Atomic Heart is a first-person action-adventure shooter developed by Mundfish. The shooting, puzzles, and political thriller narrative bring back good memories of 7th generation FPS big-hitters like BioShock and Call of Duty: Black Ops while using the 9th generation tech to push the gameplay and cinematics to another level. That being said, Atomic Heart often feels like it’s flexing for the sake of flexing, causing the gameplay or story to falter at times, but it manages a positive impression in the end.
Atomic Heart takes place in an alternate history where the Soviet Union wins World War II and becomes a utopian superpower leading innovation in all fields of science, but most importantly robotics. In present-day 1955, the USSR attempts to launch a new device that will allow humans to control robots with their mind, but the plan is sabotaged, causing all robots to turn on the humans. The rest of the narrative is equal parts mysterious and obvious, but it relies heavily on spectacle and plot twists to keep you engaged during the cutscenes and forced-walking segments. It works, but it feels as if my morbid curiosity was taken advantage of instead of being served a well-crafted story.
The story during gameplay is engaging except when too much attention is brought to it. Protagonist P-3 constantly berates the circumstances he’s in for being lame, annoying, and unimaginative, like repeatedly being sent on fetch quests to retrieve a number of items, his AI companion never shutting up, and things being too conveniently inconvenient. There isn’t much to the horror aspect because you have a special ability that lets you see dangerous entities through walls and has massive range, but the atmosphere and sense of security is used against you to keep things amusingly tense.
Your arsenal consists of melee weapons, ammo-type guns, energy-type guns, and glove skills. All of them can be customized and upgraded by turning in loot from slain enemies, but too many options feel irrelevant, like reducing weapon sway, or aren’t as exciting, like simply increasing your damage done, compared to the character upgrades that add extra dashes or make you immune to damage if you’re hitting an enemy. Energy weapons don’t need to use ammo, and melee attacks charge up energy guns. So most of your points are better spent on character upgrades, which leaves about two-thirds of the skills as undesirables.
It’s worth experimenting with the different ammo-type guns, cartridges that add effects like shock and burn, and combinations of glove skills that can freeze or toss around enemies, but it’s a bit of a hassle to get to a station to change loadouts and manage different loadouts for enemies that aren’t all that threatening. You can just walk around in circles dashing out of the way of telegraphed attacks or make enemies get stuck behind knee-high obstacles. The boss fights are a spectacle to behold, but even those are easily dealt with by getting in close and chopping away at their legs.
The world is mostly linear but opens up at times, allowing you to scavenge around topside or partake in puzzle dungeons for extra gear and blueprints. The scavenging itself feels repetitive, as the different areas are all dealt with in the same manner of clearing out a few enemies and then going through chests and drawers. I like the puzzle dungeons more, and it’s a shame I didn’t have more time to look into them. But from what I saw in my 14-hour playthrough, they played the same as mandatory ones in the story, which might get a little old after a while. Most of the puzzles are locks that require timing to a beat or rearranging dots to unlock, but the real challenge is clearing the area thoroughly to buy yourself enough time to open the door.
For lack of a better word, Atomic Heart is weird. The intro has almost no real gameplay for 30 minutes and plays out like a poorly scripted political ad, the story feels like a military thriller fever dream, and the characters have surely all gone mad — but it works. From the talking corpses to the mustachioed crash test dummies, everything feels like it belongs. Atomic Heart’s biggest strength is that it’s artistically bold and bizarre from start to finish.
Atomic Heart is available February 21 for $59.99 on PC and $69.99 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X | S.
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