In a mad and sublime utopian world, take part in explosive encounters. Adapt your fighting style to each opponent, use your environment and upgrade your equipment to fulfill your mission. If you want to reach the truth, you’ll have to pay in blood.
Cast: Adam Simms, Alex Jordan, Alexander Ballinger, Alexander Capon, Bill Hope, Cherise Silvestri, Chris Ragland, Dev Joshi, Diana Bermudez, Elena Saurel, Eric Loren, Eric Meyers, Eric Sigmundsson, Eve Karpf, Garrick Hagon, Glenn Wrage, Graham Vick, Ian Portez, Jay Rincon, John Schwab, Jules De Jongh, Kerry Shale, Laurel Lefkow, Laurence Bouvard, Lewis Macleod, Mac Mcdonald, Martin T Sherman, Meaghan Martin, Mike Bodie, Peter Brooke, Peter Marinker, Rachel Atkins, Samantha Kamras, Shai Matheson, Stephanie Cannon, Taylor Clarke Hill, Vincent Lai, William Roberts
Director: Robert Bagratuni
Writers: Robert Bagratuni, Artem Galeev, Harald Horf, Alexander Dagan
Lead Artist: Artem Galeev
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Also available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Series X|S, PC
Atomic Heart wants to be Bioshock very badly. It wears the inspirations on its sleeve, and although it isn’t always a bad thing, Atomic Heart only manages to get the world design to be somewhat as interesting as Rapture’s, but a miss-fire regarding everything else. Most prominently, the narrative is an array of cliches and is led by the most unlikable protagonist in a game I’ve played in years.
Set in an alternate history, this one sees the USSR living in the clouds, marvels of the world, and having come drastically further ahead in technological advancements than the rest of the world. However, when the innocent robots designed to perform chores produced by the USSR and sold around the globe go haywire, you’re tasked with investigating the incident at Facility 3826. Getting through the pre-long drawn out 30 minutes it takes to properly start Atomic Heart: the robots have killed many innocent people, and the USSR wants it hushed up so they can continue to sell their robots to the world. I guessed where the narrative was going a couple of hours into Atomic Heart, and you probably can too. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, and for a game set in Russia and alternate history Soviet Union, there’s little in the way of meaningful to be said here you wouldn’t have seen anywhere else. Is communism bad? Is communism good? What is free will? Was the Soviet Union good or bad?
There’s surface-level stuff here, but even that is interesting since developer Mundfish has previously stated they don’t do politics in their games. Which, when making a game about the alternative history USSR is one of the dumbest things you could say. I’m willing to give the team something of a pass as they could be looking out for or protecting themselves as an entirely Russian-based team living in Russia, a country with strict policies regarding anti-war and anti-Russian sentiments. You will hit a point in Atomic Heart, however, where a Russian villain is talking about invasions of other countries, and it’s impossible not to think about how Russia is currently invading and killing innocents all over Ukraine. And I couldn’t help but think that whilst Ukrainian developers like Frogwares struggle to work effectively between attacks on their homeland, a Russian developer in Mundfish has released a very mediocre alt-history game about robots invading and killing innocents. And again, even giving Mundfish some presumption of innocence because, of course, not everyone in Russia is pro-Russia and the invasion of Ukraine — I still couldn’t get it out of my mind.
Back to the fictional stuff, you play as Major P3, a terrible character who annoyed me as no one has in years. P3 is an ignorant asshole who spends most of the game blindly doing whatever he is told, under allegiance to the head doctor and creator of Polymer and much of the USSR’s technical advancements. The Polymer tech is part of an upcoming neural network that’ll connect all of the Soviet Union and maybe more parts of the world. If the idea of sticking something onto your head to connect to others seems like a red flag, it probably is one. But P3 doesn’t care; he’s a dude with a hankering for dropping his catchphrase “crispy critters” and getting down to business with a gun. P3 spends most of the game talking to his hand, where a glove he wears contains “Charles,” his AI companion. Charles gives P3 access to several abilities you’ll unlock throughout the game. Charles is also your key contact, and where he grew one me as the game went on, the fact that this talking glove had a more interesting character arc than the protagonist should say a lot.
There’s a grotesque amount of sexism in Atomic Heart. I’d often be left wondering if a 13-year-old boy wrote the game or if it had simply taken 20 years to develop. Aside from the beautiful world — which has been the word-of-mouth selling every time a trailer for Atomic Heart would drop — the biggest sin is a robot you’ll talk to throughout the entire game to upgrade your guns and more. This robot is sexually charged weirdly and talks about how they only want P3 sticking anything in them, among other things. At one point, while the robot rattled off some semi-pornographic descriptions of me simply wishing to buy ammo for a gun, I just muted the TV, so I didn’t have to listen anymore. Two ballerina robots are heavily featured in the marketing for the game. They do classic things like having a key come out of their body to unlock something, but no, not their finger, which would make sense, it’s the toe, and they have to bend over the machine and arch their leg up to insert the key. There’s one lingering shot on both the robots’ bottoms for no reason: one of a handful of man-gazing directed sequences.
What Atomic Heart has going for it is a delightful array of weapons, and a combat system, which, even if not used to the best of its ability, feels good when you’re killing things. P3’s arsenal grows as the game progresses to eventually hold bullet weapons like a shotgun and machine gun while also carrying energy weapons and several melee options. The Polymer abilities P3 can also unlock opportunities to freeze, shock and levitate enemies. The Bioshock influences are felt once again as you juggle a gun in one hand and fire magic-inspired abilities in the other. However, Atomic Heart Polymer abilities aren’t nearly as varied as Bioshocks ATOMs. Guns do feel great, however, and the kick of the shotgun and the alt-fire EMP blast of an energy weapon never got boring to land on groups of enemies. There’s off-pacing to the fights, and the inconsistencies between levels make the game frustrating.
The first few hours of Atomic Heart see you slowly make your way through tight corridors where every Robot you cam across poses a significant threat. Ammo for your one gun was tight, so there’s a reliance on dodging and landing melee strikes instead. The many cheap deaths I got here didn’t bother me; it made me move slower during certain hours and keep my ears open for the sounds of a robot running behind me. However, moving out of this bunker, P3 lands in one of two semi-open biomes. Your objective invariably seems to be a 10-minute walk away, and the number of enemies in between becomes mind-numbing, especially with the security cameras alerting more enemies to swam your area and medic bots swooping into to revive the enemies you’ve killed while you’re working on some others in the corner. It made it a frustrating experience because Atomic Heart would tell me there are secrets to discover, loot to find and bonus little dungeon-like areas where your combat, puzzle solving and platforming are tested.
One thing I have nothing bad to say about, however, is the original soundtrack by Mick Gordon. The moody pieces building up to a breakout of enemies are great, but the boss battle songs made me want to die over and over again to keep the music going. If the DOOM Eternal soundtrack left you feeling down, the heavy metal tunes of Gordon will keep you rocking here. Plus, Mick donated his entire fee to Red Cross in support of and solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Atomic Heart is a great-looking game with well-designed and interesting locations here to explore, with an alternative history prime for great storytelling. But Atomic Heart, ain’t it. And no matter how good it looks, it doesn’t make up for the bland characters, the annoying world design with a useless map I didn’t mention, the immature and ridiculous script, the odd sexism and the sense that you’re playing something you’ll likely regret.