Atomic Heart can be described as a thug wearing a pinstripe suit. Although it looks great from the outside, Atomic Heart is a well-dressed monstrosity that can’t stay on the ground for very long.
Developer Mundfish shows its inspirations here. At least at the surface, Atomic Heart is equal parts BIOShock: Infinite as Fallout 4.. This is especially evident in an extended cutscene in which your American-accented Russian agent Sergey Nechayev (or P-3), enjoys a leisurely boat trip along the canals in Chelomey. It’s a Columbia-esque city up in the sky. You just know that everyone you meet will end up being skull-humped at the robots who walk among them. It’s not subtle and the atmosphere is unmistakably familiar.
Doctor Sechenov, a Russian visionary, designed Chelomey as one of many floating cities.
In this reality, Russia won World War 2 when Sechenov developed the Polymer, a kind of all-purpose, might-as-well-be-magic technology used for pretty much any plot inconvenience you stumble across. The technology leapfrogged humanity several decades ahead of the rest, so Atomic Heart has the 1950s retrofuturism that Bioshock made famous. Your character is a soldier who lost his life to Sechenov. He now wears a Polymer glove with an advanced AI named Charles.
It’s not immediately clear why you came to Chelomey or where you are going. The opening would not feel so long if Atomic Heart spent as much time telling their story as it did gazing lovingly at its reflection. Within the first half an hour, we see multiple tracking shots of the city and busy crowds that do not feature again. We also get various info-dumps, some light pandering towards China, and two endless elevator rides just to enjoy all the beautiful. P-3 is also a dick-to-the-glove for no reason. You can change his voice actor to Russian, but otherwise, you’ll just be hearing a standard-issue US generi soldier being rude and unwelcoming for hours. He is the type of guy who will ask how something works, then shout “Boring!” halfway through. This happens more often than once.
Things quickly get tangled up and P-3 is forced to battle through an experimental facility that has been overrun by plant-headed zombies and killer robots. Atomic Heart takes a very long time to achieve the action-packed game trailers portray. You only have a shotgun and an axe for most of the game’s early stages. As you creep through the halls, your hands are covered in blood and you pass bodies that have been wrapped in high-tensile tentacles and electrical cables. It is unsettling, oppressive and suggests a deeper game than it actually is.
Enemies can inflict a lot of pain on you, and they may even insta-kill if you fail to complete a quick-time event. Many are expressionless robots that run at you punching, droppingkicking, and grabbing. You’ll see them flash red when they need to dodge you or knock you on the head. Without a lock on it’s difficult to keep an eye on these spritely little robots. P-3 is not a ballerina and your movement feels slow and unresponsive. Although it becomes less problematic when you start to build your arsenal and unlock upgrades, it can take a while to get there.
A strange system unlocks the upgrades.
Through the story you will be able to unlock a power called SHOK. It can stun robots and electrocute organics and allow you to stop or start machinery. It is useful in combat and in solving environmental puzzles. The other powers can be unlocked by simply spending polymer at NORA vending machine. You don’t have to pay any penalty for what you buy. Also, you can return everything at no cost. There are no real stakes. You won’t be able to know what is available because you didn’t earn them. A freeze spray is an ability that covers the enemy with Polymer, which can be used to shock, burn, or freeze them. You can also get a personal shield and many upgrades to increase your health or add iframes to your dodges. It doesn’t feel natural or part of the story. This is insane, as Atomic Heart would be too difficult without the upgrades.
You can also make weapons if you have the blueprints and materials. The inventory system allows you to keep a certain amount and then stash the rest in the vending machines. However, it is a bit confusing. It’s, for lack of a better word, as horny and fucking. The NORA AI is insane – it’s the vending device that has been torturing everyone and wrapping them in tentacles. But not you. It likes you. It really, really likes. You’ll be asked at various points to “stick whatever your like in me, Sugar.” I don’t find it the writing or voice acting to be bothersome. It’s more that knowing that someone is going draw vending machine “fanart” and getting on with it.
Atomic Heart is one the most bizarre games I have ever played.
Sometimes, you will need to swim through viscous polymer to reach hard-to-reach places. Or converse with the malfunctioning neuropolymer in dead body for their “advice”. You can also find someone who was killed by a chicken at one point. Every time you feel like things are quietening down, more strange shit happens. You’re probably operating at a higher level than me if you don’t count the number of lockpick minigames you’ve played by the halfway mark.
There’s still a great shooter here. It also has a haunting horror in places and an interesting RPG that combines elements like Bioshock’s Plasmids. It’s just stuffed in with a lot of care and then covered up with a bit too much. Although it is stunning and utterly gorgeous in some places, it is almost only skin deep. It’s more obvious when you really dig into it.
By holding RB, you can clear out drawers, boxes and bins and fill your inventory with ammo, materials and health supplements. It looks great the first time but you’ll end up runningsacking whole rooms without knowing what you have. Although you can climb yellow-daubed pipes or ledges, you can’t fall down without checking the HUD to see where you are going, even if it’s only the ledge below you. You can also unlock things without having to explain them. I was unable to figure out how elemental cartridges work for my weapons, so it’s a great way to get there. You’ll eventually be so well-armed and upgraded that shrapnel can be made out of any object that insults your hipster ponytail. However, it takes a lot of work to get there.
Yet, Atomic Heart has some appeal despite its shortcomings.
It is a fascinating story, the environments are inspiring but still intriguing, and at times it looks incredible. You will enter semi-open land once you leave the first area. There are optional “dungeons” called Test Facilities, which can hide loot and upgrade blueprints. As you progress to the next story section, there are many secrets to uncover and buildings to search for supplies. You will drive vehicles, assist NPCs, fight optional minibosses, and learn more from Charles’ conversations with P-3.
Atomic Hearts can be difficult to navigate in today’s global climate.
This game is a fictionalized version of an alternate Russia. It opens with a Utopia, which many believe to be a Utopia. The timing could not have been more wrong. Even though all of the characters feel like Americans with Russian names there will be people who cannot ignore the implications.
The story might not have worked in another setting, however. It doesn’t matter that P-3 uses modern-day millennial slang or that there are a lot of potentially cool fights that are resolved with cutscenes. There’s also a foul-mouthed OAP living in a flying home who has a tiny cottage that walks on chicken legs (yes she is a Baba Yaga reference). Atomic Heart embraces lunacy and over-sexuality. The game feels both polished and unrefined, so it’s not surprising.