In terms of its table presence and visual sensibilities, Wasteland Express Delivery Service is unimpeachable. Its irradiated plains sprawl with stretches of desert and broken hilltops, cute-as-buttons raider trucks haul their loads wherever the reeking wind listeth, and goodies and baddies alike adorn their outfits, vehicles, and often crotches with tape. So much tape. If one morning every last roll of tape were erased from the surface of the planet, the apocalypse would fall apart. The apocalypse apocalypse.
Wasteland Express Delivery Service has a gritty beauty to it, that much is beyond dispute. But is there a similar grit to its pick-up-and-deliver gig?
I’m going to say something that might sound silly for a board game. Bear with me, it’ll make sense in a moment.
In Wasteland Express Delivery Service, it’s easy to get lost. And that’s one of the best things about it.
I’m not talking about its map, though it does cover a reasonably generous slice of geography. There are towns to visit, boasting services like new car mods or ancient artifacts or even outright charity. There’s food and water and bullets to buy or raid, and villages that will take them off your hands in exchange for the eye-rollingly-titled $crap. Raider trucks, those of the aforementioned cute-as-buttons variety, trundle back and forth without any real purpose other than to harass you, or — once you’ve outfitted your rig with the right mods — to let you crack them open like an egg filled with bullets and also other eggs.
For all that open space, however, where Wasteland Express Delivery Service is most likely to let its drivers meander is in its selection of contracts.
Much like every single Mad Max film, the question at this game’s heart is one of priorities. Are you here to look out for number one, or are you here to save that kid with the boomerang? Keep yourself safe, or save those other kids who are 100% more annoying? Lay low, or help a one-armed imperator one-up you at every turn? Nearly every delivery game ultimately faces this crisis of identity, because unlike the real world where things will be picked up and hopefully delivered from now until the heat-death of the universe, a game requires a conclusion. Thus, Merchants & Marauders is about amassing and burying your stash of pirate booty, Xia: Legends of a Drift System revolves around undertaking the sickest adventures, and Firefly is about drawling out that twangy theme song for the millionth time.
In Wasteland Express Delivery Service, your purpose is to accomplish three priority first-class contracts for your company before anybody else. Your rival drivers are scrambling to fulfill the same set of goals — at least unless one of the three non-raider factions spits up a job that counts toward your total — lending the proceedings the urgency of a race. At least in theory.
Granted, there’s a good variety of contracts to pursue. One is about burning down all four raider enclaves, while another sends you after Grand Lord Emperor Torque, whose claim to fame is that he’s laid hands on more tape than a dozen FedEx offices combined. On the less violent front, maybe you’ll just want to accumulate a healthy wad of $crap to bail out a bank, because even a thousand nukes apparently didn’t rid us of those buggers. There are even contracts that turn the game into a miniature lottery, sending you to dig sites that might or might not contain the treasure you’re looking for. The most interesting pair revolve around accomplishing a bunch of smuggling runs, which forces you to actually engage with the local factions, or journeying to Motown to undertake a trio of wacky vision quests.
For one or two games, these contracts make the wasteland feel as wild as, well, a raider-lousy wasteland. This is where it becomes easy to get lost. You’ll need mods, allies, and $crap, so across the baked plains you go, making deliveries and chatting with the locals and dodging raiders. These are the good days, when every town and job feels like an opportunity, every pile of $crap translates into cool new machine guns or armor or nitro boosters, and every route brims with danger.
Sadly, Wasteland Express Delivery Service eventually settles into a rhythm that’s more plodding than thrilling. One might even call it hypnotic. It might as well be about trains.
This comes down to a handful of problems. Foremost, regardless of the contracts that start on the table, every outing’s arc feels all too similar. Everything is out of reach at first, requiring either cold hard $crap or mods, which themselves cost $crap. So $crap you shall earn, then exchange it for mods, then start chasing those contracts. The early stages consist of 90% delivery runs and 10% everything else; by the end, that process has reversed and there’s usually very little reason to deliver anything unless it happens to be on your way to somewhere more important.
To be clear, this isn’t entirely damning. It’s just that there’s rarely any reason to deviate from the clarity of your course. Unless you’ve happened to stop by a town that offers jobs, why bother picking them up? Why buy a broker mod or rad shield unless it’s already somewhere you’re headed and you have the pennies and upgrade slots to spare? Why build your vehicle’s momentum with repeated move actions — a very cool idea, by the way — when another delivery location can likely be reached sooner? Too many systems feel as though they exist only to distract you from making like a crow between the nearest supplier, delivery zone, and mod pickup.
Even the dangers of this post-apocalyptic wasteland are a letdown. While the raiders initially cast themselves as the scourge of the desert, they’re laughably easy to thrash after only one or two mod purchases. At that point, even the bad guy enclaves are robbed of any threat whatsoever, and instead guarantee a near-constant stream of free resources. You might as well be chasing down scary tape-wrapped piñatas. And forget about your friends breathing down your neck, since this cheery wasteland precludes anything other than waving as you pass on the highway. Dog eat dog? More like dog pass dog without wag or whimper.
Contrast all of this to Merchants & Marauders, where the nations warring over the Caribbean might get it into their heads that they wanted you sunk and then actually sink you. The same went for your so-called friends. There was real weight to your decisions because buying a bigger ship with a larger hull made you more of a target, or fighting a battle would leave you limping and weak, or raiding a prime target meant making a long-term enemy. Wasteland Express Delivery Service wants to be lighter fare, certainly, and that’s laudable. But far too often it comes across as the kiddie pool version, not only of a lawless wasteland, but also of a pick-up-and-deliver game.
Then again, there’s something to be said for kiddie pools. You probably won’t drown in them, for one.
In many ways, Wasteland Express Delivery Service is an absolute success. Its bits are lovingly embellished and grand to look at, and its gameplay isn’t half-bad if you’re after a brisker game of hauling junk from one place to another. For such a light time, there is some variety on display, both in terms of your long-haul contracts and the lay of the land. There’s joy to be had in watching your wallet grow fatter, then letting it slim down again because you’ve added a passenger cab, gunner chair, and extra cargo space to your big rig.
Still. Far from being the crowning achievement chronicled by the First History Man, Wasteland Express Delivery Service is just one more pretty game in an era that’s got plenty.