It feels like it’s rapidly becoming the norm that where highly anticipated games get delayed for an extra check for cracks and marks, or to receive an additional lick of paint, they find themselves being released into a world of controversy. Atomic Heart might have thought it was immune to that a few years back when the development started and the team at Mundfish started drip feeding details and gameplay to the press, but who knew what would happen across the globe and that suddenly the subject, location and pretty much every element of your labour of love is about the current geopolitical bad guys. Not only that, but you’re accused of being in league with that regime too. There are only really two options to go with – scrap it and start something else, or release it and power through the fallout to see if people can look past the obvious and enjoy it for what it is. Mundfish opted for the latter, and history will decide whether they did the right thing or not… we’ll decide whether we liked story and gameplay they’ve been crafting for 5 years.
Atomic Heart is set in an alt history mid-1950’s where Russia won the Second World War and have become the dominant superpower. Through the invention of a programmable liquid called the Polymer, the country has leapt far ahead of its rivals across most technologies, specifically in robotics and artificial intelligence. In Facility 3826, the main scientific hub of the country, the latest update to the remote network that controls the robots, called the Kollectiv, is about to go live and this will link robots and humans for easier control. You’re there as Sergei Nechaev – a military officer and gopher for the head scientist Dmitry Sechenov – and that’s a good thing because pretty quickly it all goes to hell and the automatons start rampaging and killing every person they see. With no clue as to what’s happened, no support from anyone outside the sprawling facility, and only a talking glove to keep you from going completely insane, Sergei needs to uncover the source of the inevitable sabotage as well as figure out what’s really going on with his boss and the new human/machine connections.
As a story driven FPS with light RPG elements in a what if…? scenario with gunplay and “powers”, Atomic Heart is going to obviously draw comparisons with Bioshock. It’s prepped for this and the opening section even feels very similar to the beginning of Bioshock Infinite – there’s no masking the influences here. From verbose travelling companions, to audio diaries, and on to one hand wielding firearms and other special abilities, the parallels cannot be ignored. Nor should they, there’s flattery in imitation, and if there’s a decent tale at its core then let’s go! Is there a decent tale though? That’s where things are a bit muddy, and not because the premise isn’t intriguing, it’s more that for all the consideration of the world building there’s a lack of real connection to Nachaev and the events that are taking place. I’ll come back to that because you’ll get some distance into the game before that dissonance registers, up to that stage there’s quite a lot of fun to be had playing with the physics system and figuring out exactly what you can do.
Much of the gameplay is combat focused, as you’d expect with homicidal robots roaming every inch of the landscape. There’s a decent variety to go at from bipedal android types (with a penchant for wearing a ‘tache), flying laser beam shooting pains in the ass, rolling buzzsaws, and much larger deadlier variants to deal with. All of them are susceptible to being whacked and shot though, so those that like a blend of melee and shooter action are going to enjoy this. Atomic Heart isn’t shy with the arsenal in terms of variety as there’s a tool to suit everyone – several axe-type lumps of metal are available alongside stock projectile weapons and experimental energy blasters. The aim is to provide you with as many options to defend yourself as possible, and have two groups that don’t require ammo pickups so you can always attack. Its USP here is that the versatile Polymer can be applied to each weapon to add elemental effects and increase damage, with the ability to swap effects in and out of your favourites by changing cartridges. There’s no doubt it works very well, and the combat is chunky and effective, yet it would be good if the game actually explained things a little clearer, especially with equipping cartridges.
Aside from the large number of guns in your “quantum” backpack (yes, that’s basically how it explains you being able to stash everything which is a knowing nod to Star Trek: Elite Force), you’ve a glove on your left hand that holds a sentient AI you name Charles, because Sergei is a bit of a dick and doesn’t learn its real name. Charles enables the use of Polymer powers such as levitation, electric zapping and ice, as well as being able to scan the environment for human or robot signatures. He’s also there to further the story and put up with insults and wisecracks that attempt to lighten the mood. Only two powers can be equipped at once and have to be swapped between, though they’re easy to mix in a combo style and couple with guns so that you deliver massive damage. Anything that takes down the AI faster is a good move because conveniently there are quite a lot of repair drones that flock to fix anything you break. Dawdle too long in an area and you’ll end up under attack all over again, just with less ammo than before. As with the firearms, the abilities are all solidly thought out and do the right things, even if they’re nothing overly new in the genre due to their elemental nature, or in the way they have to cooldown to be re-used.
Of course, in any RPG game there’s a need to be able to upgrade and improve abilities and weapons, and Atomic Heart is no different in offering up a combination of crafting and improvements. Materials are collected from the environment with a nice magnetic hoovering effect managed by Charles T. Glove, and spent at the vending machines dotted around. With loads of materials to collect in the world (some rooms are just filled with cabinets and drawers to siphon) and multiple different types collected, it does get a bit complicated for when you want a new club or pistol… or would if you knew what you were picking up from where. There’s some detail around the robot parts, but the rest seems to be arbitrary and I just don’t know why the many different components are needed instead of just one resource, like is used for the glove improvements. It’s doubly bad when you’ve gone through several hours of snagging scrap to still not be able to actually create that new fancy weapon blueprint due to a shortage of something you just don’t care about. Still, they do make a difference when you manage to successfully add upgrades or craft a rocket launcher.
What does soothe the suck, store, spend cycle of collecting parts is the environment you’re exploring as Facility 3826 is certainly unique. There’s a bunch of environmental design work gone in to figuring out what a strong and advanced Soviet society would look like, and it has an interesting blend of pleasing architectural forms meeting the imposing and austere. It also plays into the copy/paste style of pop up areas and uniformity that definitely helps fill the large play spaces. Whilst the initial stages are indoors and typical corridor shooter fodder, the outside areas are impressively scaled and provide a number of secondary optional objectives to tackle. This leads on to Atomic Heart’s puzzles that are part of both the primary and secondary missions, and it’s an area that’s delivered with some flare. Whether you’re picking a lock by clicking your fingers, or searching for unlock codes, or inverting magnetic fields and creating paths, there’s a great mix that means you don’t feel like they’re overused even if you’ve come across them multiple times. Some even crossover with talking to the dead strewn about the place, which brings some existential questions into the narrative that maybe you weren’t expecting.
Sooooo, back to the dissonance… whilst there’s something of a mystery to solve, the story beats are fast and can be technologically heavy and our friend Sergei isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. This leads to some jarring conversations with a fair amount of swearing because he’s either impatient or doesn’t understand – usually about 3 seconds into whatever the other person is saying. I get it’s his character, and I’m not going to hide that there are some genuinely amusing parts, yet I think I’d have preferred a silent protagonist and let the events wash over me more. Hindering things further are very tight trigger zones for audio, meaning that someone can be explaining something and you walk 2 millimetres too far and it cuts out, never to be repeated. Most of the characters you meet don’t have nuance, much like our protagonist, such as a stereotypical German scientist or an overlay sexual female AI. The latter is not done as a pastiche or in an empowering way, more just blatant misogyny, and it really doesn’t sit right in the context. Clearly there’s parts lacking in the characterisation, though credit to the voice actors who give it their all. Maybe I should have listened to the game in Russian with subtitles instead of the Americanised dub.
What Atomic Heart had in promise is there, though you have to be prepared to ignore some rough edges. There are elements that could have done with a little refining, such as the robot fights that get tedious with the constant repairs, an audio cacophony in the open air sections, the convoluted for the sake of it upgrade system, and probably too much anger-tinged dialogue. It is striking to look and and experience though, with a solid set of combat mechanics and enough drip fed weapon variety and options for powers use that it doesn’t get stale. Allow the Polymer strangeness and technological allegories to engulf you and accept it for what it is – a very competent Bioshock wannabe – and it’ll have the blood pumping through your veins throughout.
A PS5 review copy of Atomic Heart was provided by Focus Interactive’s PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation and Xbox for around £60 (or part of GamePass if you subscribe).
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