Let's make no bones about it, it's clear from the outset that with Fallout 4, Bethesda have created a wonderful thing. The preamble leading up to your entry into Vault-111 – complete with the much-ballyhooed character creation system - is nicely detailed and believable enough to draw you in. So much so, that it's almost disappointing when that inevitable dust cloud rushes at you over the horizon to wipe away the social bliss and indirectly cast you into cryogenic unconsciousness.
When you emerge from the safety of the underground bunker, the post-apocalyptic setting is sparse enough for you to wander around for a decent amount of time without seeing another soul and despite that, is bristling with enough interesting features to prevent that walk from place A to place B ever feeling like a chore. During those walks, the sheer amount of choice you have never presents itself obviously. Sure, your Pip-boy will show that you have eight or nine available missions in progress if you click through to view your objectives list but aside from that, there's nothing that jumps out as it would in other open-world titles to push you toward a specific approach. You'll probably first notice that when you realise that you've clocked your first fifteen hours of playing time, but haven't spoken about your main quest – finding your abducted son – for at least fourteen of them. Of course, you have the option to just barrel on through story missions until you reach the game's conclusion, but the time that approach would take you can just as easily be eaten up by base building or taking on side missions.
The fact that Fallout 4 doesn't mark out which missions are directly story-linked and which ones are side-quests is both a blessing and a curse. Those wishing to "complete" the game with any sort of quickness will probably need to use a guide of some sort to work out which missions are in place to flesh things out and which are actually progressing the action, possibly becoming annoyed because of it. However, to approach things that way would be to destroy the illusion of a truly rewarding and almost perfectly-balanced world that Bethesda have created since one of the main things that serves Fallout 4 so well is the unknown. You're a character that's been frozen in a vault for a couple of centuries. The world outside has changed via the nuclear destruction and subsequent chaos to the point that it's utterly unrecognisable. Therefore, it would be wholly unrealistic to if you clambered out of that vault and instantly knew how to do everything, whilst knowing where everything was and having a full understanding of the socio-political lay of the land. Fallout 4 makes a remarkably good fist of passing on this confusion whilst not leaving you entirely stranded to the point of frustration. It doesn't restrict you to the point of enforcing certain social mores, either, meaning that you can eschew the norms and run around the game world as a gun-toting maniac that enjoys wearing nothing but a flat cap and underpants, if that's your bag.
As you'd expect, the scavenging and crafting of the earlier games makes a reappearance and is more important than ever, though the interfaces for managing your haul and loadouts are functional, but not necessarily as clear as they should be, especially for players who are new to the series. In fact, a similar thing could be said about the settlement building side of things, as well. This major new addition to the franchise can – as we've said – feasibly eat up absolutely hours of your time as you try to construct a solid home base for your merry band of settlers. But the mini-tutorial (which is pretty much just a few lines of text) really doesn't get the job done, to the point that we found ourselves staring at the workbench with a building type highlighted, trying to work out how to construct it given that we had the resources but that the option to start building was greyed out. Turns out you have to spin the camera around, Sims-style, and actually place your new creation on the map. It would have been nice to have been told that. With that said, once you get to grips with things, you can make the decision to play the game as nothing but a society-building game, if that's what you want to do. Some will see running out into the wide world as something that's done only to find supplies to boost their settlement further, rather than something that's required in order to push the game along. As you've probably seen by now, all manner of things can be created to dress up your settlements aside from the standard amenities. There's an almost Minecraftian feel to the whole thing, especially when you start playing about with generators, wires, and lighting rigs.
A similar level of freedom is present in the various missions that you're handed, too. In one face off with a gang of raiders who were protecting a satellite array, there are a hundred ways to get the job done. Maybe you'll just don your power armour and run in, all guns blazing. Maybe you'll sneak in and plant a couple of mines at the bottom of the access steps and try to get the guards to chase you, with the inevitable explosion causing much mirth. Maybe you'll run around trying to find enough supplies to forge a decently-powered sniper rifle, then come back to the mission three hours later and take potshots at them from a parallel tall building. Maybe you'll just decide that you don't have the firepower to take them on at all just yet, and come back to it later. The choice is absolutely yours.
Another option in that particular scenario would be to send your companion in to cause havoc. The stray dog (lovingly referred to as "Dogmeat" by the community) that you find at first sniffs around for pickups and attacks enemies when required. Later on, you'll stumble across flying drones – such as your old assistant and apparent comedy sidekick, Codsworth - that can be used as companions, with the dog being sent back to your settlement. Companions can be ordered to attack specific targets or search specific areas, but these commands are very much a hit and miss affair. Often, you'll hear "Get that guy!" followed by "Nothing would bring me more pleasure, sir!" from your robotic chum, as he just sits there and does nothing at all. Fortunately, these commands are only required for pre-emptive strikes as when a fight breaks out, your companion will jump into battle beside you without a moment's hesitation. Often, they'll absolutely save your skin, which almost makes up for the number of times that they block your path through doorways by following you way too close and then refusing to move out of the way. To say that happens at least once every time you're in an enclosed space would probably be going too far, but it isn't a million miles away from the truth.
Fortunately, your companion's route-blocking tendencies aren't generally enough to cause any unfortunate deaths, rather, they're just a tad annoying. Indeed, you'll probably succumb to the wonders of Fallout 4's world many times as you play through, especially if you don't pay particular attention to your ammunition stash. Ammo is far from plentiful and it isn't uncommon to find that you've got a stack of rounds of a certain calibre, but nothing to fire them with. This is part of the charm that reminds you that the world is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Every trip outside the relative safety of your settlement is an excursion, with inventory management being the key to your success and failure. Heading out into the wilderness without ensuring that you've got your loadout in check is the difference between blasting that surprise irradiated coackroch away with abandon, and falling to such a relatively weak enemy's radioactive attacks. There's also your radiation level to contend with. In-game, the more exposure you have to radiation, be it via attacks, eating irradiated food, or hanging around locations where radioactivity is high, the lower your maximum HP. The negative effects of radiation can be cleared by taking some RadAway, but as with everything else in the world (aside from typewriters, of which there are hundreds for some reason) it isn't all that easy to find. This means that there's a careful balancing act to be mastered with regards to whether or not you should wolf down that dodgy-looking cake you found and suffer the effects of yet more exposure to radiation, or risk it and see if you can find some safer sustenance.
It has to be pointed out that Radroaches aren't the only bugs to be found out in the world. You'll turn to give your companion an order, only to find that they've decided to just wander off to the point that you can't see them. Turn back and take two steps, and they'll just appear as if by magic. Sadly, that isn't the worst of it. During a verbal back-and-forth with an NPC, if your companion decides to run in front of the camera, it can break the entire script and cause you to have to start over. That isn't the end of the world, but there are times when the conversation actually can't be repeated, so you miss key points and have to rely on your Pip-boy to find out what it is that you actually have to do. Some general bugs occur during gameplay as well and although some of them can be helpful – a major boss falling into a hole in the ground and not being able to move or shoot, for example – it isn't always the case. A number of times, checkpoints won't trigger as soon as they should, or world events will occur out of order. We were following a character – as we were told to – early on in the game and he just disappeared off the map and out of view. An hour of searching in the area where the Pip-boy told us he was bore no fruit, so we ran off and took on a side mission. Lo and behold, the chap we were supposed to be following was now present in the very place we were looking previously.
Occurrences like this are frustrating, to say the least. Even more so when they bring you back to real life with such a bump. It's a cold truth that in games in general, the closer a game world comes to convincingly drawing you in, the easier it is for bugs to smash that immersion. If you weren't invested in the world and suspending belief, then the odd bug wouldn't make any difference. The skill – aside from trying to crush all of the bugs, of course - is in bringing the immersion back just as quickly as is humanely possible and fortunately, that's a skill that Bethesda have absolutely mastered. Fallout 4 contains such a vibrant, interesting, and well-constructed world that it's incredibly easy to sit down with the intention of just playing for an hour, only to find that three or more have passed since you last looked at the clock. Your character becomes an extension of you as a person, to the point that you'll genuinely have a feeling of pride and accomplishment when you make all of your settlers happy, or locate a weapon that will really help you in future battles. This point is hammered home when, after studying all the variables, you decide to sport a hat that is less protective but that looks more like the sort of thing you'd wear in real life. You want the character to be your representative in the world and really, that's not a feeling that you get from many games.
Fallout 4 isn't perfect by any means, but the sheer scope of the game as a whole and the incredibly well-structured world means that should you dare to take the plunge, you'll be swimming around in these waters for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. The bugs may threaten to spoil the show, but every time one rears its head and makes you want to stop playing, you'll feel the pangs within the hour to go back and give things another go. Many people will fail to see everything that the wastelands have to offer, but that absolutely shouldn't stop you from trying to take it all in. Just as in life, your journey won't be the same as anybody else's.