Vaults. Vaults never change.
Let’s be honest – things generally don’t go very smoothly for the humans living within the Fallout universe’s underground vaults. Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter for iPhone and iPad gives us the opportunity to try our hand at doing better, to (hopefully) provide a better life for the citizens of the post-apocalypse. Balancing the need to produce food, water, and power – all while fending off radroaches, raiders, and other dangers is a good challenge… at first. But oddly, once you succeed the fun fades away because of the lack of a planned-out endgame.
What could possibly go wrong when putting us in charge of a vault? In Fallout Shelter’s earliest (and most fun) moments, it turns out the answer is pretty much everything. The core gameplay loop is easy to understand – as new citizens are born or recruited into your vault, you must dig into a mountain to construct Living Quarters for them to sleep, as well as Water Treatment Plants and Cafeterias to produce their food and water, and Power Plants to keep all these factories operating.
Things build instantly, but you do have to wait to earn enough Caps to pay for construction – and Fallout Shelter commendably doesn’t try to make us to pay to speed things up. In fact, you can’t.
Citizens, who are drawn in the signature Fallout Vault Boy art style, are assigned to work in specific factories via simple drag controls, and they earn resources more rapidly if you correctly match a citizen’s stats to the factory in which they work. It’s satisfying to get everyone working in the perfect job and see your vault begin humming along. The catch is that for the first few days you never feel like you have enough people or enough resources to man every station you need manned, and that shortage creates the interesting decisions of Fallout Shelter. Do you want your shelter to have clean drinking water, or enough food to eat? Can you scrimp and save for another housing room?
It’s a fun game of trade-offs. Every time it feels like you might be getting ahead, a random raider attack, fire, or radroach invasion has the potential to knock your perfectly planned equilibrium out of whack. It kept me on my toes and kept me coming back, and so did the constant obscure references to Fallout Lore and amusing (albeit sparse) writing. The cheesy lines couples say to one another before obediently heading off-camera to make a baby are a particular highlight.
Unfortunately, the bigger your vault grows, the more this thoughtful balancing act fades away. Fallout Shelter gets easier the bigger your vault is – not harder. It feels backwards. My 150+ population vault has more than 25 people with no job at all, just wandering the floors. I no longer need to optimize my factories, because I have an excess of all resources. My citizens want for nothing, and I have no more buildings to unlock or goals to work towards. I can expand my vault deeper and build a sixth Power Plant or third food-producing Garden, but that would just give me an even bigger resource surplus. Have I won? Is this it?
Fallout Shelter is desperately in need of a set of endgame goals or resource sinks to look forward to and build towards, or else players will see all the game has to show us in around a week of steady play.
The experience feels like a solid and somewhat fun foundation for a deeper and better game that just isn’t here (yet). There are no vault decoration or customization options. No options to trade with other players or trade caravans. There is no need give any thought to the specific positioning of the rooms in your fault, beyond keeping your most essential buildings near your power plant in case of emergencies. There is no need to craft specific items or think about production lines. Any or all of these features would make Fallout Shelter a deeper and more rewarding game in the long term, as we see in similar mobile games, including very casual mobile hits like FarmVille 2: Country Escape and Township.
The trade-off for this super-simple, never-evolving gameplay loop is that Fallout Shelter is extremely accessible. It’s still fun having a burgeoning fallout shelter in your pocket at all times to peek in on. Fallout Shelter also scores some bonus points for the gentle way it asks us to spend money. You can buy packs of cards that supply a random assortment of special citizens, weapons, equipment, or resources, but it never feels essential or forced. Virtually every other gameplay element must be earned the old-fashioned mobile way – by just waiting around.