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May 2024

Atomic Heart

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Developer: Mundfish
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2023


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PC Review - 'Atomic Heart'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Feb. 21, 2023 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Atomic Heart is an first-person adventure/shooter, the events of which unfolds in an alternate universe during the high noon of the Soviet Union.

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Atomic Heart is set in an alternate version of the world, where World War II ended with Germany unleashing a terrible plague that almost destroyed the world. The Soviet Union fought back with powerful robots and now live in a semi-utopia of flying cities and robot servants. Players step into the role of P-3, an elite agent working for the world's top robot scientist. One of the Soviet Union's research facilities has gone quiet. When P-3 is sent there, he discovers that the worker robots have gone mad and started killing everyone around them. Now he must figure out what made the robots go crazy.

Atomic Heart's plot is kind of predictable. The characters lack depth, and the plot meanders a bit, going over obvious plot points that you had figured out hours ago. In the final hour, it effectively becomes a nonstop series of cut scenes and info dumps with bare-bones gameplay in between. There's a cool final boss fight, but you might not even see it because as far as I can tell, it only appeared in a bad ending.

Perhaps the thing I found most frustrating about the game is that P-3 would not stop complaining in a slightly too self-aware way. Every time a puzzle came up, he'd whine about it; every time a locked door showed up, he'd make a snarky comment. The game has a few Resident Evil-style sections where you find improbable keys, and he spends the entire time lampshading it every time it happens. He even complains about having to go into "dungeons" when you enter optional areas. I get that the dev team was going for meta humor, but it ends up draining a lot of the energy from the game when the protagonist clearly wishes he wasn't playing it.

The constant quipping can be fun, but it also weakens the plot. When every situation is met with a joke and the characters comment on the absurdity of the world, it makes it difficult to take the game seriously when it tries to be genuine. That also undercuts what could be some genuinely effective horror moments. It also doesn't help that the game builds up to what appears to be sequel bait.

The core gameplay of Atomic Heart cribs shamelessly from Bioshock, a comparison it isn't afraid to make. (At one point, you see an underwater city complex, and the protagonist declares it is "a rapture.") It's a standard FPS setup. One hand holds guns, and the other has your glove, which is where all your powers are contained. You can use both at once, but certain actions, such as healing, require both without certain upgrades.

Weapons are straightforward in that you have the usual collection of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, etc., in addition to melee weapons. Melee weapons and a few guns involve your energy meter; special attacks or shots from those guns drain your energy meter, and melee attacks fill it back up. This encourages players to swap between distance shots and melee beatdowns. There are several varieties of melee weapons with different speed stats, strength stats, and special abilities, so there's some customization.

The various powers of your glove are available from the moment you reach the first shop, but you need to defeat enemies to collect Neuromods to use them. Thankfully, Atomic Heart has an incredibly generous refund system, and any items you buy from a shop can be refunded for the full amount you spent on them. This lets you swap builds any time you want.

The powers are all pretty familiar. Your default power is an electric shock that stuns enemies. A rather nice change from Bioshock is that this power is always equipped on your glove. Likewise, kinesis, the power to grab and throw things, is a basic function. You can equip two other abilities, which include freezing jets, shields, and mass telekinesis, but you don't have to waste a precious slot on basic abilities.

Each power runs on its own individual cooldown, and there's no mana bar. This lets you use the powers freely and pretty much anytime you like. It's a nice feature in that it really makes you feel like your attacks are a core part of your kit that you can use regularly. Combine that with the ability to freely swap builds, and there's a lot of potential.

That said, it runs into a problem with the gameplay: enemies. There isn't much enemy variety, and while there are some cool boss fights, most of the game is spent fighting one of three interchangeable robots or zombies, and pretty much all of them fight in the same way. The enemies are fun enough to fight, but I wish they had something to force you out of your comfort zone.

It doesn't help that there are some absurdly overpowered weapons. For example, one of the melee weapons is effectively a chainsaw blade on a stick, and with an upgrade, it can buzzsaw enemies. Once I got this weapon, nothing else (not even a rocket launcher!) could compare to the insane damage potential of the buzzsaw blades that ended every boss fight in seconds. Certain abilities are better than others, and the balance is awkward enough that I won't be surprised if players trend toward two or three specific items.

The core combat is fun. There's the satisfaction of a shock-and-attack that instantly feels good, and there's a nice rhythm to dodging, smacking and shooting. I really enjoyed the boss fights, where the video game-y nature of Atomic Heart means that there's a lot of platformer-style movement and dodging. By the time I reached the end of the game, I had reached the end of its welcome. That honestly isn't due to the combat being unfun, but more due to Atomic Heart being too long for its own good.

The game started to lose itself once I got out of the first area and into the open-world map. Initially, it was exciting to realize that the game is much larger than it seemed, but it quickly became clear that the open world was empty busywork. There are a series of optional dungeons that you can explore to get upgrades for your guns, but that's about the extent of it beyond miles of identical areas and identical foes. If there were bigger secrets to find, I didn't find them, and the lack of meaningful rewards for exploration meant that it was difficult to work up the urge to explore when all that awaited were more robots.

Adding to the frustration of the open world is that there's no real way to speed things up. Atomic Heart lets you grab a car, but the cars are made of tinfoil and become worthless the moment you bump into something. You can run over a few robots, but then you'll have to abandon your flaming car. It's faster and easier to run everywhere. I groaned at the idea of going to an optional section because I didn't want to trek along the map to get there.

Atomic Heart feels like too little butter spread over too much toast. The set pieces and boss fights are pretty darn cool, but everything between them feels like busywork to make the game feel longer. Even the optional dungeons are lackluster, and since you can see your rewards beforehand, there's no real reason to bother with one unless it has an upgrade for the weapon you are using. (A lot of these upgrades were more like side-upgrades.) If Atomic Heart had nixed the open world and gone for something more focused, it would've been a much stronger game. I can name quite a few moments that I thought were cool, but there's just too much going on between those moments.

Atomic Heart looks absolutely fantastic. The character models and environments are breathtakingly beautiful and well animated, and there are a ton of awesome little visual touches. The audio also does a lot of heavy lifting, with solid voice acting throughout and an absolutely stellar soundtrack. Whatever complaints I might have about Atomic Heart, its presentation knocks it out of the park. It also runs rather smoothly on everything I tested it on, including the Steam Deck, which required me to dial down a few settings.

Atomic Heart is a good game that buries itself in the shadow of great games. There's a lot of creativity, flair and intriguing design, but the game seems to lack confidence. This leaves the plot feeling a little halfhearted and some gameplay features feeling like they were there to check a box rather than actually add anything to the game. When Atomic Heart is on, it is on, but it spends too much time in the doldrums to keep it from truly reaching excellence.

Score: 7.8/10

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