After a long gestation period filled with controversy and concern, Mundfish’s ambitious shooter Atomic Heart finally emerges. Is it a triumphant debut or a failed revolution? We dig a little deeper in our review of Atomic Heart on PC.
Set in an alternate version of the Soviet Union’s history, technology has advanced to create a utopian society where humanity and machines work in harmony. Of course, a utopia will never last as long as politics and human ego come into things, which is behind the disaster that ensues.
A political struggle boils over into an event where pretty much every peaceful robot enters ‘combat mode’ and murders the majority of the local population. The game’s protagonist, known as P-3, is a special agent with special abilities imbued upon him by a talking glove called Charles (yes, really) and is sent to clean up the mess before high-ranking officials visit. Cleaning things up generally involves busting robot heads, but thankfully there is a bit more to it than that.
The story satirizes the idealistic world it portrays, creating a farcical scenario where the priority is not saving humanity, but avoiding the negative optics that a surprise attack by a Soviet-led army of warbots would bring. The protagonist is established early on as a compliant follower who carries out orders out of loyalty, despite being unsure of what he’s loyal to. While he benefits from the advancements of a machine revolution, he doesn’t hold much regard for the machines themselves and finds their naivety and inflexibility exasperating in the wake of the crisis. This dynamic leads to genuinely amusing interactions throughout the story.
Visually, Atomic Heart is an impressive spectacle. The landscape and architecture are an eye-catching and evocative fusion of past and future that brings to mind some of the more striking sci-fi worlds we’ve seen in media over the years. You can see how impressive it would all be if sentient lawnmowers weren’t trying to trim the verge off your head. For whatever else Atomic Heart is or isn’t good at, Mundfish has at least created a fascinating world with a very unique look to it.
It’s not just the big things either. The robots themselves are excellent designs. From the rank-and-file humanoid units that all resemble Ron Swanson as the T-1000 to the freakish synthetic hybrids, Atomic Heart’s rogue gallery of robots is especially striking and maintains the off-kilter atmosphere of the world.
You'll spend a lot of time talking to your hand. No, really.
To combat the robot threat, you’re gonna need an arsenal of your own, and Atomic Heart supplies the player with a bounty of options.
The similarities to Bioshock are particularly evident in the combat system, which blends melee, ranged, and augmented abilities seamlessly. The central substance in Atomic Heart is Polymer, which plays a critical role in creation, upgrades, consumables, and abilities. Just like in Bioshock, there is an underlying sense of unease associated with Polymer, and the question of how it is made remains a mystery.
It’s a game where everything you have is useful to combat scenarios, and it lends a level of flexibility to increasingly unpredictable encounters. You can dash dodge enemy attacks, whilst looking for a weak point. Each enemy type has strengths, weaknesses, and immunity to whatever you throw at them, so you need to switch things up constantly, utilizing the full rack of tools at your disposal.
The abilities are what make combat in Atomic Heart exciting and dynamic. You can only equip two abilities at a time, allowing you to develop a personal play style. For instance, the cryo mod can freeze your enemies in a crystalline shell, temporarily halting their movements. While dealing less damage to iced foes, it reduces the risk of counterattacks. The electro spark is a basic ability that can open doors, manipulate magnetic polarity in puzzles, and stun enemies momentarily. Another example is the telekinetic mod, which can throw enemies into the air and hold them there, making it easier to take them out with ranged weapons. These abilities can be upgraded, increasing their effectiveness and adding variety to combat, making it a more stylish and thrilling experience.
The combat in Atomic Heart can be frustrating at times, particularly in the game’s open environments where it can be difficult to control an escalating situation or make a quick escape. Running low on ammo during these encounters can make survival a real slog. I encountered a challenging boss fight around the mid-point of the game where I wasn’t adequately prepared, resulting in a lengthy and intense struggle that felt more like a hack n’ slash game. In retrospect, it was refreshing I was able to wing it that way, but at the time it felt a bit annoying.
Also, stealth just did not feel like a valid option 9 times out of 10. There’s no leeway on being spotted and pretty much every attempt to play things cool ended up in a bloodbath (or an oil bath I suppose). Cameras and some drones can escalate a fight by alerting extra forces until they’re taken out, and others can rebuild fallen foes, meaning the fight is rarely done quickly. These factors are better contained indoors as there are just too many places for enemies to be drawn from in a high-alert situation with outdoor areas.
Moreover, stealth doesn’t feel like a viable option in most situations, as being spotted is nearly unavoidable. Almost every attempt at playing it cool ended in a bloodbath (or oil bath, I suppose). Cameras and certain drones can escalate a fight by alerting additional enemies until they are eliminated, while others can rebuild fallen foes, making fights rarely swift. These factors are easier to manage indoors, as high-alert situations in outdoor areas can attract enemies from too many directions.
Atomic Heart's architecture is a real highlight.
Combat isn’t the only focus of Atomic Heart, as the game includes some substantial puzzle sections. The best puzzles take up entire missions and involve multiple rooms, which is fortunate because there’s also a fair bit of fetch-questing that’s not improved by the protagonist’s open disdain for it. In one section, for example, you must move a large canister on a rail across two rooms by finding the right switches to turn it in the correct direction. This involves some platforming, shooting, and logic, offering a tactile task that breaks up the game’s action into more manageable pieces. These aren’t the toughest of brain teasers, but they offer a tactile task that separates the game’s action into more manageable chunks.
Atomic Heart doesn’t quite reach the heights it could, but it is an enjoyable, interesting shooter nonetheless.
ATOMIC HEART VERDICT
Atomic Heart is a shooter with some fantastic ideas, excellent presentation, and a fair bit of variety. Although it doesn’t excel at any one thing and flatters to deceive at times, it still has enough to offer a compelling adventure.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Flinging robots into the air and skeet-shooting them with an overpowered shotgun.
Well-realised game world
Interesting mix of weaponry
Puzzles break up the shooting
Open outdoor areas less enjoyable
Combat gets a bit fiddly in certain situations
Story doesn't really wow
About Neil Bolt
Horror game enthusiast with a deep admiration for the weirder side of games. Once (twice, three times) ruined my hands playing too much Quake 3.