It was obvious from the second I saw the dorky metal moustache plastered above the top lip of Atomic Heart’s robotic helpers that they were going to turn evil. The game doesn’t even try to hide it – the opening moments of the game’s campaign have you slowly floating down a stunning canal while people around you talk about how their robot servants are slightly on the fritz.
When this assault by a group of the moustached metallic menaces finally happens it’s not all that surprising. But it is still terrifying, likely helped by their uncanny valley appearance and the inhuman way that they move.
Atomic Heart felt like a spiritual successor to Bioshock for most of my hands-on time with the game. Set in an alternate history where science has triumphed over almost everything else, this is a world where the Soviets won by seizing the high-tech means of production and used it to achieve world domination.
The art style is distinctive within video games, owing a debt to those classic Soviet propaganda posters. Atomic Heart has exceeded its quota of both hammers and sickles, embedding them everywhere in both the marbled halls in the first part of the preview and the darkened bunkers I was later forced to explore.
This bleeds over into the characters, too. Everyday robots look slightly misshapen and inhuman, while the fancy metal assistants are all chrome and polish. If this is the utopian capitalist society, it doesn’t seem like it.
Either way, it’s hard to think about that Soviet supremacy when you’ve been hounded across the countryside by robots and then tossed into a deep dark research facility by video gaming’s best octogenarian – Granny Zina, who covers your escape by spraying an AK47 at the approaching ‘bots and then toting a rocket launcher just before you descend – and forced to fend for yourself with little more than a fire axe and an empty KS-23 Shotgun.
In the facility I found myself in for 80 per cent of my hands-on playtime, I was exploring this bunker, listening to voice notes, talking to dead people via their creepy brain implants and trying to work out how to fight the robots stalking me through the corridors. Looting was oddly painless due to a hand implant that would let me hoover loot out of every drawer of a filing cabinet at once, inhaling detritus from around the room like some sort of hand-mounted Kirby.
This is good, because you’ll want to keep your brains about you for the combat. The robots I faced off against, while appearing to be a low-tier enemy, were tough and smart fighters with an uncanny ability to ambush me. Early fights are melee focused, and the difficulty is nearly infuriating because it’s easy to see how much better at this these droids are, dodging your attacks and knocking you away with relative ease. Killing one feels like an achievement. This just makes it all the more satisfying when you finally manage to wrangle up some shotgun shells and blow one in half with the meaty KS-23.
Having access to a gun felt like a luxury and, accordingly, whenever you fire one it felt like an event. The shotgun discharges with a mighty thump, whereas a later AK47 feels accurate and effective while still rattling away in my hands every time I pulled the trigger. This excitement will fade, but it was nice to feel some joy at getting to unload a weapon rather than wade in to deal with things with just my wits and an axe.
After forcefully trying to mate with me, a vending machine did end up being my one-stop shop for weapon customisation, new guns and even upgrades for my character. These upgrades trees seem extensive and gave me the ability the ability to make my AK47 shoot fire bullets, but I need more time with it to see if it gels for me.
During this play session it felt too overwhelming for me to get a real sense of what was possible. It’s something I’d like to slowly explore and grow into, whereas here I was often just slapping on electromagnetic barrels and damage buffs to try and tackle the next objective faster.
Still, if I thought the upgrade and skill system was overwhelming, the last 30 minutes of my play session – where I was torn from the well-crafted facility and dropped into an open world full of mutated plant monsters, new robots and given several different weapons – was sensory overload. It offered a glimpse of a different, much worse, game that didn’t have the atmosphere or tone of the Atomic Heart I’d seen up to this point.
Open-world Atomic Heart was a totally different beast and not in a good way. Someone from the team stopped by and cheerfully told me that this overworld was just a way to get from dungeon to dungeon and that those dungeons were full of handcrafted moments, but it felt more like something out of Generation Zero, in itself not a bad game, but dissonant compared to what I had seen so far.
Atomic Heart releases in February, and while I was left excited by the pulse pounding combat and terrifying robots stalking me through a claustrophobic environment for the most part, I was mostly left worried about the time I spent pissing about in the open world. This might gel together on release with a little time to ease into it, but it ended my preview on an uneasy note, with the big worry now being about how the game manages to merge those two parts of its fractured tone in a satisfactory way.
And what’s the deal with those plant monsters?
Atomic Heart releases on 21 February 2023.