From a visual and immersion standpoint, Atomic Heart’s opening is brilliant. It presents an alternate history vision of the USSR where the country has managed to progress and develop technology to the point where robots, advanced cities in the sky, and AI all exist alongside architecture and fashion born from the fever dream of a 20th-century Russian science-fiction author.
As an unnamed Soviet operative, Major P-3 and his AI-glove CHAR-les, you play the role of a virtual tourist as you explore one of the mega structures in the clouds. In the opening, you get to walk the streets and interact with humans and robots while tasting a utopian vision of society. Or, Communism 2.0 powered by a technological breakthrough called ‘Polymers.’
The next step is a singularity-like leap with the introduction of a new neural interface that will allow people to control robots through thought and connect everyone on the planet. This is why the streets are teeming with celebration, and the air is filled with confetti. That is, before things go horribly wrong and fall apart.
From a visual and immersion standpoint, Atomic Heart’s opening is brilliant.
Unfortunately for Atomic Heart, it too begins to strain under the weight and pressure of its ambition and scope. With an experience that is breathtaking, exciting, annoying, frustrating, and undercooked - often all at once.
One of the more immediate issues with Atomic Heart as a game is the tonal dissonance between its setting, story, and pretty much everything else. The main protagonist is an angry and unlikable cartoon character that sees every obstacle or objective placed in front of them as an affront to their existence. This is amplified to near-unseen but definitely not unheard-of levels when the in-game chatter between Major P-3 and his AI-glove CHAR-les becomes tiring.
Setting aside the poor English dub where American accents betray the art direction or the dialogue, which is both aggressive and juvenile in its overt sexualisation of random elements, it’s relentless. So much so that you could be in a heated minutes-long combat encounter with various robots and mutated humanoids or in a creepy facility looking to solve an environmental puzzle - and throughout most of that time, a swear-filled or inane dialogue exchange is happening.
Like its introduction and retro aesthetics, a lot of Atomic Heart feels directly influenced by BioShock. Mechanically this filters down to finding recordings that add historical context to your immediate surroundings. If you could put money on Major P-3, already blabbing on about something every time you discover one of these pocket-watch-like devices, you’d be sitting on a big ol’ pile of cash. This makes their inclusion pointless.
Switching things over to the original Russian voices does improve the tonal weirdness. But with a small (and unchangeable) font size used for subtitles, coupled the non-stop talking, this quickly becomes untenable.
Atomic Heart begins to strain under the weight and pressure of its ambition and scope. With an experience that is breathtaking, exciting, annoying, frustrating, and undercooked - often all at once.
The real issue, though, is that Major P-3 has no interest in uncovering the mysteries of Atomic Heart’s world and will often respond with far cruder versions of “I don’t care.” Often directly to NPCs in response to something that should be used to add dramatic weight to the narrative or even some semblance of nuance or ambiguity. Instead, this has the (presumably) unintended impact of instilling the same thought in your head. Why should I care about exploring this world? What purpose does this giant translucent whale on display in this museum-like exhibition serve? Outside of looking spectacular.
There are thematic reasons for Major P-3 being an all-around piece of shit, which is explained in the game’s ambitious final moments, but the damage is already done at this point. It doesn’t help that the big reveals mirror what we’ve seen in other narratives and that these moments come after several hours of little to no character development.
Structurally, as a quasi-open thing, Atomic Heart is impressive. Huge thematic levels are interspersed between open areas that house ‘dungeons’ called Polygons, which offer weapon mods as rewards for their puzzle-combat challenges. It’s more Far Cry with puzzles than BioShock, and you can even jump into a car to get from one point to another.
Combat is more of the latter, though, with Polymer abilities in the form of electrical attacks, telekinesis, and the ability to use ice to freeze enemies being Atomic Heart’s version of BioShock’s Plasmids. Although robot designs, animation, and variety are wonderfully diverse thanks to origins born from non-combat functionality (a robot lumberjack ends up being an aggressive ball with a giant saw blade), many Polymer abilities feel underdeveloped.
And that’s in the sense that they lack an immediate punch, with the first shock ability not evolving beyond being a simple and weak zap and the game’s telekinetic powers being several steps behind Half-Life 2’s gravity gun or BioShock’s version of the same thing. Being able to hurl objects or even enemies around with great force, Atomic Heart has none of that.
The main protagonist is an angry and unlikable cartoon character that sees every obstacle or objective placed in front of them as an affront to their existence.
Combat itself is challenging, and it has a distinct feel. It can be thrilling when you need to manage cameras and repair droids as part of this singular symbiotic robotic threat, but the execution often falls flat due to repetition. Weapons fare better, and although crafting and scavenging for blueprints and materials is just about the entirety of the dungeon-like side quest experience, standard shooter mechanics often prevail.
With the bonus of a melee focus due to ammo scarcity (at least initially), the dodge system adds some up-close-and-personal swings and slices, which is great. Though even this devolves into; you see a glowing red circle, you dash; otherwise, you’re on your ass. Literally, there probably hasn’t been a first-person shooter where the main character was this bad at maintaining their balance.
There is build variety and different options to choose from in the upgrade department, and thankfully you can switch things out without being penalised. This is especially handy for boss battles, which are impressive in scope and detail and are the game’s saving grace. Bosses are not only hulking robotic creations that look menacing and otherworldly, but they move and animate in ways reminiscent of Guerilla’s robo-dinosaur work in the Horizon series. These battles are tense, and as they let the soundtrack do the talking, they are always a lot of fun.
Reviewed on PC, with a GeForce RTX 4090 GPU, it’s worth adding that Atomic Heart performs well. In the age of poor PC ports and games full of stutter and performance issues, Atomic Heart’s technical performance is commendable - even if you don’t enable something like DLSS. Weirdly though, as a game that has been showcased as using real-time ray tracing for its lighting effects in the past, these features were not available in the review build.
Combat itself is challenging, and it has a distinct feel. It can be thrilling when you need to manage cameras and repair droids as part of this singular symbiotic robotic threat, but the execution often falls flat due to repetition.
Even without the ability to go ‘RTX On,’ Atomic Heart is still a visual delight with stunning art direction, character designs, and environments that never fail to impress. The aesthetic and setting have made it one of our most highly anticipated releases for 2023, so it’s a shame that much of it doesn’t work. On top of the non-stop chatter, other elements feel similarly indulgent; puzzles for the sake of puzzles (on top of the good stuff) and fetch quests that often feel like one or two more of a “thing you need to collect” than there should be.
But even so, the biggest disappointment - outside of the narrative, uneven combat, and characters - comes from the expectation and promise found in the art direction, combat, and Soviet-era Russian sci-fi style. There’s a school of thought that when it comes to a review, you should discuss the content of a game versus what it doesn’t have. The logic is sound, if all criticism comes from a place of unmet expectation, that would be unfair. But when something looks this good, you can’t help but wonder what’s missing. At least in those rare moments when the game shuts up long enough for you to think.