Things have gotten awfully political lately around this silly computer game review show. First we had to take a stance on systemic transphobia because we wanted to play the twatty wizard game for twatty wizards. And now we’re playing a game from Russia. So I guess we have to make clear our stance on the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s saggy man tits. Well, perhaps not. There are plenty of people in Russia who are just as disappointed by the sagginess of Putin’s man tits as anyone else. And assuming a game has some political bent just because it comes from Russia would be like criticising Tomb Raider for refusing to address the British government’s complicity in Irish sectarian violence. So, let’s crack off with this assuredly completely politics-free review. Atomic Heart is set in an alternative mid-twentieth century where Russia is the greatest and most powerful country ever and communism rules and capitalism drools – well fucking so much for that. And this isn’t even going into how the plot centres around an upcoming plan to link everyone’s minds in a form of science fiction super communism. And obviously things go awry when all the murdering starts but I don’t think any of it was communism’s fault.
The game’s politics are a little hard to pin down to be honest since the characters keep having these long philosophical arguments over the flaws in the current regime and the nature of free will, although I don’t know if that’s out of a genuine desire to explore political philosophy or just to complete the comparison to Bioshock. In fact, if you’re angling for a nice pithy summary so you can go back to your no doubt terribly important professional life you certainly aren’t procrastinating from right now, Atomic Heart is Russian bootleg knockoff Bioshock. The protagonist Sergey… Russian surname I didn’t quite internalise, is a military veteran hanging out in a magnificent retro-futuristic floating city where universal robot servants create a utopia for its obedient state-worshipping residents, presided over by a charismatic visionary named Andrewov Ryanski or something. Who saved Sergey’s life on the operating table, and for some reason Sergey has no memory of anything before that. Now, if that fact rings several large alarm bells in your head with “plot twist” stencilled across them then you’re not alone, but the bells seem to be ringing a hell of a lot more quietly for Sergey himself who is all in on hero worship of this dude.
Even after the inevitable happens and the robots turn evil and start slaughtering humanity, Sergey meets every slightest suggestion that the dude who created the robots might have to shoulder at least some of the blame with the foulmouthed rage of a sailor discovering the true nature of the manatee in his hammock. Which brings us to the most visible problem with the game: that the main character’s an absolute shithead. I wanna say this could be more of a localisation issue, since the dialogue certainly comes across poorly translated and each line flows straight into the next with no pauses which occasionally feels like we’re being beaten to death with a malfunctioning third party knockoff Speak n Spell, but the whole setup feels like it would have benefited from a more stoic protagonist, sort of like a Bioshock protagonist funnily enough, someone who gruffly glares their way through the fact they obviously haven’t got the first potato caking clue what the fuck’s going on. As opposed to loudly and angrily declaring that fact at every opportunity while showing no desire to actually listen to anyone that might be able to explain what the fuck’s going on.
Now I’ll tolerate a lot of twatty characteristics in my protagonists, friends and self, but incuriosity is a deal breaker. This dude’s got no memory and loves him some evil scientist bumhole and that’s all he cares to know. Even a silent protagonist with chronic depression would show more interest in their own wellbeing. But that’s enough about the janky bootleg Bioshock plot, let’s move onto the janky bootleg Bioshock gameplay. You’ve got guns and you’ve got plasmids, I mean… I can’t even remember what the game called it. A thing where you shoot lightning out of your hand. And another thing that lets you spray foam all over things that makes the lightning hurt more. See, it’s trying to do the immersive sim thing where different enemies have different weaknesses and you can take a creative approach to combat, but keeps missing the point. In Bioshock you electrify water and set fire to oil and it’s situational, requires improvisation. In Atomic Heart foam enhances electricity, fire AND ice. It’s the all foam-based economy. There’s even a bit of dialogue handwaving why electricity doesn’t do anything to water. It’s because it’s magic soviet electricity that isn’t permitted to mingle with bourgeois liquids by order of the state.
There’s also a telekinesis power that the game attempts to suggest can be used in combat, except only about one of every twelve background cardboard boxes can be lifted with it and it damages enemy robots about as much as burping into their exhaust pipes. You can also use it to remotely search cupboards, and that IS a welcome addition to the immersive sim model. Instead of having to search every drawer looking for screws and Hostess fruit pies you can just Luigi’s mansion the whole room with a sweeping gesture. And you have to, because all your weapons and upgrades have to be crafted from nine barely distinguishable otherwise useless currencies so if you don’t blindly empty every drawerful of broken USB cables into your pockets you’re going to get locked into one of the damage spongy boss fights with two health kits and an L-shaped piece of copper pipe as your only gun. It’s sort of an open world, there’s a jolly pretty overworld map that connects the critical path objectives. At least I think it was pretty, whenever I was in it it was either blurring past at high speed or I was hiding in a bush. If you stop to fight any robots then you get spotted by the ubiquitous security cameras who summon even more robots. You destroy the cameras but more fucking robots show up to rebuild them. It’s like you’re trying to jog through the park and keep getting catcalled by a Lernean hydra made of art deco coffee machines.
So you say, fuck the overworld, and speedrun to yet another sodding underground lab where the next story objective is, but all the interiors have this Brutalist architecture vibe, appropriately enough – all strings of copy pasted square concrete rooms each with nineteen copy pasted chests of drawers. Atomic Fart – no, that’s beneath me – Ass-bum-sick Tart is in all very flawed, but I did find some janky charm in its confident visuals, bizarre dialogue and loveable well-meaning fuckups. Which was ultimately outweighed by the bugginess, frustration and apocalyptically shitty ending. It’s that peculiar variety of Endingtron 3000 where towards the end the game goes “Do you want to fight the final boss and get story closure, or would you prefer to just piss off home now?” Forspoken did that, and taking the second option netted you the bad ending, as any good capitalist should expect. In Atomic Shart, pissing off early is how you get the GOOD ending. Which makes zero fucking sense to me. The final boss fight is the reward, not the punishment for not wimping out early. Maybe it’s another Russia thing? You’re SUPPOSED to turn around and bugger off home. That’s how Hitler fucked up in Stalingrad.