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Review

Atomic Heart Review

Yekaterina Petrovna Zamolodchikova. But your dad just calls me Katya

In Atomic Heart, developer Mundfish displays a grasp on aesthetics and scale that belies its relatively young age as a studio. The game presents a striking alternate history in which the USSR has achieved ubiquitous world power through scientific prowess. It is 1955 and a revolutionary polymer, an amorphous, powerful sci-fi fuel substance, has propelled Russia into a heightened state of floating cities, flying cars and, most notably, robots. While aesthetic touchstones like the omnipresent sickle, saturated reds and tactility of burgeoning twentieth-century technology remain, the nation’s success has yielded a Russia far more akin to the extravagance of BioShock Infinite’s Columbia. The game’s opening act is effectively an on-rails tour of Mundfish’s art direction and frankly, it’s earned.

Russia is on the verge of launching Kolective 2.0, a massive leap forward in the neural network developed by its leading scientist and charismatic figurehead, Dmitry Sechenov. The new update, which sees users wear a nifty head device, would effectively eliminate binary code and physical limitations, allowing direct thought to network engagement, and vice-versa. This dissolution of the line between man and machine pushes simmering national tensions to breaking point as a saboteur activates the hidden combat mode coded into every tin can in the country, triggering a massive slaughter and kicking off the events of the game.

Atomic Heart’s world is richly detailed and gorgeous

Your window into this dizzying world is Major Nechaev, or P-3, an amnesiac war veteran whose no-nonsense attitude and foul mouth are even less palatable when contrasted with the thrilling world around him. To navigate Atomic Heart’s open-world, the major is paired with a sharp-witted AI CHAR-les, who serves double function as exposition companion and means of using the game’s super-power skills. A close friend of Sechenov and a stout believer in the cause, P-3’s overarching narrative goes about exactly the way you’d expect based on the pieces I’ve given you so far. It’s an astoundingly po-faced bit of writing considering the initial attempts at satire early in the game and the embarrassing litany of genre cliches it pulls from in the final act.

It is, somehow, also the least of Atomic Heart’s narrative woes as the rest of the script succumbs to borderline nonsensical progression and a stark disdain for women. There is a world in which Atomic Heart’s sexism could be filed away under comedic misfire, though this world existed in the early 2000s and would require about as much suspension of disbelief to reach as Atomic Heart’s own alternate history. As it stands, the game will subject you to countless instances of gendered fuckery— from the objectification of women’s bodies to the ghoulish sexual violence jokes touted by the weapon upgrade station, Atomic Heart has a persistently unpleasant relationship with women.

Then there’s the tension in Atomic Heart’s core gameplay systems, a collage of inspiration points from immersive-sims and first-person, narrative-focused shooters. The former genre especially being one that revels in imitation as iteration, Atomic Heart has its heart set on a BioShock-adjacent system, but its lacklustre weapons and progression-gated abilities make this loop more of a dull spark. The game’s early hours lean hard into first-person melee combat, a tricky mechanic to pull off and one that Atomic Heart never quite manages. Enemies are quick on their feet, often propelling themselves at you, but your swings and movements feel sluggish by comparison, each a lumbering attempt at connection. It’s somewhat ironic that Atomic Heart’s world riffs on the heightened political iconography of a Fallout title when its most successful reference point to that franchise is this awkward melee.

Often navigating your way to the objective is a small, fun puzzle

Your arsenal of guns is a mixed duffle bag, giving you a small selection of impactful and fun tools. Blessedly, the game gives you a shotgun quite early (ammo is a whole other story), and this thing whacks a decent wallop. You’ll then spend the next several hours in search of something that feels anywhere as good, the game doling out a couple of timid pistols and calling it a day until the larger energy weapons of the campaign backend. These weapons can all be upgraded at the previously mentioned horny tool station, but Atomic Heart locks its best upgrades and guns away from the story missions in discreet challenge rooms. Personal mileage being what it is you might have the stomach for these additional gameplay sections but my time with the main thrust of Atomic Heart was more than enough for me. The experience wearing thinner as the initially charming line-up of metal comrades gives way to a fairly small rotation of enemies. The same aesthetic passion infused in the world is present in the game’s robot designs but between the sexualised nature of certain types and the fairly plain designs of others, the selling point of Atomic Heart runs out of value far sooner than you’d like.

The combat silver lining is the various skills available to you through CHAR-les. These can be unlocked and upgraded using one of the several in-game materials you can gather from the world. Which, sidebar, are automatically hoovered out of the environment by holding down R1 as CHAR-les sucks anything in sight into your inventory. It’s easy to use and removes most of the tension from resource gathering, even if that only serves to streamline an already lite-RPG backbone for the game. CHAR-les can also be equipped with two unique skills, along with a built-in Shok power for standard electrical attacks. There are four active skills to choose from, but you’ll only ever be able to take two into battle. I leaned hard into the Mass Telekinesis tree, allowing me to form a fist and lift almost any foe into the air before crashing them back down with a satisfying crunch.

Deeper investment allows for boosts to health, movement and ammo reserves, but I found little incentive to engage in the game’s elemental damage systems given the overall effectiveness of my grab and slam. Likewise, Atomic Heart doesn’t do much to encourage further prodding of its world beyond the mainline quest. As noted, there are challenge rooms littering the open world and the vivid landscapes are a refreshing change of scenery from the various underground hallways you’ll spend the bulk of the story exploring. But dwindling enemy variety, resource management and an ever-present malaise make venturing off the beaten path a less than appealing concept for most of the game.

Atomic Heart gives you some fun, and some less than fun, guns to play with

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There are sincere attempts to make this open space more interesting – the hacking of security systems to disable certain barriers and the occasional bit of environmental storytelling – but too often it feels like dicking around in a theme park instead of a cohesive, lived-in world. The overworld becomes even less appealing with a frustratingly vague map (the worst example of the game’s overriding UI comprehension issues) and clunky exploration methods. These stand in contrast with the occasional bouts of exploration fun to be had in smaller zones, especially the ability to “swim” through the Polymer, a seamless tool of the level that feels like a dream compared to the light-as-air cars in the open-world.

The various facilities and enclosed spaces you’ll explore during the story fare somewhat better, occasionally even offering up some fun first-person platforming and unique traversal methods like the Polymer tunnels. P-3 will sometimes need to find his way through massive rooms lined with electromagnets that can be activated with your Shok and used to manipulate platforms between you and the door. I loved these sections as they offered the right balance of challenge and skill while seamlessly folding in the game’s mechanics. I’d also be remiss to not give flowers to one of the game’s best set piece, where you are tasked with waiting about five minutes for a stage show to complete as waves of enemies pour in endlessly. This combat gauntlet initially plays out to a bit of classic Russian music before the enemy count skyrockets and the music shifts into a delightfully funny TikTok remix, complete with new vocals and thumping bass.

The chaos of late-game skills is always enjoyable

The rest of your time in these story instances will be spent doing fairly banal busywork, listening to an endless stream of exposition and “this shit” dialogue, until one of the few bosses shows up to invoke some incredibly awkward first-person dodging. It all coalesces into a profoundly dull experience, the initial awe of Atomic Heart’s world buffed out by its exhausting writing and only serviceable combat loop. Goodwill for the game is further damaged by its unstable condition on PlayStation 5. I encountered several game crashes, an unexplained console overheating warning and a couple of corrupted save files during my time with the game. In speaking with other reviewers it seems the Xbox version has fewer of these issues, but the sheer amount of play time I lost to its broken state is bewildering.

Final Thoughts

Atomic Heart fails to fully realise almost all its aspirations, of which there are many and most worthy of admiration. It is undeniably gorgeous, and from architecture, to cultural signifiers it paints with an impressive brush but onto a torn, deeply flawed canvas. Its handful of combat options rarely registers above fine, while a dreadful script churns away in the background, occasionally slapping the player in the face with troubling attempts at humour and tropes that felt worn a decade ago. There’s something great ticking away deep in Atomic Heart, it’s a shame the body and mind can’t keep up.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Atomic Heart Review
Diffused Reaction
Atomic Heart has an impressive command of aesthetics and occasionally gives you the tools to enjoy its world, but an unstable console build, unsatisfying systems and complete misfire of a script prevent these atoms from achieving the necessary fusion.
The Good
Striking command of aesthetic and scale
Certain weapons and skills feel great
Some platforming puzzles provide a fun challenge
The Bad
Majority of combat feels unsatisfying
Awkward platforming and puzzles
Confusing UI throughout maps and upgrade screens
Deeply frustrating writing around women and overarching plot
Game crashes and save file corruptions
5.5
GLASS HALF FULL
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  • Mundfish
  • Focus Entertainment, Mundfish, VK holding, 4Divinity
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
  • February 21, 2023

Atomic Heart Review
Diffused Reaction
Atomic Heart has an impressive command of aesthetics and occasionally gives you the tools to enjoy its world, but an unstable console build, unsatisfying systems and complete misfire of a script prevent these atoms from achieving the necessary fusion.
The Good
Striking command of aesthetic and scale
Certain weapons and skills feel great
Some platforming puzzles provide a fun challenge
The Bad
Majority of combat feels unsatisfying
Awkward platforming and puzzles
Confusing UI throughout maps and upgrade screens
Deeply frustrating writing around women and overarching plot
Game crashes and save file corruptions
5.5
GLASS HALF FULL
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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