as a game, Atomic Heart exists at a fascinating crossroads. It’s an imaginative first-person shooter heavily influenced by bioshock. An alternate history of the Soviet Union with a sci-fi setting is full of opportunities to delight and terrify at the same time. Considering that it’s well presented for the most part and plays well within its massive scope, it’s commendable. There’s a lot to like about Atomic Heart, but some worrisome design decisions could spell trouble.
Atomic Heart set in the sci-fi-saturated, alternative 1950s. What makes it unique is that it’s different bioshock or Stand outencompassing all Americana, Atomic Heart focuses on the Soviet Union after World War II. The war ended largely thanks to significant technological advances in energy and robotics by the USSR, and now the Soviet Union is enjoying a post-war boom as a world leader.
With robotic assistants in every walk of life, it seems poised on the brink of a communist utopia until many of the robots suddenly turn against their masters and a full-scale massacre ensues. It’s a novel setup, and the contrasts between Russian culture and American culture make here and similar titles Atomic Heart engaged from the start.
Screenshot of GameSkinny
The protagonist is not that strong. You play as Major Nechaev, better known as Agent P3, as you try to track down and stop the perpetrators responsible for the robot massacre. As your avatar, he’s decent, but has a couple of major flaws. He’s as generic as can be: a square-jawed, middle-aged white guy with amnesia who spits out one-liners. He’s a carbon copy of almost every shooter protagonist that has come before, and a “worse Booker DeWitt” just isn’t that interesting.
He just won’t shut up either. P3 talks constantly, mostly with the AI powered glove on his hand, CHARLES. The dialogues are terrible too. There’s nothing wrong with the regular use of profanity, people really speak it away, and it can lead to mature characterization, but P3 drops F-bombs with a frequency and in combinations worthy of a teenage edgelord’s online forum are more at home. It’s often frightening and somehow gets worse when he starts yelling “Crispy Critters” mid-game at every surprise. It’s unsettling and distracts from immersing yourself in the world.
Atomic Heart is ultimately an action game, and it does it pretty well at that. They are armed with firearms and makeshift melee weapons, each with different uses. Some weapons, like the shotgun, use conventional and limited ammunition. Others, like the Electrogun, use a slowly regenerating energy system. The melee weapons all have a makeshift, on-the-fly look (similar to those in dying light) and can regenerate energy through use.
Screenshot of GameSkinny
Most weapons are crafted from collected parts and blueprints, and feature robust upgrade trees that keep them fresh and interesting. The processing is simple and to the point, be carried out at one of the numerous handicraft stations. Even better, scavenging a room for parts is as simple as reaching out and sucking it all up through your special gauntlet. You can empty an entire room in seconds, and honestly, it’s a feature more games should implement.
With the polymer skills, this is taken a step further. These are effectively special powers. You can only equip a few at a time, but they allow you to shoot lightning at enemies, freeze them, lift and punch them with telekinesis, and more. Like weapons, polymer abilities can be upgraded, with branching paths and a rewarding increase in performance.
Abilities come from your left hand, while weapons and melee attacks come from your right. Combine them and a fight against a powerful enemy becomes an intricate dance of shooting, switching, using powers and dodging. I particularly enjoyed firing off an ice beam and firing my shotgun at my stationary target at close range, hoping to shatter it before my ice runs out and it needs to be recharged.
Enemies have a surprising amount of variety. Most of your violence is directed against the mustache-clad humanoid robots, which dismember satisfactorily. There are also various small flying drones, mobile buzz saws on wheels, and grotesque mutant laboratory experiments, to name a few. Each has different attacks and patterns with different vulnerabilities to exploit. They’re fun to fight and challenging enough on standard difficulty to require some planning for larger groups. Some unique bosses with health bars appear regularly and can be a tough test.
Screenshot of GameSkinny
Atomic Heart is largely divided into corridors of underground bases and sprawling open-world sections. The underground areas often require collecting and returning various important items to a central hub. They fold back on themselves in interesting ways, but backtracking gets boring at times. Luckily, each section tends to favor unique themes and mechanics, like swimming through floating polymer or using switches to guide a herbicide tank to a specific area.
The open world areas are generally well done, with plenty of houses or other optional points of interest between you and your destination. It’s hard to resist the urge to scour every building you find for more parts to upgrade your arsenal. The main downside is that the enemies in these sections tend to respawn infinitely. Destroyed enemies are dispatched with repair drones to restore them, and these drones never run out. Eventually you’ll gain the ability to turn off the repair drones, but this is a endeavor in itself. I found myself avoiding these as much as possible.
Atomic Heart is a very nice looking game sometimes. The opening sequence is set to the excitement and fanfare surrounding the launch of the next great advance, designed to save people from work and connect everyone in an environment of shared thoughts and feelings. It is strongly reminiscent of the opening too BioShock Infinite. However, most of the game is significantly darker, with flatter textures and recurring elements that never reach the high bar set by the intro. The frame rate during scripted events and scenes also decreases noticeably, which can be distracting.
There are also some metatextual concerns that detract from the experience. Some of the humanoid robots you encounter are designed with very feminine figures, and the way they are treated is unsettling. Lingering low-angle buttshots, odd caresses, and awkward belly penetrations cross the threshold into something more insidious. There is an implicit sexualization unique to the woman presenting robots, underpinned by a general air of misogyny to be wary of, made worse by recorded dialogue and notes about brothels and “robosexuality”.
There are also legitimate and unanswered questions about the role of Atomic Heart, and whether or not the game itself supports real-world military aggression. The truth isn’t clear, but the game avoids becoming a pro-Soviet (and therefore pro-Russian) narrative. The regime is not portrayed as benevolent or even particularly competent. Individuals vying for political influence are at the center of the conflict, and the state is part of the setting that leads to the game’s robotic apocalypse. Atomic Heart‘s narrative is many things, but it is certainly not a glowing endorsement of any regime.
Atomic Heart Review – The Bottom Line
Image via Mundfish
- Unique and interesting environment.
- Satisfying mix of weapons and powers.
- Creative and varied enemies that are fun.
- vacuum hand!
- Open-world areas can be tedious beatings of endless enemies.
- P3 is somehow both boring and annoying.
- Really disturbing relationship with female characters.
Atomic Heart does a lot of things well. It skillfully picks up on what games like bioshock done before and gives it a unique twist. The weapons and powers are fun, battling rampaging robots is a blast, and the setting of alternative 1950s Russia is fresh and interesting.
The protagonist, unfortunately, is a barrage of horrible dialogue, and the attitude towards female characters is worrying. Shuffle through open-world segments of infinitely respawning enemies, and you’ve got a good game that’s a few better choices from being great.
[Note: Mundfish provided the copy of Atomic Heart used for this review. Featured image via Mundfish.]