The harshest criticism of Fallout 4 has been from people who feel the game is insufficiently different from Fallout 3 or Skyrim. For anyone who plays singleplayer RPGs with a view to roleplay, though, it is the significant changes which have sabotaged the game. I should define what I mean by ‘roleplay’ since it’s a broad term, and it’s been broadened still further by being used as a descriptor for games like Fallout 4 and Mass Effect which traditionally have little in common with the genre. For me, at least, the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game is the ability to create a unique character who has particular skills and codes of conduct. Then, the game has to allow you within reason to play the character you’ve created, making the decisions they would make. If you want to play as a deranged wastelander in Fallout: New Vegas who thinks she’s a samurai, you can acquire a machete, wear makeshift armour and pick and choose which quests to undertake and which areas to investigate according to your imagined character’s feelings. In Morrowind, you might play an academically-inclined mage by selecting magic skills, joining the Mage’s Guild and choosing disdainful dialogue options with grubby warriors and thieves. These are relatively extreme examples, and merely playing a character who believes the world should be organised in a particular way qualifies (and is equally difficult to do in Fallout 4). For me and others who love to play this way, Fallout 4 is a disappointment. It rigorously circumscribes your role in the post-nuclear wasteland and allows very little player expression in building your character, talking to strangers or exploring the world.
The best thing for a roleplayer is an RPG which doesn’t fill in all the details of your character’s life. In most Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim) the game begins with one exciting moment which changes your character’s life. Usually, though, who they were up to that point is a blank canvas for players to colour as they see fit. In the last three Elder Scrolls games, you begin as a prisoner, but whether you’re guilty or innocent is left up to you. In Morrowind and Oblivion you can even imagine what crime you might have committed in the past. Skyrim is more restrictive but it still allows you to decide what your character was doing in the area they were captured. Fallout has been more restrictive, certainly, and even in Black Isle’s games your character occupies a particular place in the world. The difference between the main Fallout games up to this point (that is, 1-3 and New Vegas) and Fallout 4 though is the stress it places on your character’s main quest.
Since your initial objective is to find your son, Shaun, it makes absolutely no sense for your character to dawdle or wander the wasteland. Indeed, the writing and voice acting of that storyline give it a strong sense of urgency, which is a success for the individuals involved in creating it but undesirable for roleplayers (perhaps even undesirable for a game in which individual exploration is the most vital component). In Fallout 3, where the player character left the vault for similar reasons, players could take comfort in the fact that your father was not a baby and not kidnapped.
Further, there’s a myriad of ways to bring up your quest to NPCs not otherwise connected to it in Fallout 4. The sense you’re playing a particular character rather than your character is strengthened. Even worse, it’s possible to bring up Shaun by accident since the two word descriptions of your dialogue options can’t always accurately communicate what you’ll say in the full, voiced line. Obviously, this shatters even the faintest illusion that you’re anyone but a particular parent of a particular child on a particular quest.
Fallout 4’s dialogue system has been divisive even among non-roleplayers. The confusing system for communicating your choices aside, it vastly reduces the depth of the system we’ve seen in prior Fallouts. Since skills in general have been removed, there are no dialogue options to solve problems using, say, your science, survival or any other kind of skills. Even charisma is used almost exclusively to extract more caps from NPCs at the beginning of quests.
Perhaps the greatest let-down of Fallout 4 for roleplaying is that you can no longer be a ‘specialist.’ Where in Fallout 3 or New Vegas using a grenade without any skill would likely throw it weakly or wide of your target in Fallout 4 you’re competent in everything. You can still make certain kinds of damage more effective and take perks which were formally associated with certain skills but it would be very difficult to play as a scientist, say, without the science skill.
Fallout 4 completes the series’ transition from niche interest to global ‘franchise’, in the same league as Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. I do not say that to disparage the game, though, and it is obvious from the impressive recreations of Boston landmarks, the imaginative quests, and the varied clothing that as much passion went into Fallout 4 as into Fallout 2. For roleplay, though, it’s the end of the series and for me it’s a bitter disappointment.