Art as Games: Fallout Shelter Review

The threat of nuclear apocalypse used to be all the rage. Students were told that hiding under wooden desks was a great way to protect themselves from a hydrogen bomb, and the United States and Soviet Union together made enough nukes to blow up the world… 15 times? Something like that? Anyway, nuclear Armageddon fell out of fashion when the Cold War ended, but with a belligerent Russia on the rise and a thin-skinned narcissist in the White House, the topic’s gained traction once more. How might one survive in the event of a nuclear apocalypse? Fallout Shelter, the subject of tonight’s review, might have some answers on that.

Manage your very own colony of nuclear apocalypse survivors.

Taking Shelter

Fallout Shelter is a survival management game that was originally released in 2015 as a companion title to Fallout 4. Rather than focusing on exploring a vast wasteland full of danger, Fallout Shelter casts players as the overseer of a vault, a shelter created to protect humans from the series’ titular nuclear fallout. It’s up to players to create their own vault, build it deep underground, and keep their vault dwellers happy and productive.

The original version of Fallout Shelter was a mobile game, but the version being reviewed tonight is the recently released PC port. Even more than ports from a console, mobile ports are very hit-and-miss on PC, with Square Enix’s Deus Ex: The Fall being perhaps the worst such game. Although mobile ports warrant suspicion from PC gamers, the Fallout universe is one of those properties that can’t not warrant some love and attention, so Fallout Shelter deserves a fair shot.

Oosh. Looks like what a 60’s advertising exec has nightmares about.

Keeping Things Running

Fallout Shelter kicks things off by giving players a randomized vault number, as well as a disappointingly scant tutorial on how its mechanics run, from building new rooms in the facility to managing the happiness of its inhabitants. The gist of Fallout Shelter is not hard to understand: keep the vault growing and keep the people inside content with their lives (or as content as can be expected in a nuclear wasteland). Players also have to manage their vault’s supply of food, water, and power. Run low on these things and the vault will have an apocalypse of its own.

Provided they have enough bottle caps and Blanco Mac’n’Cheese, players can expand their vault’s population with a few different mechanics. They can either assign male and female vault dwellers to the living quarters to “calibrate the reactor”, or invite outsiders to come in. That last one’s a curious break with the vault policies seen in the main Fallout games, but it makes sense for maintaining a steady stream of people and keeping the game moving along. Of course, new people can’t be let in if the vault can’t support them, so be sure to have a big enough stock of Mirelurk meat. Players can also send their dwellers out into the wastes to scavenge for supplies.

The “greetings, the player has assigned us to reproduce” subtext here is actually pretty horrifying.

Long Wait Times

Although the basic gist of Fallout Shelter is hardly anything that the Sims or other management games haven’t done before on PC, the game’s smartphone mechanics are where things start to get dicey. This is one of those mobile games where players task their minions on something, put their phone away, and check back an hour later when that task has been done. It takes only a few moments for players to find something for their vault dwellers to do; the actual bulk of the game, the task’s completion, is something that the player is meant to be entirely absent for.

That style of gameplay might work on a smartphone, but it doesn’t exactly work on a PC. PC gaming is meant to be a much more involved experience than mobile, and can’t be hopped in and out of quite like mobile gaming. Sitting and waiting on a dweller to finish mopping up Radroach guts does not make for compelling gameplay. It could make for an interesting little story, but Fallout Shelter nixes any sort of narrative in favor of pure task management. The vast majority of this game is spent sitting and waiting for tasks to be done… maybe a crisis will pop up here or there but mostly it’s just watching the little Vault Boy-esque sprites run hither and yon (more like hither and yawn).

Well, at least I found Dogmeat.

Highway Robbery

The assertion that Fallout Shelter eats up loads of waiting time isn’t entirely true. Players can skip waiting around and get right to the exciting parts… for a price. Yes, just like many mobile titles out there, Fallout Shelter is a pay-to-win title. Players who are tired of spinning their wheels can pay a few bucks here and there to speed things up a bit. Players can also buy out the game’s stocks of perks, like high-powered weapons, that can otherwise take hours or days of waiting to attain.

This mechanic is another reason why mobile ports tend to be coolly received on PC: microtransactions are cancer. The pay-to-win model is built entirely around coercing impatient gamers into forking over much more money than they probably planned. It’s a predatory, exploitative style of game design that takes advantage of its own lack of entertainment to convince gamers that maybe, just maybe, there’s something better around that $5 pay window. Well, there’s not. But hey, if you pay 10 more dollars…

Can we build an escape pod?

Final Thoughts

Fallout Shelter is not without some redeeming qualities, like a beautiful art style centered around the main games’ Vault-Tec advertisements, but any potential this game had to be a charming management simulator is weighed down by its reliance on microtransactions. Even by mobile gaming standards, this title is not afraid to get in players’ faces and demand an obscene amount of money just for the chance to keep things interesting. The game’s drop-in, drop-out playstyle also doesn’t quite translate to the PC, a gaming machine that is much more difficult to fit into a pocket than a smartphone.

Luckily for PC gamers, there are thousands of titles out there that ask for one flat rate up front and guarantee hours of fun with no pay windows. Fallout Shelter is not one of them. The game’s fleeting homages to the main titles’ universe are screamed out by constant windows reminding players that the game can be sped up for a few extra dollars, effectively admitting that its own gameplay is a bore. If sitting around waiting hours for dwellers to complete tasks sounds fun, go wild. Players looking for a more involved, less predatory management sim should look elsewhere.


You can buy Fallout Shelter here.

This post has been used with permission from Ian Coppock and is also found at his blog, Art as Games. Follow him on Twitter at @IanLayneCoppock or friend him on Steam at username Art as Games. 

 

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