Somewhere, in the ashes of the post-apocalpyse, you’ll find at least one review for Fallout Shelter that read, “Bethesda did a mobile game right.” In a wasteland of glorified ads and time wasters, Fallout Shelter stands apart from the crowd as a shining example of what happens when you make a game players want to call home. A nuclear Zoo Tycoon fused with a Cold War Sim City, Bethesda’s ambitious experiment in the free-to-play scene makes an admirable life for itself in the fallout of its alternative atomic age while never quite convincing me that it’s a life worth living forever.
What could possibly go wrong in a Vault? In Fallout Shelter’s earliest (and funniest) moments, the answer is basically anything and everything. As new citizens are born or recruited into your vault, you must dig deep into a mountain to create Living Quarters for them to sleep, Water Treatment Plants to drink, Cafeterias to eat, and Power Plants to keep the lights on. Though their construction’s all instantaneous, their creation’s reliant on the shiny Caps that your Citizens make as they work and earn further resources in specific rooms. This simple economy’s built on skill – assign the right worker to the right job based on their states (strength, intelligence, perception, etc.) and they’ll earn, all of it in-game and none of it dependent on real world money, thank goodness.
In the minefield of micro-transations that is the allegedly free-to-play market, Fallout Shelter admirably keeps its amount of paid content in check. Among the game’s more appealing elements of chance are its coveted “cards” which players can either unlock via lunch boxes by completing objectives or buy for as little as $0.99 for a card to as much as $19.99 for 40. Each provides a type of weapon, costume, or item that could involve anything from a slick gambler’s to a wicked cool T-45d power suit. Given a little patience, cards are easy to unlock at least once a day and though their value is up to you, their “buy me!” presence is minimal. True to their word, Bethesda seems content with its players being invested in just their game.
In the vein of Murphy’s Law, anything that can happen will happen in Fallout Shelter. For the first few days, you might never feel like you have enough people or resources to man every station you need to put food on the table or a gun in every hand – something that speaks to the thoughtful choice-making that game’s defined by. I could spend minutes musing over my decision to build a casino when I needed a cafeteria or having my Citizens getting busy when they were on the clock. Every time it feels like you might be on track, my vault was being lit on fire, attacked by Mad Max rejects, or flooded by radroaches, knocking my feng-shui out of whack with the grim prospect of looking into my dwellers cold, dead eyes.
The good people of Vault 383 were rather fine folk under my care and getting to know your Citizens is where Fallout Shelter proves most entertaining. There was Michael J. Fox, who I thought always had a smile on his face and Clint Barton, who sired his own future Avengers team. Drawn in the series’ signature Vault Boy art-style, Citizens endearing (albeit sparse) dialogue effectively carry the mood of your vault and lend a dose of personality to the affair. Oversee a happy vault and your beaming Citizens will sing your praises, enjoying the luxury of gossiping about comics or romance novels. Oversee a failing Vault and you can hear their cries of anguish as their drop dead from radiation poisoning or starvation. *gulp*
Unfortunately, the bigger your vault grows, the more this balancing act disappears. Fallout Shelter gets easier the bigger your vault is – not harder. By the time my vault was up to 125 Citizens, I had at least a dozen lazily wandering the floors with no job at all long before it had hit maximum capacity of 200. My citizens wanted for nothing and though I could build even deeper, a fourth Nuclear Reactor or a fifth classroom seemed pointless in the face of my vault’s mountain of radaways and caps. Did I win? Is that it?
After a week or two of dedicated play, it seems that Fallout Shelter shows you all it has to offer, as addictive as it is. For days, I’d schedule my morning routine around checking up on my Vault like some glorified, human ant-farm, hoping my scouts had brought back a new treasure from the Wasteland or some familiar face from the games. Fallout Shelter gradually loses sight of what it’s fighting for. Vault objectives, which range from “make 1500 caps of water” to “find 10 weapons,” can get as cheap as equipping and un-equipping the rifles your Citizens already have for an extra lunch box. I can’t help but think that more complexly arranged rooms or customizable characters could extend the game for days. For Fallout Shelter, the war for survival never changes – not so much that it moves the goalpost.
Though it may lack the longevity of games like Animal Crossing and The Sims, Fallout Shelter tries its hand at world-building with class and character that can only grow with much-needed additions. The fun may be fleeting and the variety lacking, the experience feels like a solid and charming foundation for a longer and more involved game that just isn’t here – not yet, anyway. I’ll say that I have no regrets for the 30+ hours I sank into the hearts and minds of my Vault dwellers, no matter how ingloriously the obsession faded. Fallout Shelter is simply Fallout as it was intended to be – curt, cruel, and full of life’s little joys.