Any big fan of Fallout will have already read loads on Fallout 4 and has probably sunk hours into the game by now.

The general consensus from those in the know is this is the game everyone waiting since 2008's Fallout 3 has been hoping for and expecting - vast, deep and with many similar features (and flaws) to other Bethesda games.

I'm a Fallout novice having only played the not-quite-a-sequel New Vegas five years ago so for that and the reason above there’s little point me aiming this review at Vault veterans.

Instead, I’m writing for those who haven’t stepped into the Wasteland before, those wondering why this is one of the most hyped games of the year and what all the fuss about Fallout 4 is for.

What's it all about?

Fallout 4 is an action role-playing game taking place in a huge open-world setting. Its world is loosely based on Boston in America – but it’s a 23rd-century Massachusetts ravaged by the effects of nuclear blasts that came in 2077 when a war over resources escalated out of control.

Build-up to the apocalypse is based around an alternate history and vision of the future in which science and technology went off in a very different direction after the Second World War, and in which 1950s style never went out of fashion.

The Fallout saga’s full lore is extremely complex. This video from IGN has a try at explaining it:

Events in Fallout 4 begin in a kitschy family home literally minutes before Armageddon. The player takes control of a male or female character, who can be switched between first and third-person mode and whose appearance and attributes can be widely customised.

Just a few minutes in, the devastation begins and the character has to rush with his or her family to an underground shelter. The family then get frozen inside chambers, during which time your character sees his spouse being killed and their child taken away. Eventually, after more than 200 years, you emerge from your chamber, flee the vault and emerge into daylight to see the destroyed region now known as the Commonwealth and to begin a quest to find out what happened to your son.

As you become entwined with various factions operating around the area, the plot naturally becomes more complicated with conspiracies and secrets aplenty. Many spoilers are around on the web if you want them, but I’ll leave it here. What I can say is the game unfolds into a big sprawling adventure comprising many components such as combat, exploration, crafting, interacting with other characters, finding loot, managing your inventory and so on. Modern it may be, but Fallout 4 is rooted in old-school RPG conventions. Main missions drive the story forward but there is a multitude of side challenges to take on.

Features tailored for Fallout include the Pip-Boy wrist computer that acts as a map and menu system, and there’s also the SPECIAL progression tree that allows you to gradually gain new skills and build your character’s strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck as you level up.

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What’s good about it?

Fallout 4 is gaming on an epic scale and in a convincingly freeform style. Its world is huge and there are many things to see and do on your travels. The game is stuffed fall of content that takes many, many hours to play through.

Player choice is at the heart of everything. It starts with how your character looks and how you divvy up points across those seven previously mentioned areas. It then extends to choosing where you wander on the map, who you interact with, how you respond to what other characters say, what tasks you take on, which items you carry with you and so much more.

The game does an excellent job of providing a setting and a broad story before letting the player work through things in their own way.

There are big moral decisions to make along the way that help shape the adventure, but smaller choices also have significant effects. Choosing to deviate from whatever quest you’re currently on to explore a particular building or chat to a particular person can lead to an unexpected discovery or event.

There is further choice in selecting which of the assortment of companions you want to accompany you at different points. Early on you’ll get to decide whether to have vicious canine Dogmeat or butler-bot Codsworth along with you, and then you’ll add to the roster of who’s available as different missions are completed. Each buddy comes with his, her or its own useful abilities, and it’s good to have someone else along for the journey albeit only an AI friend.

Fallout 4 has a deep crafting and base-building system that allows you to do everything from modifying a weapon to creating a settlement. If you want to get properly stuck into this part of the game you’ll need to collect every item you come across as it can all be used for something, even the junkier objects found in long-abandoned homes. This presents an extra challenge (albeit a rather tedious one) when you collect so much stuff that you get weighed down and have to drop or store various items – it’s all about choices, choices and more choices.

If you’re an indecisive person who finds decision-making painful then Fallout 4 will be an overwhelming and exhausting game. If you’re someone who longs to sculpt your own experience within a game, it’s liberating and engrossing.

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What’s not to like?

I’ve been pondering whether to include combat here or above – on balance, I think it deserves to be here slightly more.

As you roam around the Wasteland and take on missions in built-up areas you’ll frequently come into conflict with enemies that range from other human inhabitants to zombie-like ghouls to mutated animals, and you’ll need to handle yourself using the array of firearms and other objects that can be used as weapons.

A lot of number-crunching goes on in the background to determine the outcome of each shot and blow – if the calculations don’t come out in your favour, enemies will barely react to your attacks. It gives the impression that hit detection or aiming is off, and creates a disconnection sometimes between what you’re doing and what you’re seeing happen on-screen. Taking down even relatively weak foes can be a matter of blasting them over and over. It’s easy to become over-reliant on the slow-motion VATS function that puts numbers on the screen to indicate your chances as you line up targeted hits on enemies. Very basic melee and stealth don’t help the experience.

There’s an overall lack of refinement that leads to a lack of satisfaction from fights. The combat comes across as slightly stiff and sluggish, a bit jerky and awkward. It’s certainly not as slick and fluid as other shooters or nearly as polished. Call of Duty or Halo in a post-apocalyptic world this is not. Sure, this is an RPG rather than a dedicated shooter but combat is a big part of the game and it should be better than just mediocre.

The graphics too suffer from a lack of refinement in places. Some of the sights and scenery look stunning in an arresting, haunting kind of way but in other areas the game is much more underwhelming. Character models in particular are disappointing, especially facial animations.

Perhaps because of its size, although that’s not really an excuse, Fallout 4 is a bit of a technical mess in some ways. Glitches and bugs come up often, including framerate dips, characters such as my dog companion floating in the air inexplicably and conversations going awry. Frequent and annoyingly long load times can become frustrating.

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The verdict

Fallout 4 is a mix of the impressive and the imperfect.

Combat has been handled much better in other games, the graphics are a bit rough, those technical issues can be irritating and there are a few aspects of the gameplay such as constant loot collecting and micromanaging inventory that have the potential to enthral or exasperate in equal measure.

On the other hand a tremendous job has been done creating a captivating world containing a massive number of things to discover and do. Despite the negative factors, there is a big, exciting and rewarding adventure waiting in the Commonwealth.

I said at the beginning I was writing this more for players who are new to the Fallout series. To you I say temper your expectations, prepare to make allowances and don’t believe all the hype, then there’s a very good chance you’ll be able to lose yourself in this game for a long time.

7.5 out of 10

Out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC - PS4 version played