Bethesda dropped plenty of megaton announcements, pun intended, during their E3 Press Conference. The new Doom, Dishonored 2 and of course Fallout 4 all got fans raving. But one thing that fans weren’t expecting to get excited over is a humble mobile game.
Hot off the heels of the press conference on June 14th, Fallout Shelter was released for iOS. And after two months of jealously grumbling in the corner, android users like myself got their hands on it on August 13th.
Bethesda Softworks makes a mostly graceful transition from developing gargantuan, open-world games to developing smaller mobile ones. Like the Fallout games that inspired it, Fallout Shelter manages to provide an enjoyable and strategic experience. But unlike the games that inspired it, the game won’t keep you entertained for long.
In Fallout Shelter, you are the overseer of a vault, an underground building that provides protection to dwellers from the fires of nuclear war. Now that the dust has settled, you need to keep your dwellers happy and safe from the harshness of the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
You do so primarily through keeping three resources in check: power, food, and water. Power allows different rooms of the vault to operate while food and water allows your dwellers to live. You get resources by assigning your dwellers to work at different production rooms. Once dwellers have worked at a station for a while, you can harvest the resources by tapping on the screen.
Assigning dwellers to work is where the bulk of the strategy comes into play. Just like in the Fallout games, each dweller has a different set of SPECIAL stats: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. Each production room in the vault uses a different stat, and the more points in a stat a dweller has, the more efficient he/she is and the sooner you can harvest resources. In addition, dwellers working at a room that coincides with their highest SPECIAL stat have higher happiness levels, which makes them even more efficient.
Strategy also comes in the form of building production rooms, with gameplay reminiscent of the base-building in 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You can spend bottle caps, the game’s currency, to build new production rooms and upgrade production rooms that are already built. Production rooms of both the same kind and level can merge if built next to each other, creating higher efficiency.
Your vault lives and dies by the careful placement of dwellers and production rooms, and it opens up a lot of tough calls as resources start to dwindle. In my playthrough, there was one time where my power kept draining, which shut down my water production room, which led to a water shortage, which lead to my dwellers getting radiation poisoning, which lead to lower happiness, which lead to lower efficiency and which lead to decreased production of the other two resources. It was a mess. But I noticed that I still had plenty of food, so I moved some dwellers from my kitchens to the power and water stations to balance everything out. I also built a science lab to create radaway packs to cure my dwellers’ radiation poisoning and raise their happiness and efficiency. It’s moments like these that keep you invested in the game.
Success also comes with utilizing the rush feature. It takes anywhere from a minute to 10 to get resources, but instead of waiting, you can have your dwellers work more hastily in order to get resources instantaneously. If the rush is successful, then you are rewarded with extra caps and experience points in addition to the resources you normally gain. The only catch is that a rush has a chance to fail, which can lead to a fire or a radroach invasion and take you longer to get resources. Rushing creates an engaging risk/reward system that can get you out of a jam if you use it wisely. However, I would have liked it if the chance of failing gets lower as you get closer to getting resources, as that would have removed some frustration. What’s the point of rushing if you’re 30 seconds away from getting resources?
The game has plenty of other mechanics to keep you on your toes. Accidents occur regularly, such as raider or even deathclaw attacks, so you have to remain vigilant so you can send in extra dwellers to a room to stop the accident quicker. You can send dwellers out into the wasteland, preferably stuffed to the gills with healing stimpacks and radaways, to fight monsters for experience points and scavenge for caps and loot. It may seem like a lot, but the game slowly introduces you to things and you get the hang of it fairly quickly.
Objectives, such as getting a set number of resources or stopping a set number of incidents, pop up for you to achieve as you go about your business. One thing I like about objectives is that once a day you can choose to get rid of one in favor of another if you think that it’s too easy or inconvenient for you to do (who wants to hunt for two bald dwellers?).
One particularly amusing mechanic is breeding dwellers to get more dwellers. Amusing because you can put two people in the living quarters, who many not even know each other from Adam, and in a matter of minutes they fall head over heels in love, go in the back room, emit some smiley faces, and end up with a pregnancy. Any two dwellers can mate, regardless of personality or even age (as long as they aren’t children, of course). One dweller can have multiple partners and everyone else doesn’t even bat an eye. I guess if you’re living in a dying world, why not celebrate life whenever you can?
The game is free-to-play, and Bethesda Softworks vaults over some truly intrusive free-to-play pitfalls. There’s never a moment where regular content is locked behind a paywall. This is a huge plus, especially in a world where games like last year’s Dungeon Keeper for mobile makes you wait not minutes, not hours, but days in order to progress. It shouldn’t be such a plus, but that’s just the world we live in.
The only form of microtransactions come in the form of lunchboxes and Mr. Handy robots. The lunchboxes contain a random assortment of caps, resources, weapons, and even stronger dwellers based off of characters from Fallout 3 (with one from the upcoming Fallout 4). The Mr. Handy robots can harvest resources automatically and go into the wasteland to hunt exclusively for caps. Neither of these options are a must-get, especially the latter, as you can do without them just fine. In fact, you can get lunchboxes for completing harder objectives. But they are definitely an option as the do provide a nice boost.
There’s no doubt that Fallout Shelter has plenty of meaty options to keep you engaged. That’s why it’s such a shame that the experience only remains engaging for three to four hours.
You see, eventually you’ll have enough rooms and dwellers that your vault becomes self-sustainable even if you only check it once or twice a day. And the crisis situations that kept you invested become few and far between. You can even raise your dwellers’ SPECIAL stats using training rooms, making the vault even more autonomous. The strategy of dweller placement is still there, but it becomes more and more automated.
You can even rush three or four times in a row without an accident. And even if you do have one, the effects are negligible at that point. In fact, I often find myself purposely rushing over and over again in the hope that I can get into an accident in order to satisfy an objective. Because at that point, the objectives are the only things keeping you playing.
The only way to keep the engagement level up is to purposely make it harder for yourself, such as by having all your female dwellers pregnant and unable to work. I suppose it’s fitting to do so given the experiments conducted by overseers in the Fallout series. But when you have to actually try to make the game more fun, that’s when you know the developers messed up.
Once your vault becomes automated, you realize how pointless everything is. There’s no real reason to grow the vault other than to unlock more rooms to build and for the sake of having more stuff. Your vault can remain sustainable even at a small size. Plus, dwellers come in so infrequently that if you’re not breeding or using the radio station, then there’s no reason to expand to accommodate new dwellers. It’s still addictive to care for your vault and grow it for the sheer need of having more stuff, even after your base turns into a Ford car factory, but then your patience wears thin until you realize that you’re just wasting your time.
When I came back to my vault after leaving it untouched for about a month, it was still in working order. That’s all you need to know.
Once the game becomes monotonous, you start to notice its smaller shortcomings. The touch screen controls can be downright frustrating, especially as your base grows bigger and you have to move around more and more. You often accidentally pick up a dweller and move them outside of their assigned room when you meant to just move the screen. When something important happens, usually an accident, the screen automatically zooms into the room where said event takes place, robbing you of your control and delaying your response.
Since you can only fight raiders once they enter your vault, there’s no point on upgrading the vault door because it just delays them coming into your vault. And they just run into the first room after the entrance, usually the one filled with people armed to the teeth at all times, so there’s no point in having dwellers guard the entrance.
For pete’s sake, when you fill a requirement for an objective, the notification that pops up in the lower right corner can go in front of the rush button!
I really, really want to love Fallout Shelter. Its mechanics and strategy are so simple yet complex that it’s easy to fall in love with it early on. And it’s a great example of how to do free-to-play and still make a fortune without having obtrusive premium options that psychologically batter the player (the game made $5.1 million in two weeks!). But because of the ease of making your vault sustainable, the pointlessness of growth, the spotty camera control and more, the game has the life span of an irradiated feral ghoul, i.e. not long. And the lack of free, substantial updates kills the longevity even more. Of course, due to the addictive nature of the game, you’re bound to play it long after it grows stale.
If you hoped that Fallout Shelter will quench your thirst for Fallout 4, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you’re looking for a free idle game to check a few times in the day, then this is up your alley. But for fans of strategy games, you’ll just feel like you’re trapped in a Skinner box. Or should I say a Skinner vault?