Say what you like about Atomic Heart, you can’t fault it for ambition. This alt-history shooter wears its Bioshock influence on its sleeve – but Rapture isn’t the only well it draws from. Alongside Atomic Heart’s high-concept plot and Plasmid-style left-hand abilities, it also packs in a Far Cry-style open world, boss fights akin to Dark Souls, and environmental platforming that reminded me of Half-Life.
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Does it all coherently fit together? Absolutely not. But I enjoyed the 30-ish hours I spent with Atomic Heart, perhaps more than so than I thought I would after struggling to find my way in.
My frustrations at the beginning of Atomic Heart had nothing to do with its glorious set-piece intro, where you’re deposited in the Chalomey Complex, a retrofuturistic utopia that sits atop a floating mechanical platform. With its red-dominated colour palette and towering statues of USSR leaders, this opening act does a tremendous job of grounding you in Atomic Heart’s alternate reality, one where the Soviet Union has made world-altering scientific breakthroughs in the years following World War 2. At last, fully automated luxury communism has been achieved. With robots. Lots of robots.
Predictably, things go awry. Our protagonist, battle-scarred veteran Agent P-3, is shipped out to the robotics development hub Facility 3826, where he soon discovers a problem: the robots are murdering their creators. His airborne chauffeurs cut the guided tour short, sending P-3 hurtling into the facility’s loamy turf. Post-faceplant, Atomic Heart appears on the screen and the game begins in earnest.
Here, the tone takes a strange turn into campy survival horror, undermining the careful worldbuilding we got in the opening segment. We encounter a bazooka-wielding granny who yells obscenities at the robotic horde. Another major character appears in confusing circumstances, then abruptly disappears. Shortly after, P-3 gets groped by a nymphomaniac fridge. The fridge turns out to be the weapons upgrade console, one of many identical models we encounter throughout the game. Later on, Atomic Heart ditches this riff entirely, cutting out the smutty dialogue in what feels like an acknowledgment of how bizarre it was.
All the while, P-3 reacts to every on-screen event in surly, teenagerish fashion. His dialogue is rarely witty or inventive – mainly it’s just sweary, which gets grating quickly. He’s especially fond of summarising the event you just saw happen on screen. “Holy shit, that was a surprise!” he says once, in response to a surprising thing happening. Some counterbalance is provided by CHAR-les, the talking robotic glove who grants P-3 his left-hand “polymer” abilities, and thankfully comes programmed with a far more likeable personality.
I got past my initial misgivings after the first couple of hours. Partly this was down to Atomic Heart’s satisfyingly weighty combat. Axe swings and shotgun blasts lop off robotic limbs, providing some much-needed feedback as you hack down surprisingly durable robotic foes. Atomic Heart also gives you a solid roster of left-hand abilities, so-called “polymers”. One short-circuits onrushing robots; another grants you an exploding energy shield; another coats enemies in a layer of goop that enhances damage from your other abilities. My favourite was Mass Telekinesis, which lets you hoick crowds of bots into the air and dispatch them in one hit by hurling them back to earth.
Atomic Heart is also surprisingly puzzle heavy. Some, like the lock-hacking mini-games, are a standard sort of rote diversion. They’re well-implemented – particularly one that requires you to turn off lights according to a rhythm – but largely predictable. Yet other puzzles display far more imagination than you’d necessarily expect from this family of action-RPG shooter. Some of them feel very Portal – like the ones that task you with magnetising and demagnetising electromagnetic platforms to navigate across a room. Others are downright quirky: a Snake mini-game concludes one middle-game segment, providing welcome comic relief if not a huge degree of challenge.
If Atomic Heart has unexpected successes, it also falls short in places where you’d expect it to be more competent. One of the culprits is an open world, which becomes available after you clear Atomic Heart’s first dungeon. While this world retains some of the characterful touches of the opening segment in Chalomey, they’re far fewer and further between. What it has in abundance is fleets of patrolling robots, all of which are determined to gun you down if you get too close.
Yes, it’s kind of fun fighting off wave after wave of brushed aluminium foes – and it is wave after wave, because once the security cameras clock you the alert level rises and more bots get airdropped in – but when you’re trying to mind your own business and navigate to the next objective, it’s a pain having to escape their attention. Hindering navigation further is the baffling absence of a minimap, which necessitates constantly opening up the world map to check you’re going the right way. For Atomic Heart’s story missions, which get a waypoint, this tends not to be a problem. But if you want to check out an optional dungeon, or visit one of the landmarks marked out on the map, it’s a nightmare. Driving exists, but it’s janky. As for vehicle variety: you can drive whatever you want, provided it’s one particular model of red car.
Atomic Heart defies easy summary. If there’s a unifying thread it’s the narrative, a science-fiction yarn that, via the metaphor of a human neural network dubbed Kollectiv, delivers a gentle critique of communism’s promise to elevate the collective over the individual. It’s good fun, though perhaps a little less thought-provoking than I was hoping. I ended up appreciating the small details that built up the world more than the grand sweep of the plot. One such was “Radio of the Future”, an algorithmic method of predicting future hits. We even get to hear these songs in Mick Gordon’s eclectic soundtrack, alongside Soviet pop from the 50s and 60s, a variety of classical compositions and heavy metal headbangers.
I should also briefly note the rumours swirling around that this game has a note in its license agreement about sharing users’ data with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The developer, Mundfish, has explicitly denied this, as has been reported elsewhere. Mundfish has also received criticism for sidestepping the Russio-Ukrainian war in a recent statement. It is, of course, an individual decision whether you want to support a developer that could quite plausibly have links to the Russian government. The game itself, however, doesn’t read like Russian propaganda. It’s overwhelmingly politically neutral, which in all honesty robs the plot of a little bite. Russia is neither glorified nor vilified – which in the historical context we’re given, seems about right.
Despite Atomic Heart’s flaws, there’s plenty to keep it interesting. While the opening moments of the game dented my ability to take the story seriously, I could definitely see myself returning for another playthrough: the extensive system of skills and upgrades keeps things engaging, especially given the genuine challenge the highest difficulty level provides.
If you’re into the alt-history Soviet aesthetic, that could tip Atomic Heart over the edge for you. If you’re not, you might crave a more focused experience.
Atomic Heart packs satisfying combat and a unique alt-history setting, but its open world feels half-baked.
- Fun combat and expansive skill trees
- Intriguing alt-history setting
- Thoughtful puzzles
- The open world isn’t much fun to explore – and navigation is a pain
- Abrupt tonal shifts undermine the seriousness of the plot
- Irritating protagonist