On the battlefield, D&D Fourth edition plays a lot like chess or Axis & Allies, with no guessing as to what a specific unit's capabilities may be. But because it's also a role-playing game, it feels more like a fantasy or action film, with moments of heightened action balanced with the down-time of role-playing or exploration. It's impossible to create a character in Fourth edition that must hide in the back of a party, doing nothing, in order to feel safe. Even at first level, you will always have something to do and important decisions to make.
There is a cost. In order to make each class balanced and important at all levels, Andy Collins and the design team at WOTC needed to dissociate a character's powers from the expected reality. We had an argument here in the office of The Escapist about Fourth edition's dissociative mechanics, with many gamers questioning why a rogue could perform his neato Trick Strike only once per day or what exactly happens when a paladin "marks" an enemy. I agree that explaining these powers in real-world terms is futile. The grognards pointed out that the logic of OD&D is better equipped to simulate how a gritty fantasy world could work.
But that is simply not what all gamers want to play. There is value in a frenetic system that allows each player character to feel meaningful across all levels, capable of cinematic stunts and strategic training, just as it is valuable to inhabit a world that is brutal at first level, rewarding players for longevity with the notoriety needed to attract followers and henchmen. It all comes down to Cinematic versus Simulation. D&D Fourth Edition is more suited to the former, while OD&D (and other earlier editions of D&D) delivers the latter.
So put down the torches and stop the flame wars. It's possible for 4E and other systems to coexist in the roleplaying game landscape because they offer different experiences to the player. Choosing to play one or the other is a matter of preference, similar to those who enjoy power-gaming, where you maximize the benefit of your character, versus stricter role-playing, where no meta-talk is allowed around the table and every word you utter, your character says.
All of these options are valid, and some of them aren't even mutually exclusive. If these fly over your head like an ancient red dragon, as a new player, I recommend sitting in a game with as many different GMs as you can. You will soon learn to recognize the differences between their styles and how they use a particular system's strengths; you'll be able to have a more informed choice as to which permutation of GM and system is the most fun for you.
Which is what our hobby is all about.
Greg Tito realizes that there are other role-playing systems than the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but he decided confine the discussion for the sake of clarity. Also, D&D rules.