Activating large autonomous robots never goes well.
It was sometime in 2022 that Atomic Heart, the debut effort from developer Mundfish, first appeared on our radars, with the first-person shooter drawing some comparisons to 2K’s legendary BioShock. With the game arriving in February, we finally got our chance to see if the newcomer deserves space alongside such a renowned series.
In what will be a recurring theme throughout this review, things in Atomic Heart handle fairly well, and yet there’s just something a little off with it. Shooting is decent, but it doesn’t feel crisp or responsive the way Halo or Call of Duty do, and the first-person melee combat comes across as semi clunky, which can be tough early in the game when ammo seems to be at a premium; later on as you amass weapons and components, melee becomes more of an option than a necessity. Even movement feels a bit stilted. Our guess is that it’s trying to simulate not being able to move as fast laterally, but in practice strafing ends up with this weird hitch.
Visually, there’s a lot to like. Both level and enemy design is well executed, and the backdrop of an alternate-history Soviet Union circa the 1950s is an interesting one. Obviously, world events may colour how you feel about that setting, but judged purely on technical achievement and creativity it’s hard to argue it’s anything other than a success. While other areas create a BioShock-type feel without reaching those heights, Atomic Heart comes the closest with its world building.
Unfortunately, the audio side can’t keep pace. Whereas BioShock told an interesting story with good performances from its supporting cast, Atomic Heart never finds its groove. The primary relationship of the game is between your character, Agent P-3, and your glove-mounted A.I. CHAR-les, and while there is some development between them, it’s undermined by just how unlikeable P-3 is, spewing random nonsense (Crispy Critters!!) from start to finish. There’s also some legitimately bizarre sexual stuff from one of the robot types that actually led to us muting the TV when their lines were being delivered.
As noted, Atomic Heart is set in an alternate Soviet Union in the 1950s with the rollout of a new A.I. system known as Kollektiv set to herald in an era of technical superiority for the USSR. It doesn’t go to plan, however, as the effort is sabotaged, and the robots run wild, killing humans and taking control of Facility 3826. Now it’s up to P-3 to put things right on behalf of his boss (and father figure), Dr. Sechenov.
As you’d suspect, there’s more than meets the eye with the program with plenty of mysteries to unravel, both with what went down at Facility 3826, and with P-3’s own back story. It’s a decent enough narrative, though it never truly got its hooks into us due in so small part to how annoying P-3 is. You’re meant to sympathize with his plight, and his blind devotion to Sechenov, but the way he interacts with the world around him makes it hard, and it definitely feels like a narrative misstep.
There is no multiplayer in Atomic Heart, which is a rarity in the first-person shooter genre and might turn some off, but the way the gameplay is structured it’s hard to see how that would be a fit. Here you’ll have a mix of guns, melee weapons, and your Polymer Glove (AKA, CHAR-les), which grants access to things like freezing and telekinesis. You’ll have limited access initially, making the game’s early hours a bit of a slog, but as you collect components you’ll be able to add to your arsenal or upgrade existing items.
While expanding powers makes the game more enjoyable, it still maintains a healthy challenge, and keeping an eye on your ammo remains a smart thing to do — it isn’t survival horror or anything like that, but you can’t go HAM with your top weapons in every encounter. Stealth can be used, opening up enemies for one-hit kills, though their detection of you can feel unfair at times.
The other major gameplay element is puzzle solving, usually in the form of manipulating the environment to reach new areas. These can be legitimately challenging, usually in the intended ways, though first-person jumping can have its own set of frustrations. These tend to come up most often in the optional “testing grounds” scattered across Facility 3826’s map. Whether the rewards justify the time is debatable as it’s usually components and some unique add-ons (such as a high-capacity clip for a gun) at the end, but anyone looking to maximize their time will want to tackle them.
You can expect to spend around 20 hours largely sticking to the main path with a good deal more available for completionists. Your mileage may vary based on skill and what difficulty you’re on, as there are moments when the game can really overwhelm you with the number of mobs it throws your way. Boss battles are well designed and memorable, distinguishing themselves from the rank-and-file types you’ll battle elsewhere.
Atomic Heart is a solid, generally enjoyable game that makes enough miscalculations with gameplay and story to keep it from approaching the titles that clearly inspired it.