Fallout Shelter is the rarest of things — a free-to-play mobile game that isn’t explicitly designed to fleece the player. A worthy –if very different — addition to the Fallout brand.
This review of Fallout Shelter is based on the iOS version. It is also available on Android, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows.
Vault 999 is running smoothly. I’ve got seventeen pregnant women operating pumps and heavy machinery, serving food, broadcasting radio signals and churning out medical supplies. There are two blokes in the doorway with rocket launchers and body armour, waiting to repel any would-be invaders; my most virile dweller is mooching around in the living quarters, serially impregnating everyone who happens by, and about three hours ago I sent one lucky chap out into the irradiated wasteland, though I’ve just remembered I haven’t checked on him since.
Maybe I should feel bad about the bulk of my workforce being in its third trimester, but frankly, I can’t see any downside to it. Mums-to-be in Fallout Shelter get a spiffy yellow t-shirt, unbridled happiness and, oddly, the gift of immortality. They’re ideal workers. There’s no decline in their productivity, they can toil around the clock without food or water, and if a fire breaks out or Raiders invade, they do the sensible thing and run away. If it were up to me I’d get the kids involved too, seeing as how when they’re born they stroll smugly out of the elevator like biology ain’t a thing, but apparently child labour is where the game draws the line.
Is Fallout Shelter’s cavalier attitude to women and children a razor-sharp satirization of 1950s family values? Hell, maybe. It has that fifties-era cutesy aesthetic, and the series has always been about parodying archaic ideologies. If you root around in the guts of any fictional world you’ll probably find all kinds of insightful social commentary – intentional or otherwise. Vice versa, too: spend enough time looking for it, and you’re sure to stumble across something which doesn’t necessarily gel with your personal philosophies. But in Fallout Shelter, a game which solely revolves around the accruing and balancing of resources, it’s easy to boil away all the extraneous, bothersome morality and just regard everything in the game – up to and including people – as differently-shaped commodities.
That’s the point, this time around. Shelter isn’t a traditional Fallout experience, but instead a Tiny Tower-style management game which casts you as an Overseer of your very own Vault. It’s up to you to keep the lights on, the water drinkable and the entrances well-guarded, all the while enticing new, oblivious inhabitants into your little nest of slave labour and sexual predators. It’s not a genre I necessarily care for, but if my metric for the quality of these things is how temporarily obsessed I become over the well-being of these bug-eyed little people, you can consider Fallout Shelter a resounding success.
There are lots of things which don’t appeal to me about these endless, repetitive games, but in fairness to this one, none of them are really Fallout Shelter’s fault. I’m generally opposed to the idea of repeating a task for its own sake; of biding my time secure in the knowledge that there’s no endpoint to be reached; of putting time and effort into developing a multi-faceted, fully-functioning subterranean paradise when the only thing to do with it is, eventually, abandon it. Fallout Shelter doesn’t – can’t, really – convince me that this whole trend in mobile gaming isn’t an utter waste of time, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something remarkably compelling about this particular example of it.
Part of that is, undeniably, down to style and personality, which evokes that of the series’ mascot, Pip-Boy. Fair enough. But another, bigger part of it is simply old-fashioned, lizard-brain-tickling good design, the kind that has you up in the middle of the night collecting batches of resources that your precious little Dwellers have churned out while you were away. Your Vault, like most things in life, starts small, and the satisfaction in watching it expand and develop under your fingertips is, I imagine, what old people get out of planting seeds. It’s the pride of bringing something into the world, rearing it, and eventually watching it turn away from you and go off to do its own thing. After a while, Fallout Shelter feels slightly resentful of your interference, and that’s a good thing. When you cut ties to your Vault, you get the sense it’ll be okay without you.
In the meantime, though, your Vault requires nurturing, initially by creating a steady output of your three most valuable resources: power, clean water and food. It’s all done in individual rooms, each with a specific function, and up to three placed adjacently to one another will result in one huge, dedicated facility. Power plants keep the lights on, pumping stations ensure your Dwellers don’t get poisoned, and diners keep everyone fed. Your Vault’s basic operation requires constant production of these essentials, and over time each room offers up a bunch for collection with a prod of a grubby, eager finger.
That same finger is used to drag and drop your Dwellers into the various rooms, each of which requires workers to function. Another, more overt connection to the Fallout brand is the implementation of the SPECIAL – Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck – system which governs their attributes and suitability to various tasks. Assigning the right people to the right rooms will increase your production rate; by way of example, Dwellers with high Strength are better-suited to maintaining the power plant, while the diners run more efficiently when operated by Dwellers specializing in Agility (because of reasons).
Progression unlocks more rooms, each with a specific function. Some, like science labs and medical bays, create consumables, most of which will be sent with various Dwellers out into the Wasteland. Training rooms allow Dwellers to improve their SPECIAL stats. A radio station will, apparently, lure more potential Dwellers to your Vault, but frankly, I didn’t see it have much of an effect. The far quicker, more reliable way of increasing your citizenry is to make frequent use of the living quarters, which, if filled with men and women, allow for speech-captioned flirting and, eventually, behind-closed-doors reproduction. I’m sure that the most efficient way of doing this is to flood these quarters with as many pairings as possible, but I personally found it much funnier to have the same guy impregnate every woman who showed up. I don’t want to encourage any negative lifestyle choices in my lovely readership, but all I’m saying is this guy’s happiness level was through the roof at all times and he was by far the most productive member of my society. So incorporate that into your personal lives however you see fit.
There’s also stuff going on outside your Vault, and by dragging an unsuspecting Dweller beyond its doors you can send them into the Wasteland to forage for additional resources and more valuable outfits and weaponry. This all occurs off-screen, but their progress can be monitored through entertaining real-time diary entries which chronicle their journey. Longer adventures carry more risk of death but also promise more rewards, so it’s up to you how long you leave your Dwellers to fend for themselves.
Your intrepid Dwellers can be killed, yes, but they can also be revived for a moderate price, and astonishingly Fallout Shelter has only one currency (somewhat less astonishingly, that currency is bottle caps). It’s so rare for a free-to-play game to not have a premium currency that I spent a faintly ridiculous amount of time trawling through all the available menus to try and find one, but no, seriously, there’s only one currency and it’s used for everything. Christ, how refreshing. And what’s more, bottlecaps are earned pretty liberally – almost everything you do carries a financial reward, in fact, and there aren’t any obnoxious paywalls gating your progress. Everything you build and implement is built and implemented instantaneously, and the whole thing moves at such a generous clip that rarely had I put my phone down for more than ten minutes before a notification popped up telling me I had some more duties to attend to.
Fallout Shelter is all about a gradual increase in scale and efficiency, so naturally, each new level of progress opens up more avenues of expansion and development. Buried rocks can be removed to expand your Vault’s potential size, and that space can be filled with more diverse rooms – all of which can, in turn, be upgraded. You have the option to rush production if you wish (doing so allows for a slight monetary bonus and faster access to resources) but most of the time you won’t need to; everything in Fallout Shelter runs with pleasantly surprising regularity, and nothing ever feels like an arbitrary restriction designed to exasperate you into pulling out your credit card. I said earlier that this genre isn’t really for me, and that’s true for the reasons stated, but it’s also true because I haven’t yet encountered a better way for money-hungry developers to bend me over and **** me. And, predictably, Fallout Shelter does have in-app purchases – namely Lunchboxes, which contain cards that unlock anything from resources and bottlecaps to unique, powerful gear, and specific Dwellers based on popular characters from the Fallout series. But the thing is, even though this stuff is there, it doesn’t offend me, because I never felt as though my progress was being impeded by not ponying up a few extra quid. I think what makes me so amenable to Fallout Shelter is that its priorities are in the right place; it doesn’t focus on funnelling you into situations where you need to shell out cash in order to progress, but instead ensures you want to by making the core gameplay fast and rewarding in itself. It’s very much a game meant to be played in small sessions, and it’s absolutely based around waiting for things to cool down, build up or just generally happen, but all of this feels by design. And there’s really nothing wrong with a game designed to occupy you while you’re sitting on the toilet or enduring the horrors of public transport.
There are, of course, things wrong with Fallout Shelter outside of the obligatory freemium baggage. It can get sedentary at times, and that’s a problem which becomes more noticeable as you progress. Attempting to rush production can result in one of two random “emergencies” occurring, either a Radroach infestation or spontaneous fires, but they’re both dealt with naturally and only result in a slight loss of health (assuming they’re not completely avoided by being patient). The only real threat to your Vault and its inhabitants are Raiders, who occasionally invade with the intention of murdering everyone inside. The first time this happens it feels exciting and dynamic; the Raiders zip from room to room, chasing down and battering your unsuspecting Dwellers. Anyone in the same room as the aggressors will automatically rush to the Vault’s defence, but perplexingly your Dwellers will never follow the Raiders elsewhere. This results in you having to drag your defenders around in pursuit, indicating where you want them to go, watching them slowly, slowly take the elevator to the appropriate level, and then inevitably drag them somewhere else when the Raiders have already moved on by the time they arrive. It’s sloppy, ill-thought-out design in a game brimming with the exact opposite, so the whole thing stands out more than it otherwise would. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but a fairly noticeable issue all the same.
It says a lot, then, that this is still something you look forward to, for a break in the formula if nothing else. Shelter gleefully takes the Fallout name and aesthetic, but it doesn’t feel as brimming with opportunity as the main series of games. In a way that’s expected – it’s a mobile title and a free-to-play one at that. But the premise seems so ripe that you can’t help but be slightly disappointed with how few deviations it makes from the standard template. Outside of the occasional Raider invasions, there’s no spontaneity here – even in things which, at least in my mind, seem fairly standard. More than two Vault emergencies would be nice, and different methods of dealing with them even better. Random people – even a bog-standard merchant – showing up at the door would help. And really, if you’re finally giving players a chance to fulfil the role of an Overseer in one of the Vaults which have famously been used to conduct behavioural experiments on their inhabitants, the inability to do that is really inexcusable. I had a lot of fun tormenting my Dwellers and making up their own little backstories – the sexual deviant in the lounge had a particularly chequered past – but it would be nice if the game gave me props for that.
Still, though. Fallout Shelter is really good. At its heart, it’s a game based around manipulating the player, but that comes with the territory. It never feels exorbitant though, and it never feels like its holding you to ransom, which is really how every F2P game could – and should – feel. Eventually, the game’s appeal will expire for you as it did for me; there will come a point when all you’re doing is jabbing at the screen to collect resources you don’t need and level up Dwellers you don’t care about. But by the time you reach that point, you’ll feel as though you’ve done your duty. You’ve created this thriving little community full of creepy incestuous weirdos and it could, conceivably, go on forever. I like that idea. In a game explicitly designed to waste your time, the best lie you can tell yourself is that you’re not wasting your time with it. So even though I’ve removed Fallout Shelter from my phone and I’ll almost certainly never play it again, that’s okay. In my head, Vault 999 is still running smoothly.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.