What would you get if Bioshock, Fallout, and Westworld had a baby that grew up in Soviet times? The answer to this very specific question is Atomic Heart. On paper, the formula I have just described seems odd and you may be inclined to think it may not work. But in the case of Atomic Heart, it certainly does.
The game is set in an alternate history Soviet bloc during the 1950s, where humanity has progressed enough to develop robots and androids that have taken over the laborious tasks. As a result, humans enjoy a comfortable life of leisure with few worries. But as you may expect, everything goes haywire when the robots turn on their human masters. It is up to you, Major P-3, an elite soldier, to investigate and deal with the cause behind this event.
Right off the bat, the first thing you will notice is how good the game looks. The character models, environments, and overall world are stunning. Even without raytracing on launch, the game looks incredible. You play for a while until all hell breaks loose, you get into the action, and this is where the fun begins.
The game has no shortage of weapons and upgrades you can wield to take out the various enemies it throws at you. You will have access to a total of 12 weapons which you can then later upgrade throughout the game via the crafting system. Each weapon is specialized against certain types of enemies, so you’ll have to cycle through them to be effective.
The combat is challenging but rewarding. You will face hordes of both organic and inorganic enemies throughout the game, which keeps things fresh. You will also be aided by your AI-powered glove named CHAR-les which will help you in many ways, including loot collecting, and world interactions, and offers useful commentary. The glove makes short work of looting containers where it pulls open everything telekinetically and adds all the useful stuff to your inventory automatically. Gone are the days when you would have to search each drawer, chest, or cupboard one by one; at least in Atomic Heart.
You will notice that at times, the combat resembles DOOM (2016) and DOOM Eternal, though not as fast-paced. You will need to be mobile and work in tandem with CHAR-les abilities to be effective. Entering an area with a bunch of enemies, you can use your glove to send out a sonar-like pulse that will let you see enemies through walls allowing you to prepare beforehand. You can then use CHAR-les further to telekinetically hoist enemies into the air or freeze them before going ham with your weapons. It makes Atomic Heart much more than just a shooter and keeps combat fresh and fun. At times, it doesn’t feel like the game is supposed to be set in the 1950s and seems more like a futuristic or cyberpunkish experience.
Despite being advertised as the first game to have had raytracing on launch, Atomic Heart launched without it on the PC. The game looks good without it, yes, but it’s still an unfulfilled promise. Though future updates and patches may rectify the problem. The weakest aspect of the game is its dialogue. The game is well voice acted but for a game set in the Soviet bloc, characters have uncharacteristic Western accents.
Moreover, the player’s character P-3, despite being heavily aided by his glove companion CHAR-les, always seems to bicker with him, quite rudely in some cases. Sure, it’s not that big of a problem the first few times but it can get tiring after a while. I don’t mind swearing in a video game, in fact, it can add more weight to a sentence if done correctly. But the way P-3 does it, with all the gusto of a teenage boy, kills the whole experience.
Moreover, there are sections of the game that can seem tedious after a while, such as the various fetch side quests. Granted some of these are near-crucial since they give you necessary upgrades and materials; you’ll still get tired of them quickly when you must essentially do the same thing repeatedly. It’s even frustrating when you want to just get done with a fetch side quest, but you get ambushed by a room full of enemies which you must now fight through.
And The Verdict
Despite its flaws and unfulfilled promises, Atomic Heart is a fun and exciting game. It delivers a gripping world, interesting lore, and uniquely executed ideas that are quite refreshing to see. The character design is unique, the enemy variety won’t have you feeling like you’re fighting the same thing repeatedly, and the game gives you enough weapons to keep you happy killing them.
However, the release comes at a time when real-world political issues may affect public reception and perception. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have speculated that the game may represent Russian soft power and that purchasing the game may somehow lend support to the country. It likely is not the case, Atomic Heart is not a propaganda piece. It is in fact a savage critique of Russian exceptionalism the same way Fallout critiques American capitalism and culture.
It shows the grandeur of the Soviet era with public events and parades that some may reminisce about, and others think may paint Russia in a positive light. Something that shows of glory long past and something to strive for. But that is not the case as the curtain is lifted and the rot beneath is exposed. It clearly exposes the Soviet system for what it really was, and how the same principles are still being used in the modern-day to trick and control people.
If I must describe the game in a single word, I will say it is ambitious. It constantly strives to achieve greatness, it reaches for the stars multiple times, even though it may not always stick the landing. It teeters and totters between greatness and frustration during sections of the game but it never stops trying to reach for the stars. Atomic Heart tries to outdo its inspirations, which in some parts of the game, it achieves. You may have issues with the dialogue, and the monotony of some of the quests, but if you look at the bigger picture, the result is a fun-filled robot shooting experience in an exceptional setting. I found that it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in an industry with western-oriented content.