I rarely bring up politics on my website, and I enjoy doing so even less. So you can imagine then that playing Atomic Heart made me feel rather uncomfortable considering the background of this game’s creation. To be clear, I am all in support of Ukraine during this terrible war they are currently engaged in, that being said I am not one for shunning or shaming the citizens of a nation doing terrible things, hell I’m part of the UK unfortunately so I absolutely don’t have stones to throw in this race. Regardless I played Atomic Heart and this is my full review of it, let’s do this.
The story of Atomic Heart will sound familiar to you if you’ve played any Bioshock game lately. During the 1940’s in the midst of the second world war soviet scientists create a new form of malleable and smart polymer that allows them to jump their technology forward a massive amount, so much so that by the 1950’s they have flying cities, robot servants and the ability to telepathically communicate and shoot lighting out their hands, standard stuff of course. You play as P-3, a member of the Soviet armed forces and personal agent of a bigwig scientist who wants to create a neural network that will connect all people in the soviet union together and share knowledge like a collective hivemind. As you may imagine from this prosperity the Soviet Union is doing well for themselves and have actually become the predominant world superpower. After you get word that a secret robot production facility has had all it’s robots go kill-crazy it’s up to you to go visit the area, take out the robots, and figure out the secrets behind your scientist buddy and the new Soviet Union you inhabit. The story is, of course, very much like Bioshock and it wears that distinction with pride, even having a full on reference to Rapture at one point. From my own perspective the way the story went started off incredibly strong, I adored the setting and the characters seemed quite interesting. However as the plot went on it started to lose me with clichés abound and uninteresting plot threads that didn’t end up being developed. This all culminated in some of the worst endings for a game I have ever played which without spoiling anything really managed to give me a complete feeling of unsatisfaction as the credits rolled, I almost felt as if I wasted my time with this game. The setting ultimately ended up being the best thing about the game and the opening really worked to make it interesting and exciting. I personally wanted to learn so much more about the world during these opening moments, but as time went on (and especially at the end) I lost all interest in learning more which was a damn shame.
Presentation-wise this game is absolutely stellar and is probably the best part about the game. It is an absolutely gorgeous looking game and the artists and designers clearly put a lot of effort into making this strange retro-futuristic Soviet Union look the best it can. The opening reminded me of the best parts of Bioshock Infinite, the designs on the robots and characters looked incredibly varied and interesting and all of the places you visit looked lived-in rather than just a series of dungeons to fight through. This combines with a great soundtrack that really helped to pump up the action scenes when needed. There was one boss in particular that as soon as it started had an incredible boss fight song start up that sounded like something ripped straight out of Doom 2016. Sure enough I looked it up afterwards and lo and behold Mick Gordon was credited as working on this game’s soundtrack and you can definitely tell. The only part about the presentation that was a let-down was the voice acting as, at least in english, it was close to comical with how bad it was. There was only one or two characters I could take as being good to listen to but the rest were either annoying, frustrating or downright cringe-inducing. This is especially so for P-3 as he talks and sounds like something an edgy 13 year old would think as the height of cool. I’m aware this is more of a writing issue rather than the delivery but it honestly was unbearable and I ended up strongly hating the main character I was playing as, which is a bit of a problem in a game like this.
Gameplay-wise it again is very reminiscent of the Bioshock games as it’s a first person shooter with RPG elements in which you move from place to place, advance the story, listen to audio logs, read up on flavour text and lore and use science superpowers to tackle harder enemies. The combat itself is quite fun as it has a hefty weight to all of the weapons you use and it deliberately tried to keep up a fast pace by giving you things such as fast running speed, a variety of weapons and powers, open areas for combat and a dodge mechanic that rewards you for skillful use of your dodge skill and watching what enemies are planning to do. The boss fights are also all quite interesting and have unique mechanics that mean you need to constantly keep on your toes and I found them enjoyable to fight. The game also has some pseudo-open world parts that have you travel from location to location on the Russian soil but also allows you to drive vehicles and find optional secret areas to get new powers or weapons. I didn’t find these to be very compelling and I mostly just ended up walking from A to B without much need to find the secret stuff but it’s there for you if you want it. Ultimately the main issue I found with the combat is that I felt the powers were very hit or miss with the shock being close to useless and the shield being very useful, the enemies being far too bullet spongy (I would highly recommend playing on the easiest setting, made the game far more enjoyable for me) and the janky-ness of some of the elements of combat that made it a chore to fight. I frequently would be pushed into corners with no way out as the robots beat me to death and once I unlocked a powerful energy weapon and the ability to restore my energy with melee weapons then it was pretty much game over. Even bosses I just found myself hacking at their shins and pulling back to shoot them with lasers which made all their unique fighting mechanics a bit redundant unfortunately. Still it’s a fun enough combat system and I certainly have played worse, the fast pace direction they chose to take combat really helped with that.
Now to focus on the negatives and there are certainly a few of them. The most glaring issue I found with this game (aside from the dreadful voice acting) was that this game is a technical mess. Bugs were aplenty, I had multiple infinite loading screens, text and subtitles didn’t work properly and even at one point I had to load a previous save as the game missed a cutscene trigger and soft locked me. Alongside this the game has some of the worst audio mixing I have ever heard in a game with voices constantly talking over each other, dialogue being cut off and thus missing important plot threads if I walked too quickly, the characters just constantly bickering back and forth with no breathing room and several music cues or audio elements either being missing or just completely out of place. It was a damn shame as the music was awesome as I previously mentioned but the way it was mixed and implemented into the game just ended up ruining my audio experience with the game. These technical issues also bled into the combat as frequently things would not work as they were supposed to and the previously mentioned issues with getting stuck in corners was a frequent pain in the ass which pulled some of my enjoyment with the game. I also felt that many of the characters were inherently unlikeable or just downright rude, speaking in ways that no normal person would speak or greet others. As I said before this might be a translation issue but ultimately it just felt as though the game was trying to be tough and manly but ended up just feeling a bit like it was overcompensating, and even downright misogynistic at times.
As I also mentioned earlier one thing that I felt is worth mentioning was just how uncomfortable I felt playing it at times with the incredible amount of pro-soviet propaganda and voicelines I experienced. I entirely thought this was being put on deliberately and was just being used as a way to hide the dark secrets behind a Utopian society, but this never was addressed and it just felt like someone trying to tell us how great it would be if Russia was communist again. In fact at one point the main character literally says without context “Main, I love the Soviet Union, look at all the technological advancements we have made, it’s so great to live here” and this is said without a hint of irony, and his support character even agrees with him! Normally I would just say this is a bit of cringy dialogue or a clumsily written line that’s supposed to show someone’s indoctrination but considering the background of how this game was made using pro-russian companies and the constant reminder of the war going on in the background it made me feel a deep sickness in the pit of my stomach thinking that this was some strange attempt to gather support for Russia and a return to the Soviet era. Hopefully that was not the intended case and I am just completely incorrect in my assumption but it’s something that I feel needs brought up before you decide to make a purchase or not.
And that’s Atomic Heart, truly the definition of a mixed bag in my opinion. The game itself is gorgeous, has fairly fun gameplay and tells of a very interesting and unique world but is so technically incompetent, has a very poor story and questionable ethics that I can’t heartily recommend the game to people. It’s certainly an interesting first title for the studio however I feel as though this is a game with so much potential that ultimately failed to reach those expectations. Perhaps for your first ever game you probably shouldn’t try to make a game like Bioshock, you’re just setting yourself up for comparisons and failure if you attempt to do that. Check out Atomic Heart if you want to see an interesting world, but don’t expect great things from it.