It's impossible to kill your pet dog in "Fallout 4." Oddly, that's a problem.
Hear us out.
The latest game in the popular post-apocalyptic series launches Tuesday, and critics are predictably hailing it as a triumph. Tech Insider's Ben Gilbert says, "It's easily one of the best games released this year, if not in the last several years or more."
The praise isn't surprising -- much of the "Fallout" series has been rapturously received since the first game's debut in 1997 -- but it is disappointing. "Fallout 4" isn't a bad game, but there's no reason to hail it as the best this year -- in fact, there's plenty of reason not to.
And a lot of that has to do with your pet dog's invincibility.
"Fallout 4," like other games in the series, is an open-world roleplaying game tinged with shooter elements. For the buzzword-averse, that basically means you create a character at the start of the game -- designing his or her face and physique down to the thickness of moles -- and then navigate a sprawling universe. There's a core storyline about retrieving your kidnapped child, but you can also spend your time wandering around or engaging in other plotlines and missions.
The formula is much the same as it was in "Fallout 3" and "Fallout: New Vegas," as well as titles like "Skyrim," also from "Fallout" publisher Bethesda Softworks.
The idea is that you're supposed to feel like you're part of a living, breathing world, free to make a variety of important decisions about life and death and whether that mutated cockroach meat is safe to eat. In a sense, all of this executed properly could be the perfect showcase of what video games are capable of being in 2015: experiences that transport you in a fundamentally different and perhaps more immersive way than film, television, graphic novels and the like.
The problem is that, as ever, the gameplay needs in "Fallout 4" -- not to mention its glitches -- are at odds with its desire to deliver a cohesive world. You can and will mow down "wild mongrels" and gigantic, irradiated bugs -- then, you'll acquire a pet dog that's seemingly impervious to bullets. If you happen to unload an entire clip of ammunition into the dog from your automatic rifle (accidentally, of course), the animal just stands there and doesn't die, despite the fact that it sprays blood after every shot.
In fairness, if the dog gets in the way of an absurd amount of carnage, it will eventually become injured and whimper a bit. But swing a baseball bat once at an evil human "raider" and you may just rip his arm clean off. It's ridiculous.
Obviously there's no reason to kill your pet dog. It's cute! Its name is "Dogmeat." It helps you retrieve items in the game world and defends you against creepy crawlies. You certainly should not attempt to maim the poor thing. (Please believe that our reasons for doing so were, uh, journalistic.) And yet, the game is practically inviting you to plug a bullet into it -- just to see. You can interact with and kill basically everything else. Why not Dogmeat?
Apparently the pup's invulnerability is a design choice, touted months ago by the game's director. That's an odd choice for a series so specific in its realness that it lets you become addicted to alcohol and tweak the opacity of your "cheek blemishes" during character creation.
Listen, we don't really care about killing Dogmeat, but the pooch is the most obvious symptom of a major problem in the game. How can you become immersed in a world that isn't governed by consistent logic?
"Fallout 4" is often fun enough -- there's a certain addictive quality to exploring a vast world, reaching far-off destinations, saying the right thing to a skeptical character or sneaking around a band of marauding mutants. But "Fallout 4" is unable to be enchanting. An opening scene in your character's home becomes the very definition of stupidity if you go even a bit off the rails: Your spouse is talking to you while you're bumbling into furniture and prompting your character to give expository voiceover about the sugary cereal on the table.
But "Fallout" players expect that they should be able to investigate the cereal box. The more responsible role-players -- those as likely to play "Fallout 4" as they are "Dungeons and Dragons" -- would probably patiently listen to their spouse, wait for a quiet moment and then press "X" on the Sugar Bombs. Video games, though, are about action, and the player can't be blamed for taking action -- even if it produces awkward, chuckle-worthy moments in the game world.
Sure, sometimes the action is slow, as in the quiet progression in "Passage," but games are uniformly about input and output. Press a button and Mario jumps; press "left" and Pac-Man turns.
"Fallout 4," like its predecessors, misses that in its rush to be a video game that is more about a living world. In doing so, it proves both how far games have come as aesthetic objects and how clunky the medium can be when it tries to accomplish everything.