Gimme shelter! That’s another bad joke I could have used as the headline for this review.
Released: June 14, 2015
Free-to-play, with items purchased by myself
With a surprise announcement and release at E3, Fallout Shelter was delivered unto iOS devices to tide us all over until the November launch of Fallout 4. If my current addiction to the thing is anything to go by, it’s doing a great job of keeping me occupied until I can personally blast Mole Rats in the face.
Shelter places you in the role of Overseer, giving you your very own vault to maintain and run. Inspired by the likes of Tiny Tower, it’s a resource management game in which you craft your own little Wasteland sanctuary, building rooms to keep the lights on and water free of radiation, drawing new inhabitants into your community, and sending folk out to forage for money and equipment.
While doing nothing particularly fresh with the idea, the Fallout flavor lends an inescapable magnetism to the whole thing. Its cartoon style is based on the series’ mascot Vault Boy, with vault dwellers represented as cutesy characters sporting big heads and dead eyes. A fifties-era aesthetic adorns in-game text and menus successfully mimic the Pip-Boy look.
Like most titles of its kind, Fallout Shelter is a game of accruing and balancing resources, pretty much for its own sake. You need to build a power plant to keep other rooms operated, a water pumping station so dwellers don’t get poisoned, and a diner to produce food. These three resources – power, water, and food – require constant production to keep the Vault going, and each room regularly produces them in batches over time.
Each room needs dwellers working in it, with assignment being a simple drag-and-drop command. Assigning the right people to the right place is important, too. Every citizen has its own SPECIAL rating – the vital stats familiar to anybody who’s ever played a Fallout game – and assigning workers with the correct attributes can improve your production rate. Dwellers with high strength, for example, are best at maintaining the power plant, while the diner suits those specializing in agility.
Other rooms are unlocked as the game progresses, each with their own unique uses. Science labs and med bays produce RadAways and Stimpacks respectively, which are used by dwellers in the field to heal up after encounters. The radio station can attract new occupants to the vault, while various training rooms improve the SPECIAL stats of your citizens.
Living quarters are where dwellers can be sent to get to know each other, and its common function is the production of babies. By sticking a man and a woman in this room, they’ll flirt with each other until enough time passes, at which point they’ll disappear behind closed doors for a few seconds and get some pregnancy happening. The woman, now with child, can perform most of her duties (though sadly runs around uselessly in the event of disaster) and will eventually give birth to a child who eventually grows up to be another useful worker.
Naturally, all these rooms can be upgraded to boost efficiency. Production facilities may also be “rushed” in order to produce resources faster. By rushing your production, you’ll gain a monetary bonus and fast access to materials, but there is a percentage chance of failure. On a fail, the workers will have to put out fires or fight Radroaches, losing health in the process.
That’s not the only disaster to worry about, either – Raiders occasionally invade the vault, and you’ll want well-armed dwellers to rush to its defense. Fighting is performed automatically by whoever is in the room with aggressors, and you’ll need to drag reinforcements to the battle yourself. While initially exciting, combat is a little frustrating due to the fact that dwellers won’t chase Raiders who leave the room. You have to constantly re-assign your fighters to keep chasing them, and the whole thing comes off as a little sloppy.
New outfits and weapons can be obtained by sending your toughest hombres out into the Wasteland itself. By dragging a person’s silhouette outside, you can send them to explore, assigning them weaponry and healing items before letting them roam. Progress of those in the field can be checked up on thanks to handy and entertaining diaries, detailing their encounters with monsters and any loot they pick up. Those who spend too long outside risk death, so it’s a good idea to recall anybody who’s stumbled upon valuable stuff – though those who are killed can be revived for a price.
Speaking of prices, there is only one form of currency in the game – bottlecaps. While most free-to-play games use a premium currency alongside a more worthless form of funds to psychologically trick players into opening their real-life wallets, caps are enough in Shelter to pay for everything – they’re used to buy and upgrade rooms, revive fallen dwellers, and remove buried rocks to expand the vault’s potential size. They’re earned fairly liberally, too – earned by successful rushes, foragers in the Wasteland, and dwellers who gain new experience levels through work.
There is no paying to rush production, which is itself regular enough to never feel like an overbearing restriction. Rather than gate progress behind a paywall like many popular mobile games, Shelter does not attempt to exasperate you into stumping up your cash to pass some arbitrary gates. Any rooms you build are instantly implemented, too – none of this “pay us a few bucks to use the room now” garbage.
That said, there are things to buy. Lunchboxes contain special cards that unlock gear, caps, and resources. While they might be earned in-game by completing objectives, they may also be bought for roughly a buck a box. Cards can contain rare and valuable items, too – from unique vault dwellers based on popular Fallout characters, to powerful armor and weaponry, such as Charon’s Shotgun or the King of the Wasteland outfit.
Shelter is perfectly playable without having to spend money, but I have to confess that I want to spend money on it. It’s fun to unlock new cards and attract the likes of Mr. Burke or Butch to your vault, and there’s something exciting about buying a handful of boxes and seeing what you get. Unlike other “freemium” games, however, I’ve never felt forced to buy things. I’ve done it because I’ve enjoyed the game, not because I’ve felt stuck and harassed into purchasing stuff.
In this manner, Fallout Shelter is everything Dungeon Keeper Mobile could – and should – have been, had Electronic Arts not gotten so blinded by greed that it created one of the most offensive abuses of the free-to-play mechanic in gaming’s history. It’s still manipulation at its core – that’s the nature of the F2P beast – but it’s more empowering and less sleazy than its peers.
While it is, by design, a game based around cooldowns and waiting to acquire things, it’s not exorbitant by any means. It’s meant to be played in small bursts, though every time I’ve stopped playing, I’ve gotten a notification very soon after that a production facility is ready to collect from. There are no ridiculous 24-hour waiting periods here.
Most of the problems with Shelter stem from problems of the genre itself. There’s not a lot of interactivity once you’ve gotten your vault in working order, and progress is fairly formulaic. You’ll spend most of your time tapping all over the screen to collect your resources or level up your dwellers. This isn’t bad, but for a game with the Fallout name, I’d have loved more.
While playing, I found myself longing for things such as merchants arriving at the door, more ways to interact directly with my dwellers, and more dilemmas to face outside of fires, roaches, or raiders. Most importantly, I wish there were ways to create your own Vault-Tec style experiments – famously, the vaults of Fallout were less about protection and more about screwing with the inhabitants to observe their behavior. That there’s no way to play your overseer as, well, an overseer in the Fallout universe feels like a missed opportunity.
Shelter looks gorgeous with its cute art style and slick animations. I especially love how there’s a sense of depth to the world, as scrolling through the vault causes the walls and floors of each room to shift perspective. When zooming out as far as possible, dwellers seem to freeze as animation shuts down, but otherwise it moves gorgeously and runs fantastic on an iPad Air 2. Each room has its own distinct visual style, jammed with references – from Nuka Cola bottles in the living quarters, to the first-aid boxes in the med bay.
I find the sound a little lacking, however. When zoomed in on individual rooms, there can be some nice music and sound effects, but otherwise the sound of the vault is an unappealing wall of churning noise. Some music options or more dynamic sound as you scroll through the vault would have been nice.
Fallout Shelter may not do much to stand out from the pack in terms of interactivity, but it’s still a game that gets its claws deep into you WITHOUT using the blatant psychological beatings or cynical paywalls employed by far too many mobile releases. It’s a fantastic example of how to do a free-to-play game correctly, and the fact it’s made so much money already through the carrot rather than the stick only goes to show what happens when you don’t treat your audience like cattle.