Atomic Heart Review – Sublime Aesthetics and Badass Grannies
Title: Atomic Heart
Release Date: February 21, 2023
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Genre: Science Fiction FPS
When Atomic Heart was announced all the way back in 2017, it was all about its distinctive retro-future art design. I didn’t know much about the game other than the fact that it looked absolutely badass, and I wanted to get lost in its fascinating world. After nearly six years, developer Mundfish is finally ready to unveil its newest project to the world.
Atomic Heart is a hardcore first-person shooter with role-playing elements, set in an alternate version of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Scientific and technological advancements have allowed for some impressive inventions, including advanced AI-powered robots and flying cars, so utopia isn’t too far off. The wait was definitely worth it on this one, even though the game does fall short on a few notes.
The premise is a little confusing here, so bear with me for a bit. During the 1930s, a scientist known as Dmitry Sechenov developed a liquidized programmable module known as Polymer that revolutionized the field of robotics. For 20 years, an advanced AI known as the Kollektiv has been serving as the hive mind for the androids that have freed humans from manual labor. Sechenov has now developed a device to integrate Polymer with the human body. Still, some secret experiments have gone awry, and the once peaceful androids are now massacring humans left and right. So where do you come in?
You assume the role of Major Nechaev, also known as agent P-3, equipped with an advanced Polymer glove that also serves as a chatty AI companion known as Charles. Get ready to hear constant F-bombs, among other curse words, as P-3 is a feisty one. What’s with vulgar main protagonists and talkative equipable partners nowadays? I’m looking at you, Forspoken and High on Life. Sent by Sechenov to investigate Facility 3826, where most of the game takes place, you must confront biomechanical experiments that have gone wrong while also suffering from a deteriorating mental state. The premise is intriguing and goes way down the rabbit hole the deeper you dive into the conspiracies of the narrative.
Tangoing with the now corrupt Kollektiv’s underlings, you feel that you’re going against a global AI system. Robots are a force to be reckoned with, as even the most grunt enemy types can knock you on your feet, literally, with their karate drop-kick attacks. And it’s not all robots because you come across some mutated plant zombies too! Even though the game is marketed as a first-person shooter, there’s quite a lot of melee combat involved. That said, melee combat is, err… a mixed bag due to how fast-paced and hectic it can get. Rogue machines can spot you from a mile away and come charging toward you at a second’s notice. You have a dash button to get out of harm’s way and a red circle indicator on the screen to let you know when to dodge, but the timing is too tight. Or, you can avoid combat altogether, as the game features a stealth approach where you can execute unwary enemies. It doesn’t work very well, though, and I often found myself fighting murderous machines head on anyways.
Your glove companion Charles and a Pulaski axe are your best friends at the start of the game because ranged options are minimal. Your advanced glove allows you to scan the environment for interactable objects and enemies, in addition to vacuuming up collectibles. There are many things to collect in this game, including health packs, upgrade parts, and audio logs. You get a shotgun early on but not much ammo until you push further into the campaign. After that, combat becomes highly visceral and varied, allowing for some insane combos and finishers.
Charles can be augmented at horny red machines called NORA to learn a variety of abilities, such as shocking your enemies or levitating them to smash them down with a telekinesis attack. Please don’t ask me why they are so sex-crazed because your guess is as good as mine. Other abilities include an augmented shield or gaining frost capabilities. Your stats can be upgraded, too, such as gaining an extra dash, more health, and running faster. Other weapons can also be crafted and upgraded at this weirdly sexual AI station. Don’t worry about limited weapon options in the beginning because you’ll flesh out an entire arsenal of crazy ones by the end of the game, such as the classic AK, a railgun, and even the Fat Boy grenade launcher.
By now, you probably guess that Atomic Heart isn’t an easy game, although the game does offer three difficulty options. Enemy attacks are erratic and hit like a truck, even on normal difficulty. It doesn’t help that all the intricately designed robots blend in with the pastel environment, especially with so many dead bodies on the ground, so sometimes you’re not sure if you’re truly safe. You also have to be mindful of the overall alertness level of Kollektiv, as raising the alarm draws the attention of all nearby haywire machines to target you.
While this isn’t an immersive sim title, portions of the game allow you to deal with situations in various ways. The earlier sections are the most punishing, but staying alive gets easier the further you get. Just keep upgrading your gear and unlocking better abilities via NORA whenever you can. The beginning of the game is also painfully linear, but thankfully the open-world section opens up not too long after. Sprinkled between combat portions are your generic exploration bits filled with collecting items and solving puzzles. Once in a while, you’ll encounter spectacular boss battles requiring you to expose weak spots under their heavy metal armor to succeed.
The game knows when to be serious but also knows when to be funny, as you can see from the aforementioned tediously titillated upgrade robot or the potty mouth rocket launcher-wielding granny you end up meeting. The banter between P-3 and his glove companion Charles can be humorous at times, too, such as Charles’ comments on how dire the situation is when mobs of robots surround you. The comedy doesn’t always land, though, and can sometimes become borderline annoying. I wish there were an option to toggle how often the protagonist talks during unimportant narrative sequences.
Mundfish hits it out of the park when it comes to art direction and visual fidelity. Atomic Heart looks absolutely breathtakingly stunning, with its eye-catching alternate history architecture and lush organic environments. Who knew a retro-future dystopia could look so beautiful? Imagine sleek city streets adorned with bright red propaganda and android robots parading between towering skyscrapers. Even the animations of allies and enemies are smooth and slick, featuring excellent facial expressions and detail.
If you keep up with the official YouTube channel for the game, you might have noticed short clips of an animated cartoon. The cartoons are propaganda that shows up on TV in the world of this game and makes for a more immersive experience. The distinctive art design alone is worthy of praise, with inspirations clearly taken from the likes of Bioshock. The trailers weren’t lying because this game is both visually impressive and creative. The cherry on top is the soundtrack, as the music written by Mick Gordon absolutely slaps.
It pains me that triple-A games in the modern age continue to neglect fundamental accessibility options such as text size. It usually wouldn’t be too much of an issue if a game’s default font size is serviceable, but the text in this game is on another level of small. I played this on a 65-inch television display and had to squint my eyes to see basic item descriptions or dialogue options. While most games nowadays offer a wide and fancy range of accessibility features, Atomic Heart lacks the most basic. This poor experience is exacerbated when combined with the game not allowing you to save key documents. For example, one such puzzle required me to look for a combination pattern on a sheet of paper on the ground. I couldn’t pick this paper up to examine in your inventory, and I couldn’t see the pattern until I stood right in front of the TV.
What’s more frustrating is that the game lacks the necessary information regarding tutorials and controls. The developers managed to add an encyclopedia filled with different characters and machines that you encounter to learn more about the in-game lore, so why couldn’t they add the more basic but important stuff? Forget about remapping button inputs because the game won’t even let you know what the controls are if you need a refresher after the initial tutorial. I had to resort to the good old guess-and-check method by pressing every button on my controller to see what did what.
Mundfish has managed to capture the thrill of over-the-top action taking full advantage of Atomic Heart’s 1950s setting and insane narrative. Every moment of gameplay is packed with tense combat against haywire animatronics. Still, all the heavy metal shredding in the world isn’t enough to save the experience from its extremely poor user interface design and lack of basic accessibility features.
This post may contain Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate Noisy Pixel earns from qualifying purchases.