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A free-to-play mobile game was the last thing anyone expected from Bethesda, a developer known for hardcore games such as Doom, Skyrim and the core, time-sucking Fallout franchise. Fortunately, Fallout Shelter is no cheap cash-in, but rather an addictive management simulator with hints of Tiny Tower and FTL: Faster Than Light — all with a distinct Fallout flavor.
The good news is that what's available on iOS now is great (Bethesda says an Android version of the free-to-play game is coming in a few months). The bad news is, you might suffer a few crashes in the midst of enjoying the apocalypse.
If You Build It…
You are named the overseer of your own Vault-Tec vault, a bomb shelter to protect humanity from the radiation of a nuclear holocaust. It's a series of rooms that creates an underground society, complete with power plants, water-filtering stations, food-preparation areas and living spaces.
Your first dwellers will come from outside the vault, and you will quickly need to build out food, water and power rooms to keep these inhabitants happy and alive. All dwellers have their own SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) attributes that help them in different jobs. Placing every dweller in an appropriate job becomes a complex puzzle.
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Those working dwellers produce power, food and water, so managing enough of each station is key to surviving.
If you're running out of a resource, you can "rush" a room. If it works, you get extra resources. If the rush fails, you might end up with a fire or monsters attacking. It's a judgment call that will keep players on their toes.
You can't grow your vault without new dwellers. Once in a blue moon, one might come by from the wasteland, but that's a rare event. It's much easier to grow your shelter by putting one male and one female dweller alone in a room and letting them grow the population the way nature intended.
Women get pregnant instantly, and even the people start to seem like resources in the game. It's a shame, because otherwise the dwellers are all really charming. You can zoom in on a room by double tapping on it, which lets you watch your dwellers chat with each other.
With more people, you'll need more food, power and water, so you have to expand and expand.
Your dwellers aren't stuck in the vault forever, though. You can send them foraging in the wasteland. They may come back with money, or with new weapons or outfits. These goods change your dwellers' SPECIALS and help them survive attacks.
All of this is fairly intricate for a mobile management sim, especially one that's free to play. This game is different, though, in that it never bothers you. There are no prompts to buy anything. You don't need an Internet connection to play; there's no "energy" that runs out and ends your game. If you want to buy an add-on pack, you have to go into the menu and select it. You will never be pressured to make a purchase. Having it as an option feels great. This is free-to-play done right.
The only big issue I had with Fallout Shelter was how often it crashes on older phones. I assign most of the blame to my iPhone 4s, though a cursory Twitter search for "Fallout Shelter crashing" shows plenty of people complaining about the issue on a range of iOS devices, including the iPhone 6.
Crashing often occurred on start-up or when rushing rooms, leading me to quit the app and restart — sometimes, only to have it to crash in the same place again.
When I tried Fallout Shelter on an iPhone 6, I didn't experience the crashes, but the game still suffered from the occasional performance hiccup. It's a far better experience on devices with more memory.
If you have an iOS device (preferably a newer one), you should definitely try Fallout Shelter. The game is addictive and enjoyable, even if you've never played a Fallout game before. Bethesda treats its players with respect, giving the option to pay for upgrades without being annoying.
If Fallout Shelter didn't crash on older devices, I would immediately recommend it to everyone. For now, be careful buying add-ons until you know you'll be able to keep playing on your iPhone.
Just a few hours of play and you'll have a hard time putting down your vault. That is, unless the game crashes and makes you.
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Andrew E. Freedman is an editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming as well as keeping up with the latest news. He holds a M.S. in Journalism (Digital Media) from Columbia University. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Kotaku, PCMag, Complex, Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag among others.