There are few series out there that nail the 'lonely wanderer' theme effectively, so it's peculiar to see Fallout 4 open in a world that's bursting with life. Soon enough though, the bombs drop, the world ends and the player emerges from their vault to - once again - wander a nuclear wasteland.
And what a wasteland it is. Fallout 4 really does capture the feel of being a drifting traveller. As you're making your way to one of the many destinations in the Boston/New England 'Commonwealth' of the 2270s, you'll find yourself distracted, lost in the once-civilised wilderness, wandering off to find out what that bright light is on the horizon (it's probably radiation).
The best way to experience Fallout 4 is through its main missions, which are surprisingly interesting and fun. Slow to get started, they eventually broaden to feature intriguing factions battling to leave their mark on the Commonwealth. Of course, the player's decisions affect the outcomes.
How you approach Fallout 4 is up to you - the perks system does not hamstring players by forcing them to funnel points into particular skill categories. Players can be good at everything, and really excel in one aspect should they choose. Surprisingly, Fallout 4 has also greatly improved its shooter mechanics. The VATS system - slowing time so you can aim your shots - is still present and useful, but in-between you can shoot weapons effectively. Going back to Fallout 3 or New Vegas' gunplay will be difficult now.
And yet... there's something wrong with Fallout 4, with numerous pernickety flaws building an overall feeling of irritation. At the root of it is the feeling that Fallout: New Vegas, a five-year-old game, is better. After dozens of hours with Fallout 4, I can feel safe saying New Vegas is more inventive, better written and sticks closer to the series' legacy.
It starts out innocently enough, with the entire story of Fallout's alternate history explained to you - war, escalation, annexation, nukes, vaults - leaving nothing to the imagination. But that also leaves the player nothing to discover for themselves. When multiple factions are introduced, any satisfaction is replaced with confusion. What you do never seems to have a real impact on the others until a very clearly marked prompt pops up on screen. It never feels like what you do really matters. The new conversation system is also confusing, replacing full sentences with an ambiguous and simplistic dialogue wheel. For example, I was offered the option "Scared of Synths", without knowing if my character would say she was scared or accuse another character of being so.
As proud as Bethesda should be of their improved gunplay, the focus given to it undermines the game's heritage. Many missions want to show this off, making most of Fallout 4 an exercise in just being a shooter. The role-playing elements of yore - being able to talk things out with a Big Bad, offering alternative solutions, using your wits and intelligence rather than bullets to solve problems - is mostly gone, and it hurts the overall experience. Who wants to play a 100-hour shooter?
AI is disappointingly dumb. For example, unless a character is in combat they won't run away from grenades thrown at them. Items show no weight or value before you pick them up, adding an extra layer of unnecessary micromanagement. Fallout 4 is also strangely lacking in humour. It's there, rarely, but this is mainly a straight-faced game. Considering Fallout has typically erred on the side of irreverence and lightheartedness to lift that whole Armageddon Mood - and considering New Vegas was properly funny - this feels like a step in the wrong direction.
New players may love Fallout 4's themes and attitude, but many fans of what made the Fallout series so fantastic in the past couple of decades will feel let down. When the bugs and glitches are out of sight, Fallout 4 is good - very good, at times - but it feels less like a Fallout game than anything in the series prior. And that's frustrating.