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‘Atomic Heart’ Review: Soviet Style Over Serious Substance

Idhealt – On paper, Atomic Heart appeared to have it all. Coming out of the blocks during an already contentious year for gaming, and with plenty of its own alleged baggage–best summarized last week by PC Gamer–Atomic Heart previews consistently showed the hallmarks of a great first-person action RPG. Sadly, for all those great early impressions and, to its credit, a handful of strengths and memorable moments, it doesn’t just prove disappointing–it often feels unfinished.

The premise is original and intriguing: it’s June 11, 1955. After the discovery of super-advanced polymers in the 30s, the Soviet Union became the world’s sole superpower, ending WW2 three years early before spearheading a technological revolution that took the world by storm. Moreover, “Kollektiv 2.0”–a mass neural network designed for humans to control robots with their thoughts–is set to launch in two days’ time. Nothing can go wrong, surely?

‘Atomic Heart’ Review: Soviet Style Over Serious Substance

Castles in the sky

Atomic Heart sees you assume the role of Major Sergey Nechayev (Agent P-3), a mostly one-dimensional hero with an inexplicable American accent–think Wolfenstein’s BJ Blazkowicz, if his emotions were restricted to “confused”, “angry”, and “a bit more angry”. If anything, BJ showed more facial expressions in the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3D than P-3 does during Atomic Heart’s 20-hour core campaign.

Having lost your memory during a battle in the Second World War–and presumably leaving your personality in Eastern Europe for good measure–you’re given an intelligent AI glove called CHAR-les: the delightfully contrived “CHatting ARtificial Librarian and Education System.” You and this sarcastic leather Pokedex find yourselves on the floating Chelomey, a Soviet utopia built across an array of flying platforms, earning it understandable comparisons to BioShock Infinite.

Chelomey–and Atomic Heart’s wider art style–is stunning, where retrofuturist architecture plays host to humanoid robots, who serve and entertain the populace. Set-piece statues, installations, and buildings are genuinely beautiful and carefully designed, and their colorful cartoonishness is complemented by a mostly consistent 50-60fps framerate and a nicely balanced motion blur. Atomic Heart’s visuals aren’t without their occasional drawbacks; lip-synching is regularly mistimed or just terrible, while frame rates drop with distance. Still, Mundfish has crafted a surprisingly believable and atmospheric alternate reality.

Of course, everything goes to hell. The USSR soon succumbs to a robot rebellion, where haunted-looking androids develop a mass taste for carnage across Facility 3826, the Motherland’s prime tech hub. So begins Atomic Heart’s badly paced tale of pseudo-intrigue.

Stop trying to make fetch happen

From the moment you drop into a bunker to avoid being mulched like one of many identical dead and questionably unarmed Soviet troops, the story takes a bit of a back seat as you learn the game’s core mechanics. For all its surface-level comparisons to BioShock InfiniteAtomic Heart has more in common with the Resident Evil franchise. Ammo and consumables are in short supply; enemies are resilient; semi-regular safe rooms offer you save points and storage; you have a slot-based system for the items you can carry; and there’s more than your fair share of dystopian horror.

Crucially, it demands your full attention, because you’ll get pummeled into the ground if you lose focus. Even on Atomic Heart’s standard “Local Failure” difficulty, it only takes a couple of entry-level baddies to get the better of you, should you mistime a dodge or fail to connect with a swift ax to the face. You’ll need to master that dodge, too–strafing is painfully slow compared to forward motion, presumably to reflect real-life movement, but this is a poor decision given the intensity of combat, especially during boss encounters.

Fighting initially feels decent. Guns are weighty and melee weapons pack a punch. Still, shooting a standard android full-bore in the face with a standard shotgun sees them backflip and come back for more, showing little-to-no damage. It’s confusing; you never know if you’re gaining the upper hand, and given that stealth takedowns require as much luck as skill–and ammo is scarce–you can find yourself reloading your game to avoid being so wasteful.

Despite promising an open-world adventure, the first few hours of Atomic Heart are linear, packed with a sequence of dull fetch quests interspersed with punishing battles. The developers also clearly know this opening act is boring as hell because P-3’s dialog mostly focuses on how much he hates having to find an endless array of canisters or keys to progress through unremarkable corridors and rooms. “I’m a magnet for annoying bullshit,” he whines, as you start your fifth or sixth mission to find a thing to unlock a thing which you then use on another thing en route to the next thing. It’d be funny if you hadn’t thought the same thing hours earlier.

The game’s storytelling is oddly handled, too. Key moments are often so badly paced, you regularly wonder if the game’s broken, or you need to interact with something. Elevator rides aren’t timed well with dialog, meaning you’re standing doing nothing for 15 seconds, waiting for the doors to open. Gaps in speech between characters are prolonged. Pertinent radio messages are drowned out by your surroundings. Showcase moments, such as an early flying car scene, dwell on unremarkable things or go on forever. One particular moment featuring the famous, sexualized twin ballerina robots was so painfully drawn out, I made a cup of tea and it was still going. I’d’ve skipped it, given it offered little-to-no exposition, but you don’t have the option to.

An interface from hell

The inability to skip cutscenes in Atomic Heart only scratches the surface of its questionable UI and UX choices. On Xbox Series X, you vacuum up items with your glove with RB, and have to double-tap and hold it to scan a room; you’ll consistently fail to get the one you need. You can’t remap controls–you don’t even have the option to see the controller layout.

Other systems aren’t clear, to the point you wonder why they’re even included. Storage is an odd and unnecessary mechanic, especially because you possess a magic backpack. It’s made even more confounding by an interface that doesn’t tell you what items are. You’ll spend a good hour with Atomic Heart’s red fridges–half of which want to have violent sex with you (and make you cringe yourself inside out with their horny dialog)–just to remove useless items and claim back the ammo and health reserves you actually need.

It took me half an hour to figure out how to add canisters to guns, and even then, it was an unwieldy process with its mostly redundant weapon wheel, which is superseded by D-pad swapping. It’s just as well that canisters are only useful for defeating one or two specific types of bosses, though you’ll probably just get the Fat Man bazooka to make short work of them instead.

The map, too, seems like an afterthought. Then again, so does the open world it charts, when you finally get the chance to explore it.

A wasted open world

It’s hard to think of a first-person action RPG where you’re less incentivized to explore its world. Once you clear its initial linear sections, Atomic Heart is quite expansive, but there’s next-to-no desire to go off the story track, given that any battle is a huge threat, you can easily trigger alarms to raise the enemy threat to DEFCON 1, and robots and cameras are rebuilt within moments of you destroying them.

The main reason to check out optional bunkers is to get weapon upgrades, but the map is so hard to understand and navigate–not least because everything has the same name–that you don’t see the point, especially because you can clear Atomic Heart with the first five or six weapons you choose to build and upgrade with its many material currencies.

It’s not made any better by the game’s driving mechanics; I’ve never known a car to understeer and oversteer at the same time, but Atomic Heart manages it. Running over robots is satisfying, but don’t try crashing into anything human-shaped, because you’ll be sent into an anti-gravity ballet of endless spinning, while robots and organic monsters alike descend on your car like 28 Days Later.

To be fair, it’s no surprise that driving is problematic; by the time you make it to the surface, you’ll’ve already encountered plenty of glitches. Between the odd crash, Atomic Heart’s gameplay is rocked by disappearing boss health bars, vanishing weapons, enemies clipping through ceilings, and overlays from pick-ups that stay on screen until you reload your save, even persisting through cutscenes.

Saving graces

For all its gripes, Atomic Heart can still be a lot of fun, even if it makes you wait for moments of genius, which themselves tend to be concentrated into short bursts of sheer brilliance. One 20-minute experience may be one of the best FPS sections in the last few years, consisting of a horde mode battle set to classical music, followed by an excellent shadow-based puzzle, culminating in a boss fight set to Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”. These delightful moments of mystery, intrigue, and campiness are what Atomic Heart promised but rarely delivers.

Along with its art direction–and the marvelous cartoons used to demonstrate the game’s upgrades and special moves (which you’ll rarely use)–Atomic Heart’s soundtrack is among its greatest assets, though it isn’t surprising given it has contributions from Doom Eternal’s Mick Gordon and a wealth of Russian composers. If anything, it’s underused; only a few major battles lean into the time-honored trope of “lots of enemies, commence the guitar riffs”.

Too much or never enough

Atomic Heart seems like a game that was full of simple ideas to start with, but these got diluted during its years-long development, resulting in too many unrefined ideas crashing together to distract from, and complicate, what could’ve been one of the best FPS games of 2023.

With some post-release updates, plenty of its technical and accessibility problems could be fixed, but these still won’t help paper over the cracks of a tale where unlikeable characters traverse through a gradually more uninspiring world, where twists and turns can be predicted hours in advance, and your character’s response to 90% of the situations he finds in it to yell “crispy critters”–easily the most gratingly unsuitable catchphrase for P-3, given he’s meant to be a Soviet soldier who otherwise swears like a drunken sailor.

Mundfish has left the door open for a sequel, but it’s hard to get excited about a follow-up–regardless of which ending is considered canon. For now, Atomic Heart is the perfect addition to Game Pass; you might find more to love, but if you struggle to like it after your first major session, don’t expect it to win you over in the hours that follow.

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