For the past four years, various story trailers and gameplay overviews have conveyed to us a project that is a wildly ambitious technological showcase, while also being narratively and mechanically dense.
Immediate parallels were drawn between Atomic Heart and many other modern shooters, citing the “utopia gone wrong” narrative and complex combat that makes use of both weapons and special powers. And after playing the game, I can tell you that those comparisons are mostly accurate. However, while the gameplay is solid, the game falls short in other areas. Does that mean Atomic Heart isn’t worth your time?
"Atomic Heart, for better or worse, is a game that is obsessed with spectacle."
Atomic Heart, for better or worse, is a game that is obsessed with spectacle. The developer’s need to “wow” or shock you is palpable throughout the game, and while some of it works, some of it comes across as strained. Atomic Heart is the studios’ first major game and one that is also incredibly high profile, with seemingly the entire games industry anticipating it. Of course, it’s easy to imagine that this largely new, untested studio would believe it has something to prove.
Everything up to and even slightly after the title card drop is dedicated to introducing you to Atomic Heart’s world, and it is every bit as visually impressive as the trailers would have you believe. The designs of the world, people, and robots you encounter are breathtaking, and the graphical fidelity on display is very impressive. That much is clear from the game’s spectacular opening.
However, your first foray into Atomic Heart is also marked by walking through a crowd and being bombarded with a cacophony of conversations, all seemingly happening at the same time. This sequence happens only in the opening (you don’t deal with groups of humans for the rest of the game), but it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth almost immediately. I literally felt like clutching my head, screaming, and running somewhere quiet.
The rest of the opening was comprised of several, long cutscenes where the game takes its time to show you its gorgeous world and sumptuous graphics. Everything is visually breathtaking, without a doubt. But these sequences went for far too long for my liking. By that point, I was fifteen minutes into the game without any kind of real gameplay outside of walking and interacting with various things. This shows up a few times throughout the game, but its worse at the beginning.
"The level of environmental detail and the way they are used for storytelling is fantastic."
When you actually gain control of Major Sergei Nechaev, nicknamed P-3, the protagonist of Atomic Heart, things pick up very quickly and begin to get interesting. The level of environmental detail and the way they are used for storytelling is fantastic. Things like the spiral masses of polymer that can be swam through as whispers of the past echo in your ears, and the metal tentacles that stick out of walls to suspend corpses in their grasp inspire wonder and fear in equal measure. Mundfish’s art direction team must have worked overtime on this and it shows.
In playing Atomic Heart, you can almost feel the games that inspired its developer breaking through. Sci-fi gunplay and powers combo and Dead Island’s melee combat take center stage, but there is also a weapon crafting system reminiscent of Fallout 4 that plays a huge part in the game’s progression. Five to six hours in, the game takes on a typical open world approach, complete with towers to scale and cars to drive in order to get around. That turn completely changes how the game played compared to the aforementioned first few hours. Overall, these inspirations are implemented and combined in a way that feels unique to Atomic Heart. Even if you can see where the individual threads come from, it doesn’t take away from the game’s experience.
What does take away from the Atomic Heart experience is its writing. The core story and how it plays out is captivating, but the presentation and dialogue of some of the main characters falls pretty flat. For instance, there are attempts made to make Major Nachaev a likable character, but he comes across as just the opposite. Similarly, a character named Granny Zina feels like she was positioned to become a fan favorite, but just comes across as weird initially. To make matters worse, the weak English voice acting for both of these characters only amplifies how confounding and off-the-mark their dialogue actually is.
Thankfully, Atomic Heart makes up for that mess in its gameplay, and this is where it really shines. Melee is brutal and crunchy, the weapons have great feedback, and use of the powers in the midst of everything else feels great. Everything feels smooth until you are insta-killed because of a fumbled QTE. However, managing groups of highly unsettled, out-of-control robots by mixing up your powers and weapons is thrilling, and dealing with the range of epic boss encounters is just as, if not more exciting, especially as you come across new weapon recipes and start building up your arsenal. There’s some light puzzle work interspersed with the action, and it’s serviceable. It does its job of breaking up hectic rounds of combat, but it’s nothing to write home about.
"Melee is brutal and crunchy, the weapons have great feedback, and use of the powers in the midst of everything else feels great."
As a crafting/survival game, Atomic Heart has also found a way to take the tedium out of resource gathering. Thanks to P-3’s trusty and fashionable glove (named “CHAR-LES”), you can sweep through a whole room and gather everything by holding down the interact button. It’s a supremely welcome addition, as is the “detective vision” scanning function also offered by the glove, which shows enemies, resources, and other useful things through walls and obstacles.
In order to use those resources for crafting, you’ll need to visit a fridge-like robot named NORA. When you first meet it, it is clear that NORA might be the weirdest character ever put in a video game, to the point of being off-putting. I kind of got the feeling that NORA was meant to be funny, but I was never on board with its characterization. Not every crafting bot has NORA’s AI, thankfully, but she still manages to pop up pretty frequently with plenty of things to say, including some really uncomfortable one liners.
There seemed to be an attempt at explaining NORA’s behavior, but an unfortunate design choice caused me to miss most of that conversation. You see, for the majority of the game, Agent P-3 and his glove have frequent conversations. Most of the dialogue they share is just a bunch of non-sense (almost everything P-3 says is either cringey or poorly delivered), but some of it is plot relevant. Due to the length of those conversations, it is possible for them to get cut off if you move into an important area mid-conversation. That’s what happened to me, and while I would have loved to know the explanation for NORA’s characterization, it just wasn’t possible in my playthrough.
"The actual game (when you are allowed to play it), is really very impressive, and it only falls slightly short of the promise of its hype."
Keeping in mind that this is Mundfish’s first major game, it is easy to forgive the issues there are with Atomic Heart. The actual game (when you are allowed to play it), is really very impressive, and it only falls slightly short of the promise of its hype. It’s not quite game of the year material, but I think Atomic Heart will hold its own in the gaming conversation for quite a while.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Satisfying combat; Inventive setting with incredible visuals; Solid story.
Weak voice acting; Occasionally bad dialogue/writing; Too much talking that is easily cut off; NORA is too much.