Fallout Shelter is the first mobile game from desktop and console giant Bethesda Softworks, of fame primarily for their work on the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. Bethesda is no stranger to success, and the titles developed by their in-house division (Bethesda Game Studios) have generally been smash hits. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim were all highly successful games, and the upcoming Fallout 4 already has fans hugely excited for the next installment of the modernized post-nuclear role-playing phenomenon.
Fallout Shelter is, essentially, a tease for this game. It's about giving fans of the franchise (and new players, of course) a little handout to say, "Hey, thanks for liking Fallout, maybe pre-order Fallout 4 ???" And that's what makes Fallout Shelter so likeable - in principle. To get to the point: at no junction does this game demand you spend any money at all. It's not even encouraged. And that's because this game is a marketing tool - it's just about promoting the brand. Can you spend money in Fallout Shelter? Sure. But doing that to the tune of more than $5-10 would kind of be like buying an entire set of collectible trading cards, or getting to skip every line in an amusement park. Sure, it might be fun initially, but it would actually make things worse by the time all was said and done. It would take away from the magic, the joy of the game, of patience rewarded.
Most free-to-play games understand this quite well [and abuse it like an offshore corporate tax haven]. No matter how much money you throw at them, they're generally quite happy to let you get to a point where you're going to want or need more. Those are the mechanics of the business - you have to keep players coming back. Fallout Shelter is, oddly, quite the opposite. Initially, you might want to spend a few dollars just to jump-start your vault (more on the mechanics later), but once you're at a population of 100+ and everybody's got a gun and outfit to equip, spending real money makes even less sense. And that's actually the game's primary drawback - there is very little to keep you coming back after a couple weeks of consistent play. I'm personally pretty much over it at this point. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Fallout Shelter: The Long Version
Fallout Shelter is a beautifully simple game from a structural point of view. You have a vault. You can build rooms in the vault, and people can do things in the rooms. The vault is just a two-dimensional grid laid out like you're looking inside an ant farm (except it's a people farm). Rooms are 1x3 in dimension, elevator shafts (of which you only need one, thankfully) are 1x1, and most rooms can be "merged" - just build the same room type next to it, and it will expand into a 1x6, and you can add one more room next to that for a 1x9. The latter is the maximum size of any room. You keep building and building to advance in the game.
A single 1x3 room
Inside these rooms, you place your vault dwellers, grabbing them Roller Coaster Tycoon style and plucking them up and setting them down where you'd like them to go. What happens in the rooms? Things! Let's explain the basic mechanics.
The first mechanic to know is resources. You have power (electricity), water, and food. Those are your necessities. You have a baseline requirement for each of these resources, and you gather them by building rooms that generate them. If you have insufficient power, some of your other rooms will stop functioning. If you have insufficient water or food, your vault dwellers will start losing health over time. The only reason I can tell that water and food are separate resources is that Bethesda felt like there needed to be three things to "balance" production of. You also have caps, which are the currency you use to build and upgrade rooms.
Caps build buildings
The second mechanic is dwellers. Your vault starts with a few people, and from there you go through a tutorial explaining how to build rooms, which rooms to build, how they work, and how to progress. Here's the gist: you build your three resource rooms, you assign people to them, and then you also build "living quarters." Living quarters are where your vault dwellers will produce offspring (the euphemism for sex in Fallout Shelter is a confetti-explosion of happy-faces in front of an obscured corridor in the living quarters), and those offspring eventually become adults, and those adults eventually go on to work in rooms or produce other offspring. The details go beyond that, but we'll get there.
The dweller management system (a scrollable list) is completely unwieldy later in the game
The third and final major mechanic is the wasteland. The wasteland isn't something you interact with - you send vault dwellers into the wastes and they go "explore." You can monitor the status of their exploration via text feed on the exploration UI (you can't actually see what they're doing). During exploration, your dwellers will gather currency, weapons, and outfits. They will also fight enemies and gain experience in doing so. Over time, they will take more and more damage (you can supply them with HP potions [stimpaks] and anti-radiation consumables [Rad-Away]) as the wasteland increases in difficulty the longer they're away from the vault. Eventually, you'll want to "recall" them to the vault so you can collect their plunder. During their return, they take no damage and have no encounters, so as long as you get to them while they're still alive, they'll come back.
Exploring the wasteland: a text-based adventure
Bethesda lays a pretty cut-and-dry groundwork for a game here, and I think that's intentional. By making the basic mechanics quite easy to understand, Fallout Shelter is a more approachable and friendly game than the sort of thing Bethesda typically makes. It's casual.
The depth comes in the form of learning how to expand your vault effectively without overstretching your resources or underdeveloping your vault dwellers. So let's talk about those.
As in the Fallout games of yore, your vault dwellers have something called their "S.P.E.C.I.A.L." stats. Those, in order, stand for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. They are the quintessential RPG character stats. Each dweller is born with pretty boring stats, and they also start at level one, so there is a leveling system, too. Leveling does not increase your SPECIAL stats. Instead, leveling only increases a dweller's hit points, and leveling is achieved by either working in a production room in the vault (making power, food, water, nuka-cola, stimpaks, or rad-away) or exploring the wasteland.
Character S.P.E.C.I.A.L., outfits, and weapons are visible in the character panel.
And the gains are passive - a character will gain experience while you're not playing, and they level up pretty often (my peak level character right now is at 32, though most are in their mid-high teens). Increasing SPECIAL stats has to happen in dedicated "training" rooms, with each room devoted to a particular stat. Over time, dwellers in these rooms will gain a single point in that stat, which you must acknowledge (you can't just leave the game sitting for days, sorry) for each point gained in order to continue the training. Obviously, the higher a given stat gets, the longer it takes for training to boost it another point. While training, dwellers gain no experience, either, and thus won't level up.
Skill of the dwellers operating a building determines how often that building spawns resources.
The purpose of the SPECIAL stats is in increasing the effectiveness of your dwellers at particular tasks. Want Johnny Nuclear to be better at running the power generator? Send him to the strength training room for a day. Once his strength is at the level you want, send him back to the generator room. Fallout Shelter doesn't just use these as a way to boost the output of resources from these rooms by quantity, but instead in terms of how long it takes the room to spawn new resources. Resources are managed in terms of an absolute quantity, but because they're consumed over time, Fallout Shelter doesn't want you building a ton of power rooms, hoarding a bunch of power, then destroying them so you can make more useful training areas or food production and otherwise attempt to game the system in some way. So, if you have a Level 3 Power Generator (each resource room can be upgraded twice to increase its production and the maximum amount of the resource you may store) that creates 40 power every time it "pops," increasing the combined Strength trait of dwellers working in that room from 10 to, say, 15, will decrease the amount of time between "pops." So you'll get 40 power every 90 seconds instead of every 120. Got it? It's a lot simpler in practice to understand than it is to write it out, trust me.
Charisma is boosted by "training" at the bar. No one can fault Bethesda's sense of humor.
Your dwellers' SPECIAL stats can also be boosted by outfits they can wear, outfits you'll get exploring the wasteland. All your adult dwellers can equip weapons, too (also found while exploring), and these weapons are used in events called "incidents." Once in a while, raiders will attack your vault. At this point, you should send two dwellers with guns (and high levels) to your vault entrance, and once the raiders inevitably break in to the vault, a fight will ensue. The fight mechanics are terrible and boring and lazy - it's completely automated and once you have a sufficiently high enough level group of dwellers with decent guns, completely devoid of any strategy or challenge. Worst part of the game, in my opinion. The other "incident" requiring guns is radroach infestations (read: giant, mean radioactive cockroaches), which occur both at random and when you attempt to "rush" a building into instantly producing resources and fail (success rates are typically 65-80%, though, if you don't try repeatedly). Radroach infestations and fires keep you honest in terms of equipping your workers with weapons and raising their stats, but again, just feel like annoyances. "Rushing" a building, by the way, is so far as I can tell just a band-aid Bethesda has put in the game to help people who aren't very good at games. It generally serves very little purpose.
"Rushing" instantly spawns resources in a room, but a rush can fail. Success rate varies by skill of the workers.
Finally, let's talk lunch boxes. Lunch boxes are the only thing you can spend real money on in the game. They contain "cards" - cards that give you resources, weapons, outfits, and rare and ultra-rare dwellers (you get a dweller card, that person moves into your vault) that are plucked from the Fallout universe. You can also get lunch boxes by completing achievements (aka the not cheating way), though Bethesda has made damn sure they're not too easy to come by - you have to work for those things.
The only thing you can buy in Fallout Shelter: lunch boxes.
There are other things to do in the game, too, but none of them are very important. Your main goal is to expand your vault, equip and train your dwellers, make them reproduce to get new dwellers (note: your dwellers do not age once they are adults that I can tell, so they live forever unless you let them die and don't revive them), and then repeat until you reach the bottom of the buildable space under the mountain. If this sounds pointless, congratulations: you've reached the critical crux of our review.
Fallout Shelter after a week already feels hilariously tedious and boring. I've invested maybe 10-12 hours in the game, reached sub-50K on the iOS leaderboard for the game (I just want to be clear that I did actually really play it), and I'm pretty much done with wanting to play it anymore. Here are a few reasons why that is.
- Once you've got 30+ rooms, managing the interface is a fucking nightmare. It's so bad. I'm on an iPad Air 2 - I cannot imagine trying this on a phone. It would be torturous. I'm constantly selecting dwellers accidentally, there are pop-up prompts that can't be ignored almost every time you start the app and ruin the flow of the game, and the interface is straight-up unresponsive at times. This part is rough.
- The pop-up prompts. Oh my god. Every time your dwellers get it on or have a child (happening constantly after a week into the game), you either get an interstitial popup letting you know you've got a new kid or get the camera force-dragged to the room where your dwellers are making the beast with two backs. You can name the offspring, which is cool, but this disrupts gameplay badly every time I launch the app after more than a few hours of off-time.
- You have to tap on each room to collect resources from it. When you have 15 resource-producing rooms, this isn't fun anymore, it's needlessly tedious. When you have five? Sure, it adds some "touchability" to the game. But later on, it's just a big pain in the ass and absolutely nothing else.
- Raids by... raiders, are terribly boring and easily the least fun part of the game. First, you have to drag your "A Team" dwellers to the entrance to engage in the fight, but you can only have two of them in there, so you need a "B Team" in the next room over for when the raiders inevitably lose interest and start running through your vault like kids on a Nuka Cola bender. Once you get the formula down, they're a non-challenge, and just break the flow of the game. Raids are not fun - they're awful, Bethesda. There's zero skill to them and they're just unwanted distractions.
- I have no idea what I'm progressing toward. More rare dwellers? Oh boy. So I can send them out exploring to collect more guns and outfits, with a solid guarantee that 90% of what they collect I already have (despite only having around 10-15% of the total weapons / outfits in the game)? There's no incentive. It's not worth the tedium for these truly tiny payoffs - only diehard fanboys care about this kind of minutia, and even I, a person who absolutely loves Fallout, just don't care about any of it. It's so joyless.
So, here's my opinion: Bethesda took a game that could be fun for a week and tried to use mechanics to stretch it into something that could be fun for 2-3 months, giving them enough time to add more content to the game. They failed. Fallout Shelter, despite never asking you to spend money, basically just gets worse the more you play it because you're constantly being badgered by intentionally annoying "speed bump" mechanics and other artificial barriers. This is a problem.
This is not organization. It is chaos.
So while the game is supremely popular now, I think Bethesda will find that popularity will wane quickly unless they specifically start tying in Fallout 4 to the game more. Get 200 dwellers in Fallout Shelter, get a special power armor aesthetic in Fallout 4? Yes please. Do that thing. There are so many ways this could be tied in that would make the mindless slog through Fallout Shelter worthwhile. Hell, even the offer of some exclusive lore or some special cutscenes could be enough to make this game a lot more interesting. As it is now, the player has absolutely no incentive to continue on aside from placing a low value on their own time.
Pictured: a designed disruption that really just serves to annoy players.
I have little doubt Bethesda has thought about content and other special tie-ins for Fallout 4, but I'm far less certain they'll actually do that sort of thing. Initially, I found Fallout Shelter at least somewhat novel and, for the first few days, the game really is kind of fun. When you don't have so much crap to manage, Fallout Shelter is mindless but pretty, and there's a lot of eye candy and little jokes if you poke around with the camera. But as a game? It's probably a lot like living in a vault would actually be: fun for a little while, but not much more than that.
Fallout Shelter will be out for Android eventually - Bethesda has not provided a release date. I reviewed the game using an iPad.