Let it be known that if I have to hear the words ‘crispy’ and ‘critters’ in the same sentence again I may just begin my own communist revolution wherein I outlaw these words all together.

Of course I’m being facetious (possibly), but this grating phrase is uttered by the protagonist of Atomic Heart, Major Sergey Nechayev, far more often than one would hope. It’s a saying that’s repeated so often, and sounds so comically – for the lack of a better word – American, something right out of the mouth of a stereotypical hillbilly, that it almost feels like Russian game developer Mundfish were trying to make it a phrase that would be iconized by American audiences. ‘Trying’ being the operative word here. It’s confusing at best, given how Mundfish have been accused by the Ukrainian government for ‘romanticising communist ideology and the Soviet Union,’ though at the same time chose to tell a story (badly) whose crux actively juxtaposes with its pro-communist visuals. Apologies, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Atomic Heart is a semi-open world first-person action RPG reminiscent of Bioshock Infinite. It takes place in an alternate timeline in the mid 1950s where, through a breakthrough technology called Polymer created by scientist Dimitry Sechenov, the USSR were able to gain the advantage during World War II with the use of robotics. After purposefully releasing a virus called the Brown Plague, which caused the deaths of millions globally, the USSR saw a massive uptick in demand for Soviet automation, leading robots to replace much of the lost workforce. You play as Nechayev, a WWII veteran that can’t seem to remember much of his past after Dr. Sechenov – the creator of the aforementioned Polymer – supposedly saved his life. You’re invited to Facility 3826 to assist Sechenov in the rollout of Kollektiv 2.0–a mass neural network designed to help humans control robots with nothing but their minds. Though once there, you see the robots have become hostile, because of course they have. To say the opening of Atomic Heart had me excited would be an understatement. Facility 3826 is breathtaking. It hovers in the clouds much like Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia, with beautiful landscapes that intertwine perfectly with intricately designed architecture and impressive monuments, all popping with lively colours—red in particular, because subtlety isn’t the game’s forte. The streets are peppered with interesting and varied robots that go about their tasks, and a lively populace who chatter away, giving you insights about the world they live in. It was an exciting twenty or so minutes, but once I was given free rein to explore, test out the combat, and dive deeper into the story, the honeymoon period quickly faded.

Atomic Heart
Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

For the first two or so hours Atomic Heart gave me nothing but a shoddy axe to face enemies. This proved to be a dreadful first impression of the game’s combat. Each swing of the axe took ages, and when I did land a hit on an enemy there was no satisfying feedback either visually or through the audio that told me that my hit did, indeed, land. It reminded me of Skyrim in a way, but made worse by Nechayev’s even more sluggish movement that made dodging the suspiciously quick enemies a chore. To further my disappointment, things didn’t change once I had finally gotten a hold of a gun—a measly electric handgun, at that. Shooting the creepy faces of the same moustachioed robots that threw themselves at me wasn’t any more satisfying than the axe, as none of the guns seemed to have either the visual or tactical ‘punch’ needed to make for an at least somewhat enjoyable experience. All of this was made more frustrating by the overall sponginess of enemies. Every encounter felt longer than necessary, and would quickly feel like a chore to get through. This is doubly true for all the boss encounters, which had me nearly rage quit more than a few times. Not only did I feel ill-equipped to face every boss, but their health meters were laughably bloated, making for every battle be less about actual skill, and more about patience. Which, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the gameplay proves worthwhile to slog through a boss that’s both aesthetically and mechanically interesting; none of those things, however, were true for the bosses in Atomic Heart.

In addition to the gunplay, you are also given Polymer abilities via your Polymer glove—whose integrated AI companion named CHAR-les accompanies you throughout Atomic Heart. Taking a similar cue from Bioshock, these abilities are fired from your left hand and can be used in conjunction with the rest of your arsenal; though the choices in abilities are fairly limited. You have shock and freeze abilities, a telekinetic ability that lifts enemies into the air, and a polymeric jet, which when used in conjunction with either shock or freeze can increase their efficacy. The upgrades for these abilities are your standard affair, from increasing their effect duration, to decreasing their cooldown timers. You can upgrade your weapons, too. All of these upgrades alongside crafting new weapons is done by collecting materials you find throughout the world, either from enemy corpses or from scavenging filing cabinets and drawers in many of the abandoned buildings and houses. You collect these materials by holding down the right bumper, which thrusts out your Polymer glove and like The Force from Star Wars, attracts all the materials to your person. This, admittedly, is possibly the best part of Atomic Heart. Being able to mindlessly hold the right bumper and watch as every cabinet and drawer flings open with a flurry of metallic objects all scurrying towards you, was quite satisfying and would be the one (and only) mechanic I would have other developers take inspiration from. The upgrades to your guns prove somewhat useful in making combat encounters shorter (note, not ‘fun’), though that time is quickly made up when having to deal with the frankly horrendous menu UI, which is not only cluttered but impressively unintuitive.

Atomic Heart
Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

From the moment you’re allowed to explore the open world to the final boss fight, Atomic Heart feels… hollow. It wants to tell a story that’s filled with intriguing history, that talks about the follies of egotistical men of science, and question certain political ideologies but, much like an American blockbuster, it does all this with no care for nuance. The writing fails to capture the potential of the world around it. And from a basic moment-to-moment narrative perspective, it fails to bring forth any sense of tension or purpose, with dialogue that is nothing less than cringey—particularly in regards to the protagonist who is the complete embodiment of, forgive the language, an utter asshat, and whose voice actor’s grating performance only makes his meat-headed tendencies even more unbearable.

Speaking of voice acting, though the rest of the cast are passable in their performances, it’s actually in the omission of having a proper Russian voice cast that peaked my curiosity. You’d think that with a game such as this, made predominantly by Russian developers, set in a retro-futuristic USSR, that the inclusion of a Russian voice-over would exist. Not that it would do anything for the writing, but I personally would have preferred to play the game in Russian, if only to be a tad more immersed. There’s also something needed to be said about the way in which women’s bodies are treated in Atomic Heart. From overt sexual violence ‘jokes’ spewed oddly seductively by the game’s upgrade machines, to a mission where you as the player must find the several dismembered limbs of a female robot, to the silent and overly objectified robot twins who dawn Atomic Heart’s cover art but have no genuine narrative purpose aside from being mere eye candy – further evidenced by the cutscene director’s ‘brilliant’ shot selection – it’s hard to ignore the game’s disdain for women.

Atomic Heart
Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

Atomic Heart wants you to get lost in its open world, but fails to capture the atmosphere or create the curiosity for exploration. In fact, I felt the game actively dissuaded me from exploring, with every corner being riddled with either multiple security systems or a large group of agro-sensitive robots – oftentimes both. Of course I’m not saying that an open-world shouldn’t have dangers or obstacles, but with the general layout of the world being drab and uninspired with nothing of consequence ever pulling me to fight through those obstacles, and a map that was so frustratingly vague, I simply found myself trudging along to the next objective. The linear sections of Atomic Heart at least proved more cohesive. Each facility or lab has a distinct theme with solid art direction and a couple of unique puzzles. And the pace in which you flow through these segments are, for the most part, more efficient both narratively and in terms of gameplay.

It’s difficult to review a game when thinking of its potential. Because if there were ever a game where the term, ‘wasted potential,’ would surmise its existence, Atomic Heart is it. Its narrative lacks the gall to tackle any of its ideas thoroughly, and is made worse by having to endure it through the eyes of a tremendously unlikeable protagonist. Its moment-to-moment gameplay and RPG mechanics are passable at best, and a chore the rest. Though visually Atomic Heart is admittedly beautiful – especially in that first hour – and performs well enough, it’s not enough to distract from an otherwise hollow experience.   

Shaz reviewed Atomic Heart on Xbox Series S via game pass.

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