Review: Fallout Shelter

By Owen Faraday 15 Jun 2015 0
I'm okay with the events that are unfolding currently. This is fine.

I am playing a video game featuring an underground vault full of miserable pregnant women who are slightly irradiated and dressed in hand-me-down combat fatigues. This isn't a Silence of the Lambs simulator: it's Bethesda's Fallout Shelter, the surprise iOS tie-in game that they unveiled at E3 yesterday.

If that description makes the game sound sinister, well... it's not as bad as all that. Post-apocalyptic fiction has a base level of despair built right into it, and the Fallout franchise has always preferred its comedy slightly black. If you line it up next to, say, The Road, Fallout Shelter is pretty light-hearted, considering.

Possibly almost as surprising as the subject matter is the fact that Fallout Shelter is a freemium game from a big publisher that's pretty fun, actually.

Famed RPG house Bethesda kicked off the Electronics Entertainment Expo with their press conference showing off the Tiny Tower or XCOM. Your job is to build rooms in this Vault to house survivors of a nuclear war in Fallout's alternate universe where American culture stagnated hard in the 1950s. Besides constructing rooms, you can also order around your survivors, assigning them to work in the rooms or sending them out into the wastelands to brave the irradiated Earth and hopefully bring back some loot.

Your citizens can engage in a variety of activities essential for the survival of the vault. In the water filtration room, survivors recycle H2O for drinking. In the power generation room, they maintain the dynamos that keep the electricity flowing. In the living quarters... well, the living quarters are for doin' it.

That's right. This is the sexiest game featured on Pocket Tactics since Stone Age. If you assign two male or two female survivors to a living space, they're stand around amiably making light conversation. But members of the opposite sex will eventually knock those vault-issued boots, resulting in one pregnant vault dweller and one vault dweller who probably just wants to roll over and take a nap, thanks.

Uh... Uh...

This is pretty racy for an Apple-approved game, and the bit that makes me actually uncomfortable is that your survivors will always get down eventually. Leave a man and a lady in a room for long enough, and pregnancy is inevitable. Maybe I'm entirely too empathetic towards these 2D cartoon sprites -- it's not as if they have any volition or free will at all, but in this particular subject matter it just feels a bit eww.

On the more progressive end of things, your pregnant dwellers can be put right back to work, and the game doesn't consider pregnancy any sort of disability -- there's no stat penalty for being with child. Eventually the baby's born and just runs around the vault unsupervised until it becomes an adult, who can also be immediately put to work. No gap years in this post-apocalypse. There's also a decidedly Scandinavian attitude towards long-term attachments in the vault; in my game there's a whole lot of half-brothers and sisters running around, and no one minds at all.

If you make peace with the fact that 50% of the gameplay here is selectively breeding humans for their RPG stats, then Fallout Shelter is a pretty good game for the genre. For better or for worse, it's one of those appointment games that's meant to be played in small sessions throughout the day -- after a couple of consecutive minutes you'll run right out of stuff to do and you might as well be watching a B. F. Skinner-themed screensaver.

Move over David Attenborough. Move over David Attenborough.

But this is a mobile game of rare polish when you actually are playing it. The 2D characters (modelled after Fallout's Pip Boy mascot) and 3D environments are very attractive and manage to look like two halves of a whole despite their very different styles. The travelogues that your wasteland adventurers keep are endearing and probably do a better job of "minimal story-telling" than The Outcast ever did. Even more impressive for a free-to-play game: there appears to be a fail state.

Mobile sims tend to be challenge-free express trains to victory, where the essence of the gameplay is just to watch numbers go up and up. In Fallout Shelter, it's entirely possible to be a bad manager, and the sense I got when my vault was failing wasn't that I was being wheedled to feed the game money, but that I had messed up.

Will everyone please be careful around the Water Chip. Thank you. Will everyone please be careful around the Water Chip. Thank you.

To wit, my Vault 182 was full of miserable, heavily irradiated dwellers on Day 2, but upon reflection I realised that I'd allowed my population to grow too fast, outstripping my ability to supply clean water and Rad-X. After prohibiting nookie (you really can't think too hard about this game and still enjoy it) and focusing on water production for a while, things stabilised -- but I had run dangerously close to getting my survivors killed when a band of raiders showed up at the vault door and most of my armed dwellers were too radiation sick to put up much of a fight. This is a truly rare quality among F2P games, but there's no way to just dump money into Fallout Shelter and win --the best you can do is get some helpful items for your cash-- so there's actually real, undisturbed gameplay at the core of this thing.

It's not a deathless classic. Part of that is purely technical concerns. The game has got a couple of UI glitches, a tendency to crash, and a prodigious appetite for battery power. More abstract concerns arise from the basic limitations of the genre -- these micro-session games are too far diluted from the formulas of Dungeon Keeper and Sim Tower to have any real bite to them. But there's an occasional interesting decision to be had, and the game does a great job of capturing the slightly zany parodic feel of

Review: Fallout Shelter

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