What's Wrong With Fallout Shelter

I'm a big fan of the Fallout franchise, so when I discovered Fallout Shelter, I was happy to see a new member of the family. It's actually a pretty engaging little game, but it has some ugly flaws that I find frustrating, so I'm going to complain about them.

Fallout Shelter is a semi-casual1 game in which the player is the Overseer of a Vault, a self-contained environment designed to protect a community (of paying customers) through a nuclear disaster. In the world of the Fallout games, the Vaults were built by Vault-Tec, a corporation which built the shelters to suit demand. In Fallout Shelter, you build a vault after the apocalypse, breeding new "vault dwellers" and sending them out into the wasteland to search for supplies while fending off attacks from raiders and from deathclaws, dangerous mutants which dwell among the ruins.

Let me just jump straight into my primary complaint: The use of 3d not only adds nothing to the game, it detracts from it considerably. This problem is hardly unique to this game, but that really doesn't make it any less frustrating. Almost all the game's flaws proceed from poor use of the third dimension. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for poor camera control. The camera floats all over the place, panning and zooming in to events while you're trying to manage your vault. When you zoom well out, you get a nice flat two-dimensional view of [part of] the vault. When you zoom in, or when the game does this for you, it jumps back to the 3D view.

Sadly, this leads us to our next major problem with the game interface: Touch response is horribly inconsistent. Sometimes the game reads touches to two completely different rooms as a double-tap on a single room, which causes it to zoom in on that room. You can also touch things that you cannot see; while trying to touch something in one room, you may touch something in another room through a wall or floor. And speaking of touching the wrong thing, the game continually puts pop-ups in your way. Sometimes they are literal pop-ups, like ads for in-game purchases with no "close" button — you can "buy" or say "okay". Sometimes it's the "Fallout Guy", a smiley little mascot of a guy who is commonly featured in intros for Fallout games, starring in educational films. I've learned to really hate his smiling face, because he's always popping up in the corner over the top of something I'm trying to tap on — often right before the game zooms in on something I didn't want it to zoom in on.

The problems with touching things don't end there, though. The game also just doesn't bother to register plenty of touches. Worse than that, since the playfield is moving all over the place, it's very easy to touch the wrong thing. A major mechanic of gameplay is dragging dwellers from room to room, but getting the right dweller can be stupidly difficult because not only do they hide behind other dwellers, but they also move around the room at what is literally the most inopportune time. When a room has finished production, after a few seconds the dwellers in it will move around the room so that they can loaf. When you touch the flashing symbol in the middle of the room, they all move back to their correct locations. But you cannot drag people out of a room which has finished production.

Put all of this together and the results are infuriating: An incident (say a fire) occurs in a room while you are happily collecting resources from other rooms. While you're in the middle of touching the screen repeatedly, the game suddenly zooms in on a specific room; odds are good you'll touch the wrong thing while you're on the way there. Selecting a dweller may or may not cause you to pan to that dweller. If it does, now you can't touch rooms to gather their resources until you unselect them, by touching an empty part of the screen — which can be difficult when zoomed in. Zooming back out requires either a typical un-pinch-zoom, or double-tapping an empty region of the display. If you need to drag dwellers from neighboring rooms in order to address the incident, and those rooms are waiting for you to collect resources (you know, what you were doing in the first place in this not-very-hypothetical example) you have to zoom out or pan over before you can actually do that so that you can collect from the icon in the middle of the room, but the game has just zoomed and panned away from there. The end result is a little like playing a Bop-It game every time there is a game event.

But what makes all of this so sad is that you don't get anything out of the game being 3d whatsoever. The game board layout is inherently two-dimensional; rooms cannot be placed behind other rooms. Dwellers position themselves in rooms, so their front-to-back position in a room is irrelevant, except when a room has a position behind another position and it makes it difficult to select a specific dweller, which is the case for numerous room designs. Not only did they use 3D unnecessarily, but they also used it badly unless their actual intent was to make the game difficult to play for stupid reasons, and infuriate the player.

In spite of the horrible, horrible interface, Fallout Shelter is actually a pretty fun game. Just know that there is a substantial learning curve involved in getting around the failings of imagination of the interface developers, and that the game's requirements in terms of CPU, GPU, and storage space are probably an order of magnitude larger than they should be for this game concept.

  • 1. The game has numerous uninterruptable sequences during which if you put your device to sleep and put it away, you will suffer. That's not really a casual game.

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