I’m not sure what I expected when I first launched Atomic Heart. Unlike apparently everyone else, I was quite skeptical after seeing the first trailers. The art and music seemed top-notch, but the combat often appeared like a particle fiesta relying on the coolness factor rather than practicality. Even as someone who adores the original F.E.A.R, the particle effects seemed overblown. That’s not even mentioning that the trailers give no idea of just what the game is trying to be. After finally getting my hands on Atomic Heart, my skepticism unfortunately seems warranted.
Deciphering the Heart of Atomic Heart
To call the plot of Atomic Heart a mess would be an understatement. From the minute you launch, you’re immediately thrust into the game’s world. Not in the sense that you’re immediately sent off to discover endless details about the game world, but rather you’re put right into the game as if the entire intro cutscene was removed. Rather than being introduced through conventional methods, you’re dropped in a boat and away you go.
In a select few cases, that method of just letting you experience the world for what it is can be great, yet Atomic Heart instead feels immediately overwhelming, and that feeling never stops. Background details are almost entirely told rather than shown, leaving very little room for drawing conclusions or giving you time to digest new plot details. With such a strong artistic direction behind the game, I was hoping to see a much more fleshed-out backstory through that world.
At times, even the central story of the main character P-3 and Facility 3826 feel very similar. Events more often than not happen because the plot needed them to happen conveniently, rather than in a way that feels natural. That can be a valuable tool when used in moderation for bringing questions, but instead leaves things a confusing mess that lacks a lot of narrative depth.
Dialogue fares no better, suffering from the pitfalls of modern AAA games in having cringe-worthy or otherwise bizarre lines. P-3 is easily the most egregious of the bunch, throwing out swears every other sentence and flipping between wanting to know more about the situation and wanting to tell his allies to shove it with the snap of a finger. This has the added benefit of being so bad that it’s sometimes hilarious, but also makes P-3 perhaps the most unlikeable protagonist in a long time. If he’s nothing short of an ass 50% of the time, it’s hard to sympathize with him.
Atomic Heart doesn’t have the worst story I’ve ever played, but it’s easily up there. So much of the writing feels like a teenager finding out what a swear is for the first time, including but not limited to “where’s the shit-ass way out of here?!”. The story itself isn’t any better, being hard to follow and often losing any common sense whatsoever.
A One-Man Soviet Army
While I did just spend a lot of time tearing Atomic Heart to shreds, I have to give at least some credit to the gameplay loop. It’s lacking a lot of things and I’ll get to that, but some aspects feel genuinely satisfying. The arsenal is a standout, feeling somewhat small compared to other games but offering a ton of variety from weapon to weapon. Even the pistols, weapons often considered pointless after the intro of other games, still have a purpose later on for cleaning up smaller targets.
The added “polymer” abilities throw plenty of options into the mix as well. You can only have two abilities at a time, but there’s plenty of room to play with different toys and experiment. If you want to set enemies on fire, freeze them, or throw them into the air, you have more than enough opportunities for fine-tuning your loadout. This setup can feel broken from time to time, but I’d rather it be broken than lack imagination.
These things, combined with useful combat abilities such as plenty of dodges, make for an enjoyable combat flow that flourishes when dealing with several enemies. Mastering your chosen loadout can make you feel like a real badass at times, especially when up against the game’s incredibly unique boss designs. Each of them offers striking visuals alongside defined strengths and weaknesses.
“The gameplay flow of Atomic Heart can feel satisfying right up until its final moments, but it lacks that extra level of depth that would make the experience feel complete.”
Though all of this does come with drawbacks. The worst of which is the absence of any interesting stealth mechanics. Atomic Heart often advises you to go stealthy in situations, yet gives the bare minimum to do so while slowing progress to a crawl. None of the polymer abilities give any sort of stealth benefits, and given that executing targets takes forever, you’re better off just running and gunning your way through if you’re looking to have fun.
Similarly to stealth, side content feels even more barebones. During a small section of the game, you get this massive area to explore with various “Testing Ground” locations to find attachments in. These are all incredibly similar and offer simple, tedious puzzles in the way of your loot. Now, the puzzles in the game itself are far too easy, though puzzles in the Testing Ground sections have the added effect of being extremely tedious. Combine all this with the fact you can only access these side areas for that small section, and it reeks of being half-baked.
The gameplay flow of Atomic Heart can feel satisfying right up until its final moments, but it lacks that extra level of depth that would make the experience feel complete. If the side content was going to feel partially developed to add some level of open-world, the team would’ve been better off just making the full experience linear with the odd side path for select missions.
Technological Advancement Clashing With Brutalist Architecture
While other parts of the game have issues here and there, it’s rare to see Atomic Heart fail in its atmosphere. Being Russian themselves, developer Mundfish ensures that every bit of Soviet-era Russia is brought to life with technological advancement seeping into every bit of its society. The brutalist architecture of labs and factories clashes with ram-shackle houses strewn across the countryside, giving the game a uniquely strong identity. Not for a second am I not wowed by whatever beauty it has to throw at me.
As a massive DOOM fan, it’s natural that I love the soundtrack composed by the ever-skilled Mick Gordon. His more iconic heavy metal tracks are few and far between, but when they hit, they hit hard. They also complement the selective uses of Soviet music and classical tunes surprisingly well, despite being extremely far from one another. While I wish I’d seen more of his iconic identity infused into the score, it’s likely for the better this game isn’t just Atomic Doom (though that is a badass name).
Related: How Long Has Atomic Heart Been in Development – Answered
What I can’t give praise for is how polished the experience is. At least for launch, the game is often marred by technical issues including more than enough crashes at key moments. One key example is the fact that enemies can’t make their way through doors, though are still able to walk into them and are attackable through said doors. Post-launch is likely to fix a bit of this, though be ready for technical problems galore should you jump in on day one.
Atomic Heart has its moments, with its artistic direction and combat flow carrying much of the earlier hours. If you’re not the type to enjoy games based on that alone then, unfortunately, there are many fundamental problems with the game that can’t be ironed out with post-launch patches. Its plot is quite atrocious, and much of the exploration aspect feels tacked on without adding anything. The larger length than most games of its type doesn’t help it hold up either. While the heart inside Atomic Heart beats, it’s more often than not with a very weak pulse.
- Weapons feel varied and satisfying to wield.
- Abilities add a lot to the flow of combat.
- Bosses are very unique and well-designed.
- The atmosphere is wonderful.
- Mick Gordon comes out with another great soundtrack.
- The plot is endlessly messy.
- Very tell, not show when it comes to exposition.
- Dialogue is atrociously bad (we need an f-word counter).
- Barebones stealth mechanics make stealth pointless.
- Side content feels tacked on and tedious.
- Lack of quality-of-life features.
- Puzzles are more tedious than intelligent.
- Rough polish.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review. Reviewed on PC.