Atomic Heart is a game with a lot of potential, wonderful concepts and a beautiful setting that fell short owing to several glaring gameplay issues.
What you need to know
- What is it? A first-person shooter with RPG elements set in alternate, post-WWII history.
- Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
- Developer: Mundfish, Focus Entertainment
- Release date: February 21, 2023
- Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S
Atomic Heart review copy provided by the publisher.
The great majority of titles that draw inspiration from other, somewhat more popular titles, aim to keep these similarities to inspiration alone while emphasising everything that is unique. It's no secret that Atomic Heart is inspired by Bioshock games, but what's most intriguing is that Mundfish’s shooter isn't even attempting to conceal it. Atomic Heart is so eerily similar to Bioshock that you will constantly draw comparisons while playing it.
It would take too long to describe all of the similarities between these two games, so if you intend on playing Atomic Heart, know that you will feel like you are playing an updated version of Bioshock. Apart from that, Atomic Heart is a decent, atmospheric shooter with RPG elements that you will quickly get addicted to owing to its interesting, yet quite difficult gameplay and beautiful setting with the story that shows potential, at least at the beginning of the game.
Atomic Heart is set in a post-World War II alternate history in which the Soviets won the war and became the world's greatest technological power. You are Major P-3, a super soldier with a troubled personality and a mysterious past, who is dispatched to Facility 3826 to investigate and put an end to the killing spree and hostile behaviour of civilian robots.
This facility was used to test a neural network named "Kollectiv" and its new technology, "Thought," which was meant to allow humans to control robots with their minds, but something went horribly wrong, unleashing a technological nightmare.
The story's concept appears to be sound in principle but not so much in practice. The plot of Atomic Heart has some solid underpinnings and the potential to be quite fascinating, but the manner in which it is conveyed is unnecessarily convoluted.
You will learn about your mission early on in the game and quickly discover your true purpose in this top-secret facility hidden high in the sky. As you progress through the game, the story will unfold for you in a variety of ways.
Most of the story will be revealed during your chat with your AI glove, Char-les, who will provide you with all of the information you need to continue through the story. These conversations can be very interesting at times, but after a couple of hours, they will be nothing more than a distraction from the more important tasks you will have to complete in the game.
Furthermore, the game will attempt to provide you with a large amount of information that the average human brain just cannot digest in that short amount of time, and as a consequence, you will stop attempting to connect the dots in the story and will most likely lose yourself in it. To be properly absorbed, I personally believe this story should have been told throughout at least two games, if not a trilogy.
As you explore the world, you'll find documents in the form of projector screens scattered throughout the levels, as well as pocket watches with audio records. I was hoping that these documents and audio logs would add more meaning to the story, making it a bit easier to follow but they don't. Instead, they serve to explain the events that occurred strictly in that particular location which is not a negative per se, as many games do this but I feel this was a wasted opportunity to explain some of the confusing aspects of the plot.
Conversations with dead people at Facility 3826, on the other hand, are an intriguing way to expand the narrative. Their stories are interesting and, at times, even humorous.
Major P-3, the game's protagonist, is a complete letdown. Don't get me wrong: the voice actor did an excellent job, and it's not his fault. The issue is a badly written character. To make himself appear and sound dangerous, he will, for example, curse all the time, when it is appropriate, and also when it isn't, which makes him more ridiculous than dangerous. All of the characters are basically unmemorable, and you won't care what happens to them, let alone feel sympathy for them.
The game encourages you to use the elemental powers as often as possible, but they are simply not powerful enough, even when fully upgraded. You will have several elemental powers at your disposal, such as telekinesis, shock attack, freeze attack, and shield, which will be provided to you by your best friend and companion throughout the game, your AI glove, Char-les.
The weapons are pure classics. You play as a Soviet soldier, and your primary weapons are a Makarov pistol and an AK-47, or Kalash, as it is known in the game. You'll also have additional weapons, such as a shotgun, an energy gun, a grenade launcher, and so on, and all of them have powerful and realistic handling.
The weapon upgrading system is also present and well-executed. To get a new weapon or an upgrade, you must first discover the blueprint for it, which leads us to another interesting aspect of the game: polygons. The polygons in Atomic Heart are dungeons spread around the game's map where you must solve some basic puzzles in order to obtain a prize in the form of a weapon or a weapon's upgrade blueprints. The polygons aren't anything spectacular, but they're a welcome change of pace from slaying hundreds of insane robots and mutants.
Atomic Heart is an open-world game, sort of. The first, larger chunk of the game you'll play in the facility has a rather linear design, which I really enjoyed. The mood was perfect; crawling through vents to discover the next room's entrance and unlocking doors to access other locations is the perfect design for this type of game. Suddenly, you exit this location and find yourself in the open world. It's really unneeded, in my opinion.
So why did the developers do that? The best assumption is to find a way to integrate the game's side content - which I certainly welcome - but Mundfish could find a way to include this material in a more linear design, which would undoubtedly improve the game. As a result, we have an open world that serves only as a travel route from point A to point B.
The dialogue choices are also included in Atomic Heart, although for no apparent reason. The only time your decision will have an effect will be towards the conclusion of the game, when you will have the option of how to finish the game, but making the entire concept only to present its effect once in the game doesn't make any sense. Perhaps the developers included them to make the game appear more like an RPG, which would be a good selling point. I can't think of another explanation.
Yet, there are several aspects of Atomic Heart's gameplay that I'd like to praise. First and foremost, the ambience is fantastic, and if you follow the game's instructions and play in Russian, you will experience the vibes of the Soviet era because the entire game design supports this concept. Also, the interactions with some NPCs and AIs are just golden. It will be unforgettable the first time you meet Nora, the artificial intelligence in charge of improving your weapons and gear. Mark my words.
The level design is also very good, especially indoors, where everything is brimming with a style from the Soviet era, and I think the developers really hit the spot with this aspect of the game.
Graphics and Sounds
Atomic Heart is not the most appealing game you will ever play, but to be honest, it isn't ugly either. Since I complimented the level design, you can be sure that the graphical presentation has a significant impact on the quality of the game levels. The lighting in Atomic Heart is just perfect. This is especially notable in the interiors, where the fire and your glove's shock attacks produce beautiful effects. The particle effects make the game look stunning during action sequences.
Ray tracing works well on the PlayStation 5 version, and the game plays at a consistent frame rate of 40 to 60 frames per second. There were some issues with moving objects, such as forklifts and hoover cleaners, where the surroundings ran at steady frames; these objects stuttered, but this will most likely be fixed in the day one patch.
However, the facial expressions and character design in general are not the finest aspects of Atomic Heart's graphic presentation. Even though there will be moments in the game where good facial expressions would make the moment more memorable, there will be none. It's almost funny to watch Major P-3 attempt to be upset, but his face just doesn't express any emotion.
If there is anything in this game that deserves ten out of ten, it is most definitely the soundtrack and the sounds in general. Every moment will be accompanied by great music in the background, ranging from masterpieces of classical music to somewhat more modern Russian soundtracks, making the gameplay much more atmospheric and taking it to a whole new level.
There is a neat moment when the game justifies the usage of musical material written after 1955 by introducing the Radio from the Future technology, in which AI uses particular algorithms to identify music that will be listened to in the future.
Atomic Heart may be summarised in a single statement as a game with amazing ideas but lousy execution. The story has great potential but is told with a massive amount of information you simply cannot digest; the gameplay shines in some parts but fails to deliver where it is most crucial, in fluidity and exploration.
As a big fan of the Bioshock games that Atomic Heart took inspiration from, it pains me to say that a solid graphic presentation and an excellent soundtrack simply cannot compensate for Atomic Heart's apparent flaws. But still, I cannot say that Atomic Heart is a bad game, it's just that I expected a lot more from it, and as a result, I got disappointed.