My recent forays into mobile and casual games has been pretty disappointing. I'm becoming pretty pessimistic about these games, and hoped that Bethesda's Fallout Shelter might have the production quality and complexity of design to keep my attention. After all, Bethesda doesn't seem to be using this game as a simple delivery service for micro-transactions and actually seemed to be taking it seriously as a video game.
Fallout Shelter does, indeed feel like a more honest attempt to make a true video game for mobile devices. Some of the telltale features of casual games are present, such as rewards for daily play and some micro-transactions. But the game isn't constantly badgering you to buy micro-transactions, and the player can't spend money to accelerate the basic production cycles of the game (as is the case in most other casual, resource-production games of this type). In fact, there are plenty of high-level items that can be unlocked fairly early via in-game rewards without having to spend any money at all.
Fallout from a different perspective
The player assumes the role of a vault overseer in the Fallout universe and must build your vault and manage the dwellers that live inside. Each dweller is assigned to a specific room in order to produce resources. There are three resources: power, water, and food, that are each produced in various rooms that you can build in the vault. Each resource has its own unique utility. Power allows rooms to keep functioning. Food keeps the dwellers from losing HP. Water keeps the dwellers from suffering radiation poisoning. And bottle caps are used as the primary currency for building rooms and buying or selling equipment. I don't get the sense that the different resources are just a way of forcing the player to grind more to pad out the length of the game, and the costs of new items stay fairly low and reasonable. There is still grinding, but it's nowhere near as painful or tedious as in Trexels, which has a very similar basic gameplay mechanic. Management is also more complicated than in Trexels, since each dweller has specific S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that affect how quickly the room will produce resources. So it matters which room a dweller is assigned to.
The different resources have different utility, which makes the game feel less like a grind.
Worked rooms will produce resources every so often, but they can also be rushed if you're desperate. Or if you want extra money, or if you want experience for your dwellers, or if you just want surplus resources, or if you're just bored. Rushing production seems to be highly encouraged by the game mechanics, since it is the fastest path to bottle caps, experience, and resources! The tradeoff is that you risk triggering an "incident" whenever you rush production. Incidents can include the room breaking out in fire, or radroaches or mole rats infesting the room. Both will do gradual damage to any dwellers in the room while the dwellers try to fight them off. Incidents are easy enough to deal with, especially if you have a hefty stockpile of stimpacks, and if all your dwellers are equipped with weapons. The risk of incidents will increase each time you attempt to rush, and so everytime I load up a vault, I usually collect all the resources already accumulated, then I repeatedly rush all the production rooms until the risk of incidents goes up to 60% or more. And once you get a medbay and laboratory, you can produce (and rush) stimpacks and rad-aways to heal your dwellers from incidents, which makes this cycle almost trivially easy to maintain.
Incidents can also occur randomly, and you'll even see the occasional random raider attack. Raiders can show up at your vault, destroy the door, break in, assault your dwellers, and steal your resources. They can be fought off, and if they're defeated, they'll even drop gear and caps. Later in the game, more dangerous Fallout creatures can also attack your vault, and they can be very tough to deal with. I do wish there were some kind of "Security Room" or something that would automatically dispatch assigned dwellers to deal with any emergencies that pop up. The closest thing is assigning guards to the vault door to protect against raiders, but the raiders will still get past them, and those guards will have to be manually re-assigned if you want them to help fight fires or other emergencies. Dwellers can be manually moved around during emergencies in order to help fight fires or fend off raiders, and when the emergency is over, they'll automatically return to the room they were stationed in prior to the emergency. This helps to alleviate a lot of potential micro-management, and makes managing emergencies (and their aftermath) less tedious.
Emergencies can break out at random, or as a result of rushing room production.
You can also assign dwellers to wander the wasteland for equipment and caps. The player has no control over wanderers other than equipping them when they leave the vault, and to recall them before they die. If they die, you can spend caps to revive them, but it can get pretty expensive if the dweller has valuable loot. Dwellers who wander longer will find more and better equipment, but they'll also be at greater risk of death. Giving them supplies of stimpacks before they leave will help keep them alive longer, but they'll eventually die if not recalled.
This mechanic annoys me. It's hard to gauge just how long a wanderer can survive out in the wasteland. Simply checking on their progress at regular intervals doesn't seem to work as well as you'd expect. As the wanders travels longer, the enemies they encounter become more dangerous. You can survive for a few hours fighting dogs and mole rats without taking any damage, then suddenly come up against a super mutant that spells almost certain death.
Whether your dwellers die or not, you'll eventually need to start increasing the population of the vault. This can happen in two different ways, by inviting people in from the wasteland or birthing new dwellers. Building a radio station and working it with a charismatic host will allow you to invite new dwellers to enter your vault. But the more common way to get more dwellers will be to knock up the women already living in your vault. You do this by placing a male and female dweller in the living quarters and waiting for them to copulate. The woman will get pregnant, and soon after, a new dweller with S.P.E.C.I.A.L. rating derived from the two parents will be born. After a while longer, that child will grow into a fully-functional adult dweller that can be assigned to work rooms. Pregnant women and children are a temporary liability, as they will run around screaming instead of actually helping to deal with emergencies.
There's no family structures, and women are treated like baby-making machines for your personal eugenics experiment.
This mechanic strikes me as kind of weird from a moral and ethical standpoint. Characters don't build relationships with one another (like in The Sims), so you don't have actual families. Instead, you just match up a man and a woman with high S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats for whatever role you want the new baby dweller to fill. In this sense, the characters feel less like people, and [the women in particular] feel more like livestock that you breed for desirable characteristics. It's like Harvest Moon or Pikmin, but with people. It's kind of disturbing at a very subconscious level, and I'm not sure if that is intentional.
Is the game trying to make a statement about eugenics or the treatment of women as baby-making machines in a post-apocalyptic scenario? Is this supposed to be one of Vault-tec's secret social experiments that the game just neglects to mention? If so, it's a really subdued statement, as women are otherwise treated identically to men for gameplay purposes, and there's no mechanical or meta-discussion on the topics other than that it is present in the game. Since pregnancies are short, the women have no postnatal maternal responsibilities to the children, and the characters don't build relationships with one another or have any preferences for romantic partners or jealousy, the game completely fails to address any of the ethical or moral implications of its people-breeding mechanic. It's all dehumanizing. But then again, the dwellers aren't characters like in other Fallout games or This War of Mine; they are just resources for you to manage.
Unobtrusive in-app micro-transactions
There are also goals that are tied to various actions in the game, such as collecting certain numbers of resources, equipping a certain number of dwellers with weapons, or hooking up enough couples with each other. Three of these goals can be tracked at any given time, and each day, you have the option to mulligan one of them for a new goal. Most goals will reward you with extra bottle caps, but some will award you with lunchboxes that can provide a handful of other rewards including more bottle caps, extra resources, new equipment, or even new dwellers. Lunchboxes can also be purchased via micro-transactions if you can't be bothered to complete goals. They offer powerful rewards, but the micro-transaction system is almost completely unobtrusive, and I never really felt any pressure to spend money on them.
Lunchboxes provide powerful rewards, and can be purchased or earned by achieving goals.
It's nice that there is enough to do so that the game can be played in either short bouts or in longer sessions. I like that rushing production comes at the cost of in-game risk rather than simply requiring me to pay money for it. It means that I can sit down and play the game for pretty much as long as I want by repeatedly rushing rooms, which gives me money to buy new rooms and upgrades, which then requires shuffling around dwellers to re-staff all the rooms. I can also sit down for a minute to open up a vault, collect resources, and check on any wanderers. It definitely makes the game feel more accessible than other mobile games that I've played.
No planning necessary
Unfortunately, the core mechanics feel a bit shallow, and there's still a lot of downtime that can make the game boring. Very little actual planning is required, since the placement of rooms is irrelevant. Placing rooms deeper underground doesn't change their effectiveness in any way, and the placement of rooms relevant to other rooms makes no difference. There are no rooms that buff adjacent rooms, or that must be built in specific locations, or anything like that. I kept three vaults active at any given time, and they all played virtually identically. The only reason you might have to vary the layout of your vault is personal aesthetic choice. There's also no end game or win-states that I can see. You just keep growing your vault until you fill up all the available space, reach the population cap, fend off the inevitable deathclaw attack(s), and then you're just a perpetual resource-generator with nothing left to do.
There is also a "Survival Mode" option that can be activated when you start a new vault. This is a hard mode in which more random incidents occur, incidents are more damaging, and characters cannot be revived if they die. I tried playing it hoping that it would be a bit more interesting than the boring basic game. Instead, it's just more annoying. I couldn't send people out into the wasteland because I'm not addicted enough to my phone to babysit the game to the level that it requires to keep such explorers alive. Instead, I'd regularly log in to find out that my explorers had died. Not only can they not be revived, but there's also no way (that I could find) to send somebody out to recover the gear that the dead wanderer lost. So there goes my fancy laser cannon. The game sends a lot of annoying push notifications to my phone (including an obnoxiously-unspecific "Something happened in your vault" notification), and there's no option to set which push notifications you'd like to allow. I ended up disabling them, but I wished there was a push notification for when wanderers are close to dying or a resource is critically low.
In Survival Mode, your dead characters cannot be revived, and (in the case of explorers)
any equipment they were carrying or had found is lost forever and cannot be recovered.
So instead, I tended to play the game very passively, without taking many risks, and just waiting for production rooms to give me resources, and rushing production in order to earn caps. The obnoxiously frequent raider attacks, radroach infestations, and random room fires keep interrupting me and slowly draining the HP of my dwellers. Keeping everybody healthy was tough for the first few days of play, with health and happiness of most citizens being less than 50%. But once I got a medbay and was able to rush stimpacks, things started to turn around. By the time I expanded and upgraded the medbay, maintaining health and happiness around 90% became trivially easy as long as I babysat dwellers during emergencies to make sure they didn't get killed by friggin radroaches. The game became just as easy and tedious as the normal game mode, but with way more overhead from the frequent emergencies.
Some control and interface annoyances also make Survival Mode more annoying instead of fun or challenging. Tapping and dragging sometimes isn't very responsive. I'm trying to reassign a dweller with a strong weapon to a room to help fight off invading molerats, but the game won't register the drag. So I keep trying over and over again, all while the people who are in that room are taking damage. And in crowded rooms, it can sometimes be hard to select a certain individual or determine which health bar belongs to which character. It's especially annoying when a critically wounded character decides to stand behind a group of other characters, making it even harder to select that individual to heal him or her. Hopefully, he or she doesn't die while I wait for the crowd to thin out enough to select him or her.
Fallout without any of the "fallout"
Fallout Shelter (and the "Survival Mode" in particular) reminded me of This War of Mine. Both games involve expanding a shelter, managing its inhabitants, and recovering resources from the outside world. And in the case of Fallout Shelter's Survival Mode, both games include permanent death for taking excessive risks. This War of Mine is, of course, much better game (by orders of magnitude). This War of Mine is more engaging and more challenging, and the challenge isn't as obnoxious as Fallout Shelter's Survival Mode. Fallout Shelter also doesn't have any of the character development, emergent storytelling, or ethical considerations that This War of Mine had (except maybe for its moral ambiguity when it comes to the treatment of women as "baby machines") - and in fact, it lacks those same elements that are trademarks of the Fallout franchise. The original game's title "Fallout" wasn't just a reference to the residual radiation left over from a nuclear blast. It was a metaphor for what the game was about. "Fallout" also meant the consequences of actions; how they affect you, the world, and the people inhabiting it - both short and long-term. Shelter seems completely oblivious to all that.
Fallout Shelter is a decent enough time-sink and a good mobile game based on a solid fundamental concept of exploring an element of the Fallout universe that has never been explored before. But it's shallow, simple, and severely lacks substance.
There is no real end game. You just keep managing your vault indefinitely until you get bored.