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Atomic Heart Review: Usually Satisfying, Sometimes Rough

Atomic Heart Review: Usually Satisfying, Sometimes Rough

For a game that was revealed in 2018, I don’t know if Mundfish could have chosen a worse release date for a game based around an alternate history where a Soviet-Russian utopia has the west at its mercy.

But admittedly, I can’t expect game companies to hold much sway international diplomacy, and private companies do have to make money, yet Atomic Heart brought plenty of wood to its own pyre too.

 

From questionable funding and marketing events to data collection and a “racist cartoons” controversy, Mundfish has been walking a fine line. The game itself has a lot to talk about but much like its atmosphere – people have been left very uneasy.

Moving onto the game itself, Atomic Heart really lands that uncanny and unsettling nature. Whether it be the talking dead, the hyper-sexual upgrade machine that tried to kill you, or how many robotic enemies portray a blissful ignorance to your survival – think bounding, colourful frisbees… with flamethrowers, or waddling, communist bowling balls… with buzzsaws.

 

In fact, the unnerving atmosphere leans excellently into the fictional history. Where the Soviet architecture, music, and all the set dressing beside has a veneer of perfection yet feels so out of place. Even the save rooms feel vulnerable thanks to their eerily artificial décor.

 

The cartoons for your glove upgrades are a great example: A well-to-do boy scout eviscerating the embodiment of capitalism who looks like the monopoly man’s evil twin – it’s like an 18+ rated Dennis the Menace – a light-hearted mischievousness combined with a Wolfenstein level of violence just adds seamlessly with the robot hell-in-a-handbasket set dressing.

 

Both gameplay and tone clearly take their inspiration from the Bioshock series, combining a variety of character powers with a small assortment of distinctive, upgradable weapons. While the laboratory aesthetics give off a classic Portal feel of the clinical, high-tech research facility gone awry. However, it feels like both elements needed more development to really shine.

Take the melee combat, it feels powerful and quick, especially with damage tearing up the enemy model, as you dodge flying kicks and haymakers - both the punch and the machine. But I found melee weapons too slow or too weak to deal with any more than two enemies at a time.

 

This could be a deliberate choice by the developers to encourage adapting to different combat styles, but often, I just switched to my firearm since it was more reliable than a clunky axe swing. Which is a crying shame given how fantastic the weapons themselves looked.

 

Ironically, much like the greedy capitalists the animation’s poke fun at, the game also has a lot of excess. Your glove generally advises you to be quick, careful with your resources, and take the path of least resistance, but within the first two hours, I had enough buckshot to overthrow a tsarist regime. While searching for weapon upgrades just felt like a distraction from the real content.

 

You can use the right weapon for the job and killing enemies quicker in the process, or you can just stick to whatever you’re holding and get the same result in a little more time. At the end of the day, when I’m swarmed by monsters and the shotgun I’m holding works almost as well as the fancy lightning glove – I’ll stick with the boomstick.

That said, I loved the looting mechanic of yanking everything useful out of a filing cabinet in one swift motion. The novelty fades after a while and I had to backtrack more than once because I missed one shelf of the 48-drawer set, but it was much easier than having to interface with every nook and cranny. It was an inspired move that made sense for their universe, and I really hope other developers take notes.

 

Speaking of loot, I think the devs were going for a Resident Evil baggage system – with limited capacity and Tetris-like item storage – but they had so many different crafting components that it just blended into the background. In the end, I didn’t care what I looted. If I got back to the lusty fridge and saw the numbers were too low, I just shrugged and figured they’d go up soon enough.

 

It’s a shame that many of Atomic Heart’s otherwise great features were bogged down like this. The unique and occasional puzzles are interesting and rewarding to solve, but they’re watered down by the repetitive lockpicking stopgaps. Also, if the protagonist moans about the boring fetch quest, that doesn't make it any better - it just makes the problem more obvious.

 

But of all the places to deal with any tedium, I’m so glad it was in this beautifully made environment. Credit must go to the art department – particularly with the range of enemies that look unique, charming and threatening all at once. The music too is fantastic at psyching you up for any boss fight or clutch skirmishes - Doom and Wolfenstein composer, Mick Gordon, has done himself proud as usual.

 

Even from a hardware standpoint, I had a couple of frame rate issues, but my experience was polished. Couple all this with playtime of around 20 hours for the story and 40 hours with collectibles, and it’s a game that respects your time by spacing out its content nicely.

 

Although some of that content is… less than appreciated. Specifically, the dialogue of the main character. The voice acting itself is well-done, and maybe it’s different outside of the English dub, but a gruff video game protagonist whose only emotions are disgruntled or raging feels like a step back to one-dimensional soldiers of 00’s gaming.

All Images Courtesy of Focus Entertainment

That poor characterisation is emphasised by a script that I’m frankly surprised made it to production. The dirty-talking upgrade machine sounds like the dialogue was written by a teen going through puberty, while the protagonist swears like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue myself, but you’d think Major P-3 was studying a curse and slurs module for an English exam.

 

His anger is meant to be a plot device, but I honestly struggled to root for him after his second line of dialogue. Insulting everyone and everything in the first two minutes made it hard to play him, let alone empathise with him. While the story itself was quite predictable, leaning too obviously into the Bioshock inspiration. With an ending that - like the flying robots I shot - didn’t stick the landing.

 

Despite my gripes, I did enjoy my time with Atomic Heart (though I lived in waking dread of P-3 opening his mouth). The powerful combat, uncanny robots, and eldritch-like organic monsters make you feel like a world-beater for just long enough that a giant, sentient ball-bearing can sweep you off your feet and it could still be a shock.

 

In the end, if I had one word for Atomic Heart, it’s ambitious. The music, theming, and general gameplay are a credit to the developers, and well-crafted single-player experiences aren’t as common as they once were. But early design choices around characterisation, story, and mechanics stopped this otherwise good game from becoming a standout title.

 

Want to see for yourself? Find it here at Gaming Hound

Atomic Heart is available on disc and digitally for PS4, PS5, the Xbox Series and PC, RRP £59.99.

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