In "Fallout 4," you see the world set on fire.
In "Fallout 4," you see the world set on fire.

Expectations for “Fallout 4,” the latest installment of Bethesda Softworks' “Fallout” series, are astronomical. It's no understatement to say it's one of the most important titles of the year, and it certainly can compete for one of the most-hyped. Bethesda Game Studios has been working on this game for seven years and has succeeded in working its fans into a lather. It finally hits store shelves this week.

For the uninitiated, the “Fallout” series sets players down in a post-apocalyptic United States, destroyed in a massive global exchange of nuclear missiles. Different games have been set in different regions. The latest installment takes players to the Boston area and paints a much clearer picture of daily life, both pre- and post-apocalypse.

You get a brief glimpse of life as it was. Having discovered a way to harness nuclear power, the United States essentially is living out all of our Jetsons-like fantasies. Once the bombs drop, however, you and your family are sent underground and put on ice. When you, as the protagonist, wake up 200 years later, you find that things have not gone well for the commonwealth. There's a lot of looting and killing, and that's not even counting the challenges you face from radioactive mega-bugs, mutants and feral packs of your radiation-poisoned and zombified neighbors.

Bethesda is known for being a world-builder and, with “Fallout 4,” it brings even more of its characteristic sweep into play. In addition to fleshing out the history that leads up to Fallout's nuclear devastation, the developers have gone in with the detail brush to make the present world feel more alive than ever.

After a few days with the game, I've barely scratched the surface – or, ahem, the main storyline – thanks to a multitude of side-quests, characters to talk to and even just things to read. (You know that person in a museum tour group who has to read every plaque? That's me.)

That's a problem I have in all Fallout games. It's incredibly easy to lose hours to this game, because you want to persuade one more person to do something, fetch one more item or run down just one more alley. But in this one, I'm finding more than enough to keep me busy – and not just the normal touches such as the little jokes embedded in hackable computer files or some seriously amazing radio plays.

In “Fallout 4,” you can choose to build settlements to usher in the new world, which means this post-apocalyptic shooter pulls in elements of SimCity and other urban planning games. You can build settlements out of existing homes and break down items for materials you need to rebuild, such as steel and cloth. Crafting tables set throughout the world let you build furniture, generators, water purifiers and more. Other work benches let you modify your armor and weapons to suit your own tastes, provided you can carry the supplies you need.

Despite all that domesticity, this is still a shooting game. Fighting in “Fallout 4” is much the same as it ever was, and players can take advantage of the in-game aiming system known as V.A.T.S., which lets you take careful aim at critical points on enemies' bodies (though sometimes it is best to just shoot in their direction until they fall down dead). The new and customizable weapons add an extra layer to the combat, but it's largely familiar to anyone who's played the previous games.

The complexity of the game does lead to some playability problems. There is the odd glitch now and then: The review copy Bethesda provided to The Washington Post occasionally displayed the wrong pieces of dialogue during conversations, and there was the occasional stutter while playing on a PlayStation 4. Other reviewers have had larger problems, such as getting stuck in elevators. It's understandable that with game play so complicated, things can interact in unexpected ways that weren't caught by in-house testers. But too many bugs could turn players off.

“Fallout 4” is a critical title for Bethesda, as it looks to raise its profile. The company has a lot of cachet among gamers and within the industry - in addition to Fallout, the company's library includes Elder Scrolls games such as Skyrim. But it's recently made efforts to raise its profile even more. This was the first year that Bethesda Softworks - of which Bethesda Game Studios is a subsidiary - held its own opening press event at the E3 gaming convention. It's also launched a hub, Bethesda.net, to build a one-stop community for fans of Fallout, Doom, Dishonored and other Bethesda titles. “Fallout 4” had its own star-studded launch party in Los Angeles last week.

So has it met the hype? From what I've seen, the answer is yes. The game's sprawling world provides everyone a little something to like. You could really throw yourself into any of its avenues, or dabble in them all until you find what you like. And you can lose hours in pure, happy play – fiddling with decorations, chasing down criminals or just roaming the Wasteland in search of bleak and brutal combat. Such is the beauty of a sandbox. – Washington Post