A grotesque Frankenstein’s monster of half-baked ideas
On paper, Atomic Heart has all the ingredients to be a smash hit. An interesting aesthetic, deep thematic resonance and a really interesting world just waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, under that red tape of communist utopian splendor lies a barebones reality closer to that of the poorest North Korean villages. There’s lots of flashy promise but rarely do you feel satisfied, left with an experience lacking in almost every single area.
In its simplest form, Atomic Heart is a first person shooter that combines a semi-open world with more claustrophobic corridors and “bunkers”. In essence, this is an on-rails Fallout experience, with a dash of Bioshock and Dishonored, alongside the unfulfilled potential of We Happy Few. Unlike all of those titles though, Atomic Heart struggles to hit a consistent tone, swinging wildly between crude, immature dialogue and casual sexism, to more deeper thematic resonance in what it means to be a communist and whether that’s more appealing than a capitalist empire.
At the heart of this struggle is your protagonist, Major Sergey Nechayev (codenamed Agent P-3). A Veteran of World War II, P-3 has severe memory problems and after being invited to Facility 3826 to assist in the rollout of Kollektiv 2.0, things soon go awry. The Facility’s robots suddenly become hostile and have massacred most of the human personnel.
It’s thought that the cause of this is Viktor Petrov, Kollektiv’s lead engineer, who has sabotaged the robots. Accompanied by your trusty AI partner CHAR-les (Charles), P-3 sets out to find Petrov, make him atone for his sins and right the wrongs caused by this robot uprising.
The main plot serves its purpose, pushing you from one point to the next, but after a lengthy on-rails segment early on, coupled with a decent chunk of hand-holding and claustrophobic combat, the game opens up but struggles to really justify the decision to do so. The world feels barren and empty, with very little to see and do beyond the main sights you’ll be dragged to in the main storyline.
At no point does Atomic Heart exude the same wow factor that titles like Bioshock, Fallout or even Elder Scrolls games manage to bring to the table. Instead, the early on-rails segment and a couple of neat additions late on (like a surprisingly creative Theatre segment) are the few bright spots in an otherwise dull and dreary world.
Once the initial shine of the aesthetic wears off, the robotic mechanics of the game show up – and what’s here really isn’t pretty. The writing is really poor all round, with the main character throwing out constant curses and repeating his favourite “Crispy Critters” line over and over again. I’m not sure if this is a 2023 trend but next to this and Forspoken, there seems to be a competition for creating the most unlikable protagonist – and Atomic Heart definitely edges that one out.
If this wasn’t enough, there’s no redeeming features for our protagonist at all. The game attempts to make everyone else alongside him similarly “edgy” and “cool”, while an abundance of unskippable cutscenes and monotonous “elevator exposition rides” make even the more interesting parts of the story feel laborious to get through.
The interface is clunky too, and at its worst completely broken. The map is nigh on useless and doesn’t even work in any of the indoor facility areas, while the inventory attempts to combine systems seen in Resident Evil with the glossy feel of Bioshock, failing miserably in that endeavour.
These problems radiate out to the combat too, which is satisfying enough when it works but features some pretty poor enemy design and a skewed reliance on melee most of the time. There’s an attempt to incorporate Bioshock’s Vigor system into the combat but to be honest, beyond Frostbite (which freezes enemies in place) and Shok (which shocks enemies) there’s little point in exploring the other upgrades.
This is particularly disappointing in boss fights, where most of these (even Frostbite and Shok) are rendered useless. Most of the time you’ll find a set of weapons that work for you and never look back. These can be upgraded too, using a number of resources littered around the environment, but in order to fully upgrade each specific weapon you’ll need to find attachments and parts across the world map. These are usually found in Facilities so once you reach the marked area on your map, you’re on your own to dive into the depths and root around.
The resources are broken up into the usual array of metal parts, bio parts etc. and they’re usually quite plentiful. The game does include a very welcome system where you hold down R2 to hoover up everything in the room, but if you do die before reaching the designated save spots (a few automated story-based points but mostly save rooms) then you’ll need to repeat that segment again.
Much like The Division, a lot of the enemies in this game feel very bullet-spongey, especially the boss fights. In fact, most of the time the preferred choice is just to hack away with your axe, blasting with Shok to slow them down every now and then. If you choose to play this one on the Impossible Mode, expect to absolutely rinse through your ammo constantly, meaning you’re going to get very acquainted to using melee!
All of these problems though are compounded by a lack of direction. At every step of the way you can see glimmers of brilliance shining in the corners of this one but they’re constantly undermined or ignored. If Mundfish had actually focused on creating an on-rails shooter with a defined vision rather than chasing another shiny cool gadget to add in, this could have been a great title.
In fact, I mentioned earlier about the aesthetic and this extends out to the soundtrack too which is one of the few stand-out moments here. There are some fantastic tracks in this; a heady blend of classical, electronica and rock all blended together into a suitably retro-futuristic world. The instrumental tracks are pretty good and the sound design is excellent all round.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the voice acting which is pretty woeful all round and at its worst, toe-curlingly cringe. I’m not sure whose idea it was to include a sexed-up Upgrade machine but after the first encounter with this, you’ll find yourself reaching for the mute button.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out the performance in this game too. Powerpyx recently announced they wouldn’t be doing a trophy guide for this because the achievements are absolutely broken. But not only are the achievements broken, but other gameplay aspects are too. Even with the latest patch (1.06), I’ve had my character stuck between objects forcing a hard reset, boss fights bugged out, invisible walls showing up in areas that you should reasonably be able to traverse and more. All of these sort of things should have been ironed out in QA, and expecting customers to pay full “AAA” price for a title this broken is inexcusable.
Atomic Heart could have been a great game. All the pieces are here to form a beautiful picture but it feels like these have been run through a blender, set on fire and then Sellotaped together to form a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster. Almost every facet of this game is underwhelming or broken in some way; if you’re expecting the next Bioshock you’re going to be very disappointed. This is closer to We Happy Few or Duke Nukem Forever. What a shame.
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Verdict - 4/10