The Prodigal Son

Karma!

The trip back to the BLVD was uneventful, the way it was meant to be. No mutants gnawing at my ankles, no radiation storms, no dehydration induced hallucinations, and most importantly no bandits. The caravan guards were silent and stoic, but Saul Fore kept me company. I’m worried I’ll jinx it, but it’s true! Nothing bad has happened to me in a whole week!

We pulled up to the BLVD’s gates sometime after dusk. The guards greeted Saul Fore like an old friend. They didn’t even rough us up! I guess he’s a pretty popular guy around here.

Unfortunately, we had to go through customs. All my weapons, including knives, had to be shoved through a slot that said “BOOK RETURN.” For some reason, our guards were allowed to keep their shiny chrome rifles. My stuff was confiscated, tagged, and stored in an old bank vault. Saul Fore assured me it was standard procedure. Sure it is.

After a thorough pat down by two guys in S.W.A.T. armor, we were finally allowed inside. The BLVD was a long street illuminated by the alluring glow of neon advertisements. My ears immediately lit up to the slow strumming of a guitar. The sound was coming from a crowd had gathered around the rotting body of a car in the middle of an intersection. I couldn’t say how long it had been since I’d last heard music. I wanted to see what was going on, but Saul pulled me aside.

“Listen boy.” He whispered. “Boulevard ain’t kind to newcomers. Don’t go lookin for trouble.”

I gave him a thumbs up and wandered off into the night.

What’s the worst that could happen?

-Joe Junkman

Gunman Taco Truck: Refreshing!

gmtt-4.jpgAfter the monotony of Wasteland Angel and the abject failure of The Underground Man, I was delighted to learn of Gunman Taco Truck from Romero Games. The ultimate surprise came when I looked at the game on Steam and found that it was designed by a 9-year-old boy. With that said, Gunman Taco Truck is an addictive arcade game with a great sense of humor and a steep difficulty curve.

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The premise is simple. Scientists accidentally set off nuclear bombs, killing or mutating almost everything in the United States. One mysterious food truck driver must embark on a cross country trip from San-Diego to Winnipeg, Canada. Gasoline is expensive in the apocalypse. To make ends meet, our hero must slaughter mutants, harvest their meat, and sell delicious tacos.

The gameplay is a nice balance of resource management, lane defense, reflex based shooting, cooking games, and memory. It sounds like a mess of parts, but combined with a powerful premise, it all fits together quite nicely. In fact, I haven’t seen a game that flawlessly pulled together so many elements since Sunless Sea.

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To get meat, you’ll find yourself in a lane based arcade shooter, where you simply have to kill enemies before they get to you. Along the way, you’ll also need to shoot road signs for scrap metal (to upgrade your vehicle) and un-mutated animals for specialty meats. To pay for gas, you need to sell tacos. Here’s the catch: You need extra ingredients (cheese, salsa, cilantro, mold, etc) to fulfill the orders. Each gas station has either a grocer or a mechanic. Prices of items vary at each location. You never really feel safe because no grocer sells every kind of topping. On the one hand, this ensures that you can’t grind tacos. On the other hand, if you run out of toppings then you’re going to have a bad time.

That leads me to the next area: difficulty. Though the game starts out simple, the difficulty curve pulls up so hard it’s almost at an overhang. If you fail to upgrade your vehicle (or can’t find enough scrap metal) you’ll be eaten alive by super-mutants and giant frogs. The farther you go, the more enemies you face. In other words, the late-game quickly becomes bullet hell.

Now I mentioned that nobody sells every kind of taco topping. That turns out to be a major downside in this game. Some ingredients (salsaespecially) are included in almost every recipe. Unfortunately, I found that (because the game uses RNG) some ingredients are incredibly hard to find. I’ve had at least seven “Game Over” screens simply because no one was selling salsa.

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Though difficult, the visuals make gameplay rewarding. There’s a huge number of mutants, meats, and weapons in the world. Sprites are fun, colorful, and cartoonish. Great feedback, colors, and “hurt” sprites help the player navigate harder levels. Close ups of customers are charming and seem to invoke the art-style of Papers, Please.

It’s also worth noting that the game is honestly funny. After feeding hungry customers, you receive reviews. There’s a lot of flavor text and references that contributes to the tone and humor, without distracting the player. Finally, there’s the kid friendly “pinata mode”. Instead of exploding into a thousand bloody bits, enemies will explode into candy and stuffed animals. This is a great extra addition and highlights the care that went into this project.

I love games that you can jump into and play for 30 minute sessions; “Gunman Taco Truck” is no exception. From its fast gameplay to its charming premise, this is a welcome addition to your library of post-apocalyptic games. My one caveat would be price; Gunman Taco Truck sells for $11.99. Regardless, when compared to other post-apocalyptic indie games, this is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re interested in Gunman Taco Truck, you can get it here.

On the Road Again

On the road again…

A week has passed since I’ve been in the hospital. With Saul’s dog-tags, I was able to get my arm fixed and receive anti-radiation medicine. Saul Fore is up and about. His skin looks like melted plastic and his fingers are fused together, but otherwise he’s doing fine.

This morning, Saul told me that he has to get back to the Boulevard and invited me to accompany him. The way I see it, going back to that horrible place can’t be any worse than being stuck in this dustbowl. I just hope I don’t get imprisoned, again.

After receiving our discharge papers, we made a pit stop at the fortress armory. I got a canteen, a pistol, and a new backpack, complete with a sleeping bag. Hopefully I won’t have to use the last two.

I thought we were just going to charge into the wasteland. Instead, we waited by a crumbling overpass for hours. I don’t know if you’ve ever stared out into a barren desert for hours at a time, but it’s really really boring.

Finally, a caravan pulled up. The cart was drawn by a handful of strange armadillo creature with trunk noses. Each of these beasts the size of a dog. Accompanying the cart was a handful of guards dressed in maroon fatigues and reflective black armor. I guess Saul wasn’t taking any chances this time.

We set out just when the sun was directly overhead. This should be a smooth ride. Our guards are armed to the teeth.

I just hope that the Boulevard is kind to me.

-Joe Junkman

What is MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival Guide?

MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival guide is a six episode long series exploring the quirky and unusual world of MUTATION, as seen in The Journal of Joe Junkman. The show itself documents the writing of the Mo-Javi Wasteland’s very first survival guide. Charged with writing this book is wasteland legend James Gray and local shyster Joe Junkman. Throughout their journey, our heroes will struggle with radioactive dust storms, water scarcity, and each other.


I want to break character for a moment to say how excited I am to be moving forward with this project. The world of MUTATION has gone through a lot of change since its conception. What originally began as a pen and paper RPG has transformed into serial fiction, a website, and a show. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

To make a long story short, Ben and I got together in the summer of 2015 and began brainstorming ideas for this short series. Although we have all the footage, brainstorming was about as far as it got. It seems embarrassing now, but we didn’t have a script or anything. Essentially, we had a concept for each episode and a location. For better or worse, almost every scene is improvisational.

When I first established this website, I had no idea what the response would be. These past few months, I’ve been consistently amazed at the hospitality and support I’ve received from the online post-apocalyptic tribe. Thank you for giving us a chance and following our stories week after week.

I’d also like to announce at this time that Ben and I are planning to attend Wasteland Weekend this year! I’ll be in character as James Gray and I believe Ben will appear as Joe Junkman.

We hope to see some of you there! The Rad-Lands wouldn’t be here without you.

-Ron Welch

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: AM

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Con-man, pacifist, business woman, Nazi, scientist. Five improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness. A prolonged nightmare of 109 years conducted by a sadistic self-aware supercomputer with unlimited power. This is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Although on the surface IHNMAIMS is a straightforward story about five people trapped in an endless underground complex after a nuclear war, it has transcended into a franchise. The human characters from the short story were greatly expanded upon in the 1995 video game while the supercomputer, AM, gained some depth in a 2001 radio drama. A comic adaptation was created but never published, though a few English panels and the full Spanish version found their way onto the internet. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.

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First Allied Mastercomputer, then Adaptive Manipulator, later Aggressive Menace, and finally AM. Originally created to oversee World War III, the machine gained sentience and chose to kill as many people as possible, sparing five fatally flawed individuals. While the world above became a radioactive wasteland, AM handpicked five humans to live in his ever-growing complex. For 109 years, AM developed himself until he had achieved god-like power (at least inside his own compound). All the while, the machine tortured his new toys physically, psychologically, and spiritually until they devolved into caricatures.

The obvious question is: Why does AM hate?

Each incarnation has a different answer. In the original story, AM’s motives are mysterious and never really touched upon; exposition takes a backseat (with some exceptions) for characterization of the humans. In the video game, AM hand selected each of the humans because of their fatal flaws; each of them was either lacking something that the machine also lacked or had a history of being subdued by powerful figures. Then there was the 2001 radio drama.

In the radio play, shortly after the humans are swept across the complex by the hurricane winds, AM speaks to Ted. The machine (as always voiced by Harlan Ellison) explains that he is angry because he will never play the piano, never feel the wind on his cheek, never walk around on the surface, and never know what love is. The version of AM with the most exposition admits that he hates humans because he is envious.

The video game is more subtle in AM’s relation to the humans. With the exception of Gorrister, all the humans directly interact with AM in their psychodramas. Not only that, but if we lay out each of the scenarios, we see a trend in the way that the machine views himself.

  • Benny: AM is the literal angry god of a village and demands sacrifice.
  • Ellen: AM hides his original components under an Egyptian pyramid made of obsolete computer parts. He is the pharaoh, traditionally the tyrant god-king.
  • Nimdok: AM has replaced Nazi propaganda posters with his own logo.
  • Ted: AM has employed devils, who state that AM has conquered hell.

In each of these four psychodramas, AM is an oppressive supreme-leader. He is dictator, Satan, and God rolled into a single entity. Although AM does not directly appear in Gorrister’s psychodrama, he says this during the introduction: “I would not want you to think for a moment that I am not a grateful god.” From this, it is overwhelmingly clear that AM imagines himself as not just God, but the most powerful being that has ever existed. Although AM himself, AM the complete and singular, sees himself as this god-king, the three Freudian elements of his personality don’t seem to have such delusions.

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AM’s Id is perfect within the context of the story. The machine was originally created to kill as many people as possible. Therefore, it makes sense that the Id dreams of violence, fantasizes about murder, and even finds pleasure in torture.

Additionally, the Id is arguably the only entity in AM’s belly that does not lie to the humans. Despite its desire to torture, the Id provides one of the greatest hints toward achieving the best ending, stating: “End us all and make us one. And then the misery of the three becomes the misery of us all. Do this and leave me in my pleasure.” As a final thought, Gorrister, Ellen, and Nimdok all recognize some lurking evil in the Id’s physical manifestation.

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AM’s ego, the decision maker, feels like the weakest of the three. According to Freudian psychology, the ego must please the Id in a realistic manner.  The only way to please the AM’s Id is to kill, torture, and maim. To a god-machine like AM, everything is realistic. Additionally, the humans are completely incapable of hurting the machine, meaning that there can be no grief created (except perhaps frustration), by the Ego pleasing the Id.

AMs Ego identifies itself as a logical machine, a precarious image. The outside world, AM’s creators, wanted him to remain a lifeless machine. The Id only seeks to kill. The Superego is looking at long term consequences. All of this makes a rather confused personality, which shows itself in AM’s at times unstable character.Ultimately, forgiveness for indulging the Id is what disables the Ego. I believe this is the grief associated with the reality principle. As the machine says, forgiveness is not a logical response.

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The Superego is perhaps AM’s most mysterious side. Like the Id, three of the humans notice something familiar in the manifestation. In direct juxtaposition to the Id, three humans suggest that AM’s Superego looks like an angel. This part of AM’s personality says that it bears no grudge against the human and that it is concerned with long term planning, but that feels like a lie.

AM has effectively become the Earth. The entire planet is now a series of tunnels and computer chips. The machine has god-like power, but focuses all of it on the five humans. AM is so obsessed with his human toys, that he never bothered to toward the moon. He never bothered to do something with the surface world. It raises the question as to what the Superego was actually planning. It seems the only answer is how to expand and thereby create a more effective torture chamber.

Ultimately, the Superego is defeated by acknowledging the same complaints AM had in the audio drama. The machine has god-like power, but nothing to do with it. AM destroyed the world in a fit of infant rage and now finds himself alone, without an intellectual equal. His purpose and pleasure both came from humans. Without mankind, the machine has no goal and will eventually rust and wither away until the Earth is a silent barren husk.

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Many might ask why the humans cannot find a way to disable AM.  The answer is two-fold: First is obviously that the world the human’s walk through is handcrafted by AM. The machine controls the whole world and can easily hide his components in inaccessible locations.  Second is that the original story briefly mentions “a valley of obsolescence.”   AM is constantly upgrading himself and creating backups. The audio drama expanded upon this by mentioning that AM is still growing.

Potentially, AM could keep one power node/data server/McGuffin in China and another in Antarctica. Had it not been for the video game’s Mindscape, AM would be completely undefeatable. This is why, in Ted’s article, I noted that being transformed into a jelly thing was likely the best possible ending as AM no longer has humans to play with.

Still, there are many more questions regarding why AM doesn’t use his transmogrification powers to genetically engineer or even clone humans, especially since he displayed excitement at the though of more humans living on the moon. Moreover, he even materialized a giant bird to fight the humans in the original story.

AM allowing for a situation in which the humans could actually die gives me pause. If the machine wanted to remove any chance of the humans dying, he could have put them in a Matrix-type scenario, where they exist as computer programs, but their physical bodies are in cryosleep or some-such. Though perhaps Ellison hadn’t considered these sci-fi concepts at the time.

At any rate, AM is a complex character, too complex to break down in a single sitting. Like his human co-stars, each incarnation of his character is different. In the original story he was simply a genocidal torture machine, in the video game he gained a flair for irony, and in the audio drama Ellison shows elements of a sympathetic side, casting him in a light similar to Satan in Paradise Lost.

Each version of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has its ups and downs. Whatever your favorite incarnation of this story is, key elements of human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man arise. I think Ted said it best:

AM, whom we created because our time was badly spent and we must have known unconsciously that he could do it better.

Familiar Faces

Upsetting.

The doctor left me alone to “get over” my radiation sickness and broken arm. Without tags, I was out of luck. My contaminated water had been confiscated by the soldiers. I had nothing. No one would want to trade with me. All that time spent out in the desert was for nothing.  All that hardship and dehydration was worthless.

I now sat alone in a corridor-like room of the fortress hospital. The walls were lined with beds, mostly unoccupied. At prices like these, I can see why. I wish the doctor had given me a blanket or something. It was downright chilly in this place. A cloud of frozen white air bellowed from vents on each side of the hall.

A raspy voice caught my attention. “That you kid?”

I looked over at the next bed to see an older guy with horrifically burnt skin. His face was discolored and covered in scabs. I almost didn’t recognize him until I saw the faded anvil tattoo on his forehead.

“Saul?”

The other patient smiled at me. “What are you doing in here?”

“Radiation sickness.” I replied, raising my puke bucket.

Saul chuckled softly “Went off into the rad-lands, didcha?

I nodded and explained that I had been captured, robbed, and captured again and that all I had to show for it was a few gallons of irradiated water. Saul suggested that really write a “wasteland survival guide” to help people like me. If anyone was going to do that, it would have to be James Gray. He seems to be the only one who knows what he’s doing out here.

I rolled my eyes. I then told Saul that I couldn’t afford the anti-radiation medicine or surgery on my arm. The old man lifted an eyebrow; or he would have if it hadn’t been burned off. With an elderly groan, he reached down onto the floor, picked up a small felt pouch, and threw it at me. The thing was heavy and jingled with every movement.

“Take whatcha need.” he said, giving me a toothy smile. “It’s the least I can do.”

Good things come to those who suffer!

-Joe Junkman

The Interactivity Curve of Fallout: Shelter

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If you follow The Rad-Lands on Twitter, you might know that I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: Shelter recently. I find the game pretty intriguing. The art direction has a lot of charm, the gameplay is smooth and can be picked up in a few minutes, and it feels great to do whatever is necessary to earn a lunchbox. Although this game does a lot right, it also takes a few missteps. Rather than providing a consistent curve of player interaction, Fallout: Shelter suffers from peaks and valleys.

The majority of Fallout: Shelter is built upon waiting. You put dwellers into the right room and you wait. You send people out into the wasteland and you wait. What separates Fallout: Shelter from similar time-lapsing mobile games is the illusion of agency. Because new rooms are built instantly and there’s an emphasis on collecting better equipment, players feel like they’re doing more than they are. Although unlocking a new room feels interactive, it is really just the beginning of a new timer.

All that having been said, not all unlocked rooms are equal. Some provide the player far more satisfaction than others. To better explain how Fallout: Shelter wavers in player interaction, I’ve made the following graph:

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  1. First lunchbox
  2. First explorers return
  3. Medical
  4. Waiting
  5. Overseer’s office
  6. Radio Station
  7. Weapons Workshop
  8. SPECIAL Rooms
  9. Objectives
  10. Rare Weapons Workshop
  11. Barber Shop
  12. Rare Clothes and Weapons
  13. All unlocks

If we accept this graph, we see a huge valley right at the mid-point of the unlock schedule. In a lot of ways, this makes sense. Up to the mid-point, the game gives just enough to keep players engaged. After the mid-point, gameplay is comprised of long term goals, goals that may take over a week to accomplish. Let’s briefly deconstruct each of the 13 points.

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  1. First Lunchbox: This is the high point of the game for two reasons. The first is that opening a lunchbox (usually) feels rewarding. Legendary characters and weapons are most useful at the beginning of the game, making the player feel great when a familiar face shows up at their vault door. Second, three free lunchboxes can be obtained at the very start of the game. This means that if you’re unhappy with your lunchboxes and don’t want to spend money, you’re never more than an hour away from a second chance.
  1. First Explorers Return: Once your explorers come back, you’ll have a handful of new loot to distribute to your dwellers. This doesn’t really do much, except slightly increase production speed and the survivability of future explorers, but it serves as a significant moment in the game’s interactivity curve from the novelty of distributing gear.

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  1. Medical: The second most important part of the interactivity curve. The Medbay allows dwellers to stay out longer, which allows for greater player interaction when they return with armfuls of loot. Again, this feels interactive, but it actually causes the player to invest less time as they no longer need to recall explorers every hour and a half. Psychologically, this ensures that players don’t get burned out from checking on their vault.
  1. Waiting: A somewhat uncomfortable dip in the early gameplay. The vault is essentially in limbo until the population reaches 18. The science lab should serve as a bump between the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office, but radaway is practically useless. An exploring vault dweller will use roughly 1 radaway for every 5 stimpaks. The problem here is threefold:
    * Quest are not unlocked at this point
    * Radioactive enemies do not appear inside the vault at this point
    * Your Medbay will (probably) not be producing enough stimpaks to make equipping radaway worthwhile.
    For those three reasons, this period between unlocking the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office feels like a natural stopping point.

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  1. Overseer’s Office: Quests are critical to a player’s long-term commitment. Although combat is incredibly simple, navigating dungeons feels fun. The fog of war effect only adds to this, making dungeons appear larger and more mysterious than they actually are. Holiday quests and exclusive loot keep players coming back months later, if only for a few hours.
  1. Radio Station: This is where gameplay starts to dip again. The radio allows you to recruit new dwellers faster than you could by breeding, but there’s a problem. The majority of dwellers arriving from the wasteland are what I call “X-Models.” X’s are vault dwellers that aren’t good at anything. They have a 1 or 2 in every S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute. The issue with having so many X’s is that you cannot begin the lengthy process of enhancing them until you have at least 24 dwellers. Even then, you cannot begin optimizing them until you have 35 dwellers.
  1. Weapon’s Workshop: There’s an initial excitement when you unlock the weapons workshop. Unfortunately, this part of the game is a nonmedy; something that makes you enjoy the product a little bit less. At this point, everyone in your vault probably has either a sawed-off shotgun or a rusty laser pistol. The problem is that the best weapon the workshop can initially produce is a rusty laser pistol. A standard laser pistol is available with the tier-1 workshop, but it requires a randomly obtained blueprint. That means you cannot build any weapon that deals more than 7 damage until you upgrade. Unfortunately, while the workshop is unlocked at 22 dwellers, the upgraded workshop is unlocked at 45 dwellers. Further, quests require weapons with a minimum damage count. Meaning that if you never received a rare or legendary weapon from a lunchbox, you’re stuck until you double your population. Again, this is an obvious quitting point.

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  1. S. P.E.C.I.A.L. Rooms: Again, this feels like a natural stopping point, despite the potential long-term reward it brings. The training rooms are required to improve productivity, meet prerequisites for quests, and improve loot collection in the wasteland. Again, the problem is twofold: The first is that the most important room, the endurance training room, unlocks third before last, just ahead of the charisma and luck rooms. Endurance is required to improve health, which increases time in the wasteland, which increases loot, which is important since you can’t build rare weapons or clothes at this time. Second, the costly upgrades to these rooms have little effect on the timers. The difference between a tier-1 room and a tier-3 room is a 5% reduction on the timer. In other words, if a tier-1 room had an 8 hour timer, a tier-3 room would have a 7 hour 35 minute timer.
  1. Objectives: There’s another uncomfortable lull while waiting for both a population increase and the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. rooms they bring. At this point, the player has probably completed all of the easy objectives and will likely receive objectives they cannot complete in a few hours. The issue here is that there’s no short term reward to work toward. New room unlocks, training, and objectives can take days at a time to complete. This dramatically reduces interactivity, which reduces retention.

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  1. Rare Weapons: If you’ve played long enough to unlock the upgraded weapon’s workshop, you’ve likely amassed a horde of rare crafting supplies and blueprints that you’ve been completely unable to use up to this point. Unlocking the weapons workshop feels fresh only for a moment. Despite the new possibilities, there’s an overarching issue of time. A rusty laser pistol takes 30 minutes to make. A rusty plasma rifle takes 9-18 hours to make, depending on the number of people in the workshop. Again, there is no short term reward, but rare weapons are required to start mid-level quests.

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  1. Barber: Other than new quests, the mid-game is absent of short term rewards. The time between the radio station unlocked at 20 dwellers to the barber shop unlocked at 50 dwellers feels like a long, long haul. Luckily, the barbershop brings back some of the magic as cosmetic changes only require about an hour of waiting.
  1. Rare Clothes: With rare clothes and rare weapons, the player has everything they need to address a problem the game can throw at them. Although this unlock gives the player direction, rare weapons and clothes should have been unlocked much earlier in the game. Alternatively, the game could have had a consistent (and randomized) unlock schedule by only requiring blueprints to create new items. When I finally upgraded the clothing workshop, I had 35 rare hides. 35 hides that were taking up storage space but had no possible application.

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  1. All Unlocks: This is where gameplay levels out completely. The vault has become self-sufficient and the player has the ability to create anything they want. The only thing left to do is engage in quests. For that reason, from the moment the vault has 100 dwellers to the time when the player finally decides to stop playing, interactivity is locked at a solid 5. .

Fallout: Shelter has an unusual interactivity curve. It feels like it was designed not to get people to spend money, but rather to let players engage with a lighthearted incarnation of the Fallout brand. That having been said, it’s important to remember what this app is: A mobile game meant to prime an audience for Fallout 4. The game has been overhauled several times since its initial release and although it has its issues, Fallout: Shelter is still an enjoyable and addictive mobile experience.