"It's just Oblivion with guns."
So claimed the cynics regarding Fallout 3 around its release date, leading me to believe that Fallout 4 might inspire cries of "it's just Skyrim with guns" upon its inevitable announcement. Of course, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas proved to be capable games in their own right, rather than just extensions of Elder Scrolls tropes. However, there's no denying the similarities between Bethesda's take on Fallout and the fantasy games they'd already created. The games share basic locomotion, standard interactions, and stiff animations, among other traits, and The Elder Scrolls Online proves once and for all that these trademark Bethesda elements aren't aging all that well, and that it's time for the developer to drag the Brotherhood of Steel into a new generation.
An Identity of its Own
And thus what I want most of all is for Fallout 4 to be its own unique entity, with vague ties, if any, to Elder Scrolls mechanics and structure. The nostalgic Fallout fan in me longs for isometric exploration and turn-based strategic combat, but I believe that the console-driven world in which we live precludes the possibility. Therefore, Bethesda needs to do all it can to make Fallout look and feel different from its other famous series. A good place to start is with combat: Fallout 3 and New Vegas allowed for real-time shooting, but no one could accuse those games of feeling like actual shooters. There are two possibilities here, presuming Fallout 4 doesn't just copy its predecessors' combat. The first is to go full-on shooter and make gunplay (and swordplay) fluid and fun. To do so would either require the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System to be overhauled so that players couldn't just shoot their way through every encounter in real time (does anyone want Fallout to become Rage?), or require V.A.T.S. to be scrapped altogether, a prospect I don't relish. The second possibility is to remove real-time shooting and make Fallout 4's combat fully tactical.
Such a system could take many forms, but the one I envision would flip the world seamlessly from first-person to an overhead view as soon as combat begins. This kind of gameplay, in which real-time exploration transitions into turn-based action, is hardly new, but the transformation between camera views is an uncommon approach. Done properly, such a battle system could retain all the joys of exploring a postapocalyptic landscape through your character's own eyes, while making every battle a meaningful event. Maybe we could actually get a full-on adventuring party in the mix, but given how Bethesda can't even get a single companion to work properly, I won't hold out hope.
A Place to Call Home
Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for years, I found Fallout 3's version of the nation's capital to be somewhat chilling, yet I felt that the loneliness of Fallout 2 had been lost in translation when the series made the jump to first-person. Fallout 3's ambient soundtrack was all right, but it didn't fit the game's annihilated Americana atmosphere, and there were too few period musical tracks to help set the mood. Whatever the setting (possibly Boston, given lingering rumors, though I'd love to see San Francisco or New Orleans as backdrops as well), this is Bethesda's chance to remind us that this is a world lost to time. Fallout: New Vegas did a fine job of incorporating regional themes and 1950s pop culture, and Fallout 3 deftly lampooned American nationalism with Liberty Prime, but Fallout 4 should go for broke. A New Orleans setting, for example, would allow Bethesda to fill the soundtrack with jazz and rhythm & blues while incorporating lingering racial conflicts and exploring French Quarter organized crime. Perhaps, too, we can see a world that's less brown and gray, and contrasts the color of the old world--turquoise refrigerators, bright red automobiles, ranch-style homes in pale yellow--with the burnt hues that signal nuclear decimation.
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Whatever the setting, I'd also love to explore a city built to scale. In Fallout 3, I could walk from the White House to Chevy Chase in a matter of minutes; imagine investigating the entirety of a Philadelphia chock full of mutants, monuments, and pre-nuclear secrets. Of course, bigger doesn't mean better, so I wouldn't want the vastness to come at the expense of mission density and exploration value.
Becoming a People Person
In a desolate world, your interactions with others can make or break your chances for success. Faction alignment is important, of course, and Fallout 3 provided some complexity in this regard, but in aligning with particular factions, I felt more like I was flipping switches than making friends and enemies. My emotional distance was primarily due to stoic characters and laborious dialogue, and while New Vegas improved in this regard, I rarely felt connections to these games' awkward approximations of sentient beings. In Fallout 4, I want to know people as people, and not just as gateways to missions. I want my companion to speak to me at length without having to engage him or her directly, and to comment on the various sights of the wastelands.
Emotional expression is key here. The writing should concern itself not with dumping backstory into my brain, but with characters' hopes, dreams, and aspirations. In a world where so many are just scraping by, I don't think the citizens would be much interested in divulging every little detail about their village. I want to see them speak naturally, as real people would, rather than in words more suited to a written form than a spoken one. I want actors to voice a single role so that they might fully inhabit their characters, and for those characters to display a full range of emotions--emotions we can hear in the line delivery and see on the characters' faces.
Gameplay can help reinforce these kinds of interpersonal connections. I would love to be able to stop during my travels and make camp with my companion, pitching a tent and cooking up some grub before catching a few hours of rest. I would love to see possible romance subplots in the style of Mass Effect or Dragon Age, and have that romance affect the interactions I have with others. And should the combat take a more tactical approach, I would want to command my companion (or companions) during each turn, using skills that complement each other. For instance, my companion could ice up a mutant's arm with a freeze gun (a weapon that was scheduled to be included in Black Isle's unreleased Fallout 3, codenamed Van Buren) and I could swing my super sledge and smash it to smithereens.
Of course, my ideal Fallout 4 wishlist continues on for a hundred more pages, but my hopes hinge on the series' very identity. Scrap that Elder Scrolls presentation, bring the game to life with a completely new look and feel, and give the combat and characterizations an overhaul. The Fallout I want is one that asserts its uniqueness, not one that uses a completely different series as a template.