is hardly noticeable, in fact it’s sometimes quicker to just kill the creature than use this skill in combat (yes, it rarely happened to be used outside of combat). There is also only one mission in the entire game that requires you to have this skill, but even then it’s side mission and completely skippable. Other than that, player won’t find a lot of application for this skill as most enemies are either robots or humanoids anyway.

Here is the thing: apart from Perception, all the other skills in this set are completely unnecessary. You could say they are more like Perks from Fallout – useful to have, but players will never take them out of sheer necessity. The problem, however, is that they share the same resource as all other skills and the merit is clearly not the same. This is fine if you’ve already beaten the game and know the true merit of each skill, you can make a conscious choice of what you want to get out of your experience, but for the new players this is a real challenge, up to the point that some of them might have to restart the game and pick-up different skills based on newly found merit.

The reason why this is such a disaster is because the other three character slots will be occupied by the followers who have their skills set up for them. At the very start of the game players will get a follower who is much higher level and has her Skill Points distributed in a way that might overlap with player’s original choice. Then, half through the game, this character will be forcibly removed from the squad and players will have to find a quick way to patch now undeveloped skills. At this point, if you are a hardcore player, you will be able to deal with this situation by utilizing reserved skill points, however, some players might be discouraged and drop a game at this point.

One can argue that I’m putting too much emphasis on stats, that the game is still beatable even if the player messed up with skill choice. And that is true, the game is a lot more forgiving than, let’s say TES: Oblivion, but it doesn’t eliminate the disappointment and false expectations that player will experience once realized that the reason they messed up is because they’ve made a wrong “guess”.

How do Skills work

The way that skill check works is actually quite simple. Every challenge has a level and every level of a skill has a certain chance against every level of the encounter. There are four end results to a skill check: critical success, success, failure and critical failure (in case of which the consequences will be dramatic: alarm will go on, doors become permanently locked, bombs explode). To be fair, this is all percent based and players can always get a lucky roll with critical failure chance being higher than success by overusing the save/load buttons. That allows player to almost brute force through most encounters and get bored in the end.

Skill use
[1] Make sure that the crate is within the Perception radius. [2] Get the guy with the Demolitions skill. [3] Activate skill from hotkeys bar. [4] Apply it to the crate.

On the other hand, having challenges passable with a set skill cap is less exciting and will put a lot more emphasis on skill point distribution. In other words, the percent chance is dual-edged sword that allows players to complete encounters with lower skill level, be excited about lucky roll, but at the same time it encourages save/load abuse to avoid bad rolls at all costs (something we’ve seen in Fallout 3).

Addressing incomplete information

Making players guess while making important decisions in definitely wrong. Heading into character creation players have to resort to guessing the skills for their squad members based on common sense and gut feeling, chances are: they might miss the target and make a wrong decision. The most logical way of dealing with this problem is to give players more information prior to them making a decision. Perhaps, something like a tutorial mission featuring a squad of balanced characters in action could allow players to understand the practical application and see the true merit of every skill, making character creation process a lot easier.

Though, I’m not to sure about this one, but allowing players to reset skill points of certain characters will be interesting (a doctor you saved might conduct a brain surgery allowing you to reset skills points for your characters just once) and will allow players to fix their mistakes should they found themselves in a troublesome situation. Adding a new member to the squad might require players to distribute some remaining points, making their follower’s personality a deciding factor when inviting them to the squad.

Stats in Combat

So how do stats actually influence the battle? Well, as much as you could expect from an RPG: using a weapon that your character is not proficient with will result in missing from point blank, however, don’t be fooled: having 99% Hit Chance doesn’t mean you can’t miss.

Having a first turn advantage with Initiative allows players to take less damage by neutralizing dangerous targets, before they have a chance to act, however, it gets weaker should the fight prolong. AP cost is also important to keep a track of. Some weapons have alternate fire mode with different AP cost, not to mention secondary weapon that can be used as a filler for remaining AP points. Getting bonus APs from Luck could allow the use of prime weapon twice in a turn. To make players choice easier, when deciding which weapon is more powerful, developer added a AP cost/Damage parameter which will show how much damage you are dealing at a cost of 1 AP. Sometimes that can result in player choosing a weaker weapon with less AP cost to be able to spend more AP per turn, thus resulting in more damage deal.

Battle example
[1] Area where the character can move and use main weapon on the same turn. [2] Maximum area the character can move. [3] Circle indicates maximum shooting range. [4] Enemy stats. [5] Characters combat information. [6] Character stats and turn order

Positioning plays very important role in this game, hiding behind the cover provides a huge edge since your Evade increases by a lot, however, standing next to the cover will provide bonus regardless where character is shooting from (having the wall behind character’s back allows him to get +10% Hit Chance and 50% Evade for no real reason). In combat, Movement Speed is a separate stat that players need to pay attention to when they create and equip their characters. Some weapons and heavy armor, reduce the Movement Speed, thus making a character a meat shield that’s hardly moving (could be useful if you want to create a heavy machine gunner to stand in a middle of a fight and shred enemies, but not so great for melee fighters who can become valuable at times).

Weapons

Each weapon type is unique and well tuned which adds a depth to every encounter.

Sniper pull
All characters are in positions – time for a Sniper pull.

Some weapons receive bonuses or penalties based on enemy proximity, UI even shows enemy placement along the proximity line above the weapon image. Sniper rifles, Assault rifles and Heavy weapons will get a huge penalty should enemies stand next to character forcing them to move away and wasting precious AP, which is generally a job of melee classes: closing the distance and forcing enemies to spend their AP inefficiently or have a huge chance to miss. On a contrary, submachine guns and shotguns will receive a bonus shooting at a point blank. Shotguns should be handled with care and avoid giving them to followers who might go rogue. Shotguns shoot in a cone and have chance to hit everyone which makes it a high-risk high-reward weapon since there is also a chance for friendly fire. Friendly fire occurred sometimes when a friendly character stands between the shooter and the target, with high hit chance there is almost 0 chances of friendly fire outside of shotgun.

Melee is the most disappointing part of combat: having three types doesn’t add that much variety and creates more problems of matching looted weapons type with skill of a melee fighter. Using melee weapons as a filler after main weapon fire is an option for characters who use submachine guns and shotguns, but even then players could simply spend points on handguns to get slightly greater benefit. Another argument could be that melee weapons don’t require ammo and thus can become crucial in some battles: that is true and can become the case if player doesn’t pay attention to ammo supply, but still, having 3 melee weapon types in going overboard.

Energy weapons fill a very interesting niche, they have no chance of Critical Damage and their interaction with armor is questionable. The way Armor Penetration works is it compares Penetration parameters of a weapon to Armor of the opponent: higher Penetration will allow damage to go over 100% and lower will reduce it by a huge margin, the interesting fact is that energy weapons have it flipped: lower penetration results in a higher damage output, as a result, opponents with little armor will get close to no damage while more armored opponents will be melted on spot.

Armor Pen Ref
According to the tooltip: Armor Penetration principles are the same for all weapon types

Grenades and rocket launchers have probably the biggest impact on the battlefield both from player and AI side. Characters are often grouped making insane guaranteed damage for grenades (yes it can’t miss) thus making enemies with grenades the top priority targets as they will get player even behind the cover and deal devastating amount of damage with little effort. At the same time players will be facing larger and larger groups of enemies making grenades super useful and rocket launchers lifesavers against more powerful forces.Intentionally or not this adds more depth for combat later into the game making energy weapons situationally reliable damage dealers while forcing players to search for lower armor to save their characters from being destroyed by few energy weapon users on opponents side.

Healing and reviving teammates is another important activity player will have to pay attention to. Characters die often, later in the game they will be dying almost in every fight. Death will apply a stat penalty which has to be waited out or fixed by a doctor, but the most important is that getting back a fallen character will effectively remove 2 characters from combat for a turn or two, which is crucial. Fallen companions won’t always come back, there is a chance that damage they received will immediately kill them for good without any chance of revival. Also revival is almost mandatory as fallen companions will have a timer indicating the time left before their death.

Ambush is only usable in battle

There are few more things worth mentioning. Options of swapping weapons, reloading, fire mode change and crouching are pretty much standard, but the other two are more interesting and will be of use to more experienced players. Headshot doubles Base Damage from weapon, but reduces the Hit Chance and nullifies Critical  Hit Chance, this is very useful later in the game when weapon skills are maxed and players can afford to trade some Hit Chance for a greater burst. Another one is Ambush. That ability is quite important as it encourages to add additional points to Initiative to prepare for incoming enemy after the pull.

Conclusion

Wasteland 2 is an artifact from the “Golden Age” of RPGs, dusted out and polished to show how RPGs were made back in the day. Along with nostalgic memories it also brought issues, that classic games suffered from, and constructed an unusually high entry barrier.

If there is anything we should learn from this reincarnation is that giving player a lot of tools doesn’t inherently make a game better, on a contrary, if the game doesn’t provide much use for these tools it will only make the situation worse. Game can have a lot of tools, but it’s a variety, not quantity, that’s required to engage players via decision making.

That being said: Wasteland 2 is a great game with a lot of heart and effort put into it. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of imagination, neither does it push the genre forward. It’s simply an example of a game that we used to enjoy years ago, and that is exactly what it was designed to be.

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