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Ne'er Dwell: a few hours with Fallout Shelter

Please Stand By.

This morning, I stuck a load of people underground and made them very unhappy. They are starving, because there is very little food. They are constantly thirsty, because there is almost no water. They are uncommonly well lit, because I accidentally bought two power generators early on, tanking my economy just as it was starting to take flight. Sadly, all my surplus energy really proves is that you cannot eat or drink light.

Oh yes, and these dwellers of mine are not remotely sexy: I put them together in living quarters in friendly pairings and they just stare at each other, dead-eyed and grim. A while back, I sent my best guy out into the wasteland to explore. "I thought I'd never get out of there!" he said as he jogged off, never to be seen again, happier in a deadly radioactive wilderness than he was with me. Joke's on you buddy, I thought. I didn't give you a weapon.

So if you had to pick a single word to describe my style of leadership, it would be neglectful. It always ends up this way, of course. Fallout Shelter was inevitably going to bring out the worst in me. It just did it surprisingly quickly.

Shelter's optimised for iPhone 5, while it runs on my old 4S it is slow and crash-happy. Shelter's raider attacks aside, if you're after a game that truly nails the perils of expansion in a hostile environment, I recommend Rymdkapsel.

Fallout Shelter is the new iOS game from Bethesda. It resembles XCOM or This War of Mine, but it plays a little like one of those interchangeable empire-building games that are all about making the numbers go up. You have a vault, and your job is to nurse it towards prosperity through diligence, clever planning, and micro-transactions. The whole thing plays out on a cross-section of your underground empire, but it lives and dies within a handful of meters at the top of the screen that monitor three crucial resources: energy, food and water.

You prod these meters upwards by building rooms - power generators, diners and water treatment facilities - and then you fill the rooms with dwellers to keep them ticking over. Dwellers all have specific aptitudes, and the cleverness of the thing comes from matching the right person with the right job. Beyond that are rooms that allow you to increase you dweller capacity and encourage them to breed, rooms that allow you to expand your inventory, rooms that allow you to heal people or produce items, and rooms that raise the attributes of your dwellers. Finally, throw in levelling. You never saw such levelling! Level up your dwellers! Level up your rooms! If you run out of space, you can just plain level your rooms too. I suspect that, as with XCOM, where you build stuff is eventually as important as what you build. Chuck two diners next to each other, for example, and they become one mega diner. (This does not happen in real life.)

It's clever busywork for sure, and I was merrily clicking away for an hour or so before I started to worry about where any of this is actually going. Why worry? It's going up! Up with the water stats, the food stats, the charisma stats of the latest guy to wander into my vault, the poor idiot. There are also a handful of neat embellishments, like an exploration system that encourages you to prod people back into the Wasteland where they'll have little adventures, unscrolling tweet-by-tweet as they encounter opportunities and terrible calamities. Beyond that? Attacks to fend off and babies to name. A missions system nurses you through the early stages, too, rewarding you while teaching you the basics of getting your community up and running. It's not bad, really: I've almost brought my own community to its knees, and the game still manages to throw a treat or two my way.

Inevitably, Shelter is a game that bugs you when you aren't playing: 'Vault 727: One of your production rooms is ready for collecting.'

Who knows where it will go from here? After an hour or two, it's all pretty hollow, of course, but that might be the point. In the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, I doubt there will be much racing around and doing cartwheels while somebody belts out Ode to Joy. I doubt there will be much self-actualisation. Still, you can tell where a game's heart is from the mechanic it truly delivers on, and Fallout Shelter keeps its best feedback - so far at least - not for the collection of resources, and not for the moment a dweller returns from the wasteland and spills his awful story to you. It's for the moment - heavily indebted to Hearthstone - that you open your lunchbox. That's the terminology for Fallout Shelter's micro-transaction card packs, available in game for a grind but purchasable for real money, too, each one guaranteed to contain a rare or better.

Lunchboxes: this is where Fallout Shelter shines. I bought a job-lot earlier - in the name of research, right? - and I had a lovely hollow time opening them, too.

Playing Fallout Shelter? Check out our Fallout Shelter guide to get bottle caps and resources easily, increase dweller happiness and much more.