You know you're playing a Bethesda RPG when you're punching characters out of the scenery within an hour. En route to Sanctuary with a group of Minutemen, I had to stop and extricate poor Preston from a fence by punching him repeatedly in the face. It was at that moment that I said aloud, "Yep, this is Fallout alright."
Glitches like these are pretty much par for the course in Bethesda RPGs; and yes, they're pretty numerous in Fallout 4. Most of them were the run of the mill "Brahmin stuck in a doorway" variety, making them more funny than game breaking, but they definitely exist. With that out of the way, though, I really like Fallout 4. Bethesda plays it surprisingly safe with the formula, but its freeform exploration and roleplaying remain as compelling as ever in the way that it can get me to suspend my disbelief and just allow myself to become wholly immersed in its setting.
More surprising is how well it executed on an area I normally wouldn't count as a strength for Bethesda - the story. Bethesda RPGs are frequently criticized for being anti-climactic (Fallout 3) or too limited (Skyrim), but Fallout 4 bucks that trend with an enjoyable mystery and some surprisingly smart sci-fi. It opens in an idyllic suburb on the day the bombs fall in a scene reminiscent of The Day After, with a young family going about their routine as a newscast in the background hints at what's to come. When the story shifts to Vault 111, you can only watch helplessly as your young son is kidnapped by the Institute - a mysterious organization known for abducting residents of the Commonwealth and replacing them with robots, which are referred to as "synths." The whereabouts of your son, as well as the motives of the Institute, form the core of an effective mystery that drives a good part of Fallout 4's action.
Part of the reason it works so well is the Institute itself. Combining elements of Blade Runner, The Matrix, and The Others from Lost (only not entirely lame), they are an intriguing foe, and the Commonwealth's terror of them feels well-founded. That they remain out of sight for a good chunk of the game only adds to their mystique, which makes the build-up to their inevitable reveal that much more satisfying. The synths are similarly intriguing, and they too play a large role in defining the setting. As you might expect, the Commonwealth has some pretty strong feelings about them, most of them quite negative. There are some hard decisions to be made, and with A.I. and autonomous weapons on their way to being a reality in the real world, Fallout 4's story feels particularly relevant. I found that it made me all the more invested in voting with my feet and picking the faction that most closely matched my views on the matter. Similarly, there are a wide range of recruitable companions who have their own views on the issues at hand, some of whom can be romanced. My favorite of the bunch is Nick Valentine - a world-weary but good-hearted synth detective with a backstory that plays around a bit with concepts like identity.
It's probably not a coincidence that my heightened investment in Fallout 4's story coincides with Bethesda's decision to pull a BioWare and give the main character a voice. The decision may well prove controversial for the way that it cuts into the franchise's famous immersion; but in this instance, I think it works given that many of the more emotional exchanges simply wouldn't have been possible if they had taken the old approach. In addition, the dialogue choices have been slimmed down so that they feel more like emotions than actual lines of dialogue, giving you an opportunity to voice your feelings without actually knowing what will come out of your character's mouth. There's a bit of risk and reward in there, too - if you pick a persuasion option and you don't have enough charisma, you may find yourself forced into an undesirable result. In that way, the conversations feel much less artificial.
I'll admit, there are a few elements that don't work. Characters in Bethesda RPGs tend to be a little too trusting, and that remains the case in Fallout 4, where it feels like the mere act of joining an organization will get you a promotion - something that becomes more glaring the further you get into the story. Bethesda does their best to keep things balanced, but in the end, it is a video game. People like to feel like they're making progress and becoming more powerful in a world like this.
All in all, I was impressed by Fallout 4's story. It grabbed me early and made me want to keep rolling the story quests in a way that Skyrim never quite managed; and in the end, I was quite satisfied with my character's arc.