So we come to Fallout 4, another divisive Bethesda entry into the series. My comments here are based on only one playthrough, so unlike the other games discussed I can't vouch for its staying power or replayability yet.
If New Vegas was Fallout 3.5, then Fallout 4 might as well be Fallout 3: 2.0. Playing Fallout 4 I get the feeling this is the game they wanted to make with Fallout 3, but that game was kept back by some of its design decisions and the limitation of the 3D engine at the time. The setting is much the same (ruined city on the east coast; the story is much the same; parents looking for child rather than the other way around; and of course an overarching plot for the future of the region - though this hews closer to New Vegas with its different factions).
So what changed this time around? First up, the re-imagined world looks gorgeous. There's nothing like walking through the ruins of civilization in first person with crisp HD textures to really sell you on the idea of the post-apocalyptic world; the first time you glimpse the Prydwen is perhaps the most visually impressive moment in any Fallout game. For the first time the protagonist is fully voiced, which I find helps establish the character much more than a silent one. Consequence of that however is that the amount of dialogue options has been reduced, which limits the potential of roleplaying drastically different characters.
A new settlement building system is introduced, which is hindered by an awful control scheme. Overall I enjoyed the addition, and it does feel like you're actually making a noticeable difference in the world once you start rebuilding outposts of civilization all over the map; but I doubt I would bother with it again in a second playthrough, as it's rather time consuming and doesn't really add much to the game except for some infinitely generating side quests.
The story has its moments, building on a side quest from Fallout 3 to present us with the new villain, the Institute, and the plight of its android servants/slaves, the synths. At times it's a more personal story, but for my liking it never really delved deeply enough into the questions it rather haphazardly asks. In the main quest the themes of cybernetic servitude and the morality thereof in the post-apocalyptic world are routinely sidelined for forced conflict, especially near the end-game. The storytelling mostly shines in the side quests, which are usually well written and worth playing through. I liked the different factions on offer: a good rendition of the BoS (again the BoS, but yeah...), the Railroad, the Minutemen (perhaps a bit underdeveloped) and the Institute. The conflict between the factions makes sense, though you never really get a satisfactory answer why the Institute is doing what it does, which is a wasted opportunity to make them a bit more sympathetic.
I still consider Fallout 4 a roleplaying game, but this current incarnation had shed a lot of the baggage of older games, and feels more like an FPS than a traditional CRPG. The only holdout is the SPECIAL system and perks, though their importance has diminished again. It's quite possible now to max out all your stats, and the difference is rather negligible, not affecting gameplay as much as in previous games. Perks this time around felt a bit on the bland side, with most of them having several ranks to do mundane stuff like crafting, +% damage etc. There's no way about it: it's a far cry from Fallout 1 and 2, but in my opinion by radically cutting out what didn't work it ended up a better game than 3 and New Vegas.
Fallout 4 DLC
Adds a new side quest to the main game where you're tasked with defeating the villainous Mechanist. Main selling point is the ability to create unique robotic companions, and in that it delivers.
More stuff for building settlements.
Story expansion which adds a large new island to explore. A bit of a retread of the main plot, once again synths feature prominently. Three factions cohabit the island, where the fragile peace could at any moment turn into bloodshed. The Church of Atom gets a bigger role here for the first time, and their religious shenanigans make for interesting faction quests. The Far Harbor residents themselves are a bit bland, but they're there as the 'normal' faction and get the job done. The synths under leadership of the enigmatic DiMA (who raises some interesting questions in your first conversation) are another great touch, and you can resolve the conflict on the island in multiple ways. Solutions aren't as clean as they usually are, ranging from very dark grey (well, black) to some lighter shades of grey, as it should be. The new island also makes a great location, covered in an atmospheric radioactive fog with some imaginatively designed new monsters lurking about.
More stuff for building settlements.
Yet to come: Vault-tec Workshop (even more stuff for building settlements) and another location DLC: Nuka-World, which promises a ruined theme park lousy with raiders. Can't wait!
Fallout 5 and beyond
So what's next for the franchise? In no particular order some things I think we're likely to see, and some we probably won't.
- The next Bethesda Fallouts will continue down the FPS path. Mechanically the importance of stats and perks will continue to wane.
- We'll make another time jump and once again explore a new region. Rather than one city we might see two or three.
- Fairly certain we'll see more synths and CoA in the next game.
- More crafting. Every game seems legally mandated to have more crafting crowbarred in.
- Usable vehicles: at some point inspiration will run dry, and someone will say: fuck it, let's just throw in Mad Max style vehicle combat. To be honest: at this point there's no reason there aren't cars in this world, these should be easier to retro-engineer than helicopters!
- I'd love to see some different playable characters and playable non-humans, in a DA: Origins style, but I doubt we'll get it. The single voiced protagonist will reign for the next few games.
- We might see a return of the world map with large, playable zones rather than the one continuous open world, like the first two Fallouts or recently DAIII.
- Multiplayer: fairly certain this in the cards. Instanced dungeons with 2-4 players. Such is the future.