They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Well if that’s the case then Atomic Heart has come pretty close to proving the opposite.
Since getting a first glimpse around five years ago, gamers have been eagerly anticipating this BioShock/Wolfenstein mash-up. However, global events last year put a different spin on things which complicated people’s thoughts and feelings about the project. This is a purely objective game review however – for once I’m keeping politics out of it.
For the unaware, Atomic Heart is a first person shooter set in 1955 within the crucible of innovation named Facility 3826. In this world, the Soviet Union doubled down on their technological innovations after WWII. Thanks to the breakthroughs of Dmitry Sechenov, it looks perfectly possible that humans will be able to control machines with their mind. However, it all goes a little pear shaped early doors, and so begins the unravelling of this supposed utopian society.
You see all of this transpire through the eyes of Major P-3, an elite intelligence soldier who is dispatched to sort out the mess, and find the culprit. As is so often the case, however, he has a somewhat mysterious past which is a struggle for him to piece together. Still, he isn’t alone thanks to CHAR-les, the AI glove who provides helpful analysis as well as packing plenty of skills to keep the pair on track.
For me, it’s imperative that a chunky single player game such as Atomic Heart tells a compelling, gripping narrative. On the whole I think it pulls this off (no spoilers here) despite P-3 not being the most likeable or affable of folk. And his catchphrase is rather irritating. There are enough supporting characters to dilute his flaws and keep you invested through the twists and turns of the plot. There’s plenty of corpses to interact with too (ahhh technology) as well as the odd choice to make.
CHAR-les has a lot of tricks up his metaphorical sleeve including the ability to shock and freeze enemies as well as manipulate them with telekinesis, amongst other things. You can also upgrade P-3’s stats and skills via an all too familiar tree system. You’ll need Neuropolymer to do so, and this can be looted from fallen enemies.
In fact, there’s a shedload of stuff hidden in cupboards, desk drawers and wooden crates too. This is all useful in the crafting and upgrading of weapons in Atomic Heart, alongside self improvement. There are a range of melee and ranged weapons to get your hands on, however the more powerful ones require you to find the necessary blueprint first.
You can also equip different elemental cartridges to your weapons once you have unlocked the necessary upgrade, which is a lot of fun to play around with. For example, you can add a freezing effect to your ammo which stops enemies in their tracks, before you blast them into a million tiny pieces. However, I found it challenging to figure out how to equip these to say the least. So much so that by the time I cracked it, I was nearing the end of the game.
In order to get crafting you need to chat with a machine called NORA. This AI has a kinky side, or NSFW if you catch my drift. Just don’t interact with it if anyone else is in the room because before long you’ll be hoping and praying the randy machine stops begging you to pleasure it. There, I said it. I’m not proud.
Somewhere nearby the lustful ladybot usually lies a save point. Atomic Heart does autosave your progress, however it’s best to make use of these too. The save rooms offer a short respite from the robot bashing, as well as a chance to tool up and take a breather.
Being semi-confident in my gaming skills, I opted to shoot down the middle in terms of difficulty and played on the normal mode. This certainly offered a challenge without being too punishing, it felt like the right balance.
There are plenty of weird and wonderful machines out to kill you, but none more peculiar than the humanoid robots who all don a snazzy moustache. I’m not sure why, but they’re certainly memorable. However, you’ll come up against stronger boss enemies fairly frequently, and these encounters are much more challenging.
These beasts usually pack a fairly hefty health bar, and will bust plenty of moves which you will need to study carefully. It’s perfectly possible to take each one down, but they will consume the vast majority of your ammo in the process. If you approach a wide open space and sense an ambush, it’s probably best to head back to NORA and stock up on supplies before heading into battle.
Atomic Heart plays across two different types of environment. You start out in a dungeon style level, which has a very BioShock feel to it. There are many installations within Facility 3826 which are labyrinth-like in structure, and filled with treasures to be found and enemies to be vanquished. Many of these form part of the main story arc, but there are numerous “polygons” (or test rooms) scattered around which are effectively side quests, offering up all sorts of rewards depending how deep into the puzzling dungeons you get. These segments feel a little more like Portal.
It’s here where Atomic Heart feels a little braver, chucking some different mechanics into the mix. Whether this involves magnet rooms, rotating platforms or energy balls it all helps to keep things feeling progressive. There are also plenty of locked doors which need to be opened by playing one or two brainteaser mini games that are actually a lot of fun.
After a little while you will emerge into the overworld, which covers a pretty vast area, so much so that you’ll need to do a fair bit of travelling by vehicle. You’ll also be wise to do this because murderous, rebellious machines are everywhere. Keep an eye on those pesky Dandelion’s too, because the flower-shaped security cameras will swiftly raise the alert level and call upon hordes of machines to take you down. At this point, your best option is to leg it.
P-3 will also need to do a bit of climbing from time to time. Unfortunately, the platforming is a very hit and miss experience. At best it is clunky but works, otherwise you’ll be taking fall damage and struggling to scale said building without making multiple attempts.
I have to say Atomic Heart looks really good. This is especially the case when you start travelling the surface and are treated to some pretty impressive vistas. However, this is a game not without its rough edges.
The most noticeable one is how enemies seem to move in a stop motion fashion when approaching from a distance. This isn’t the case all of the time, but it is especially noticeable with the loader robots that need a shock to get them going. They look pretty dreadful. Also, little glitches become apparent from time to time. Whether it is getting stuck in scenery, the cursor not responding when reading a log or the game simply deciding to crash, there are a few kinks still to be ironed out. Hopefully, many of these issues will be patched before too long.
What I will say, however, is that the soundtrack to Atomic Heart is simply fantastic. The eclectic mix of metal, rave and even classical music is expertly blended by Mick Gordon. If you recognise the name, it’s because he was behind the music for DOOM and Wolfenstein, amongst other games. His pitch perfect use of music to accompany what’s happening on screen helps elevate the story to feel that little more impactful at key times.
There’s upwards of thirty-five hours of gameplay on offer in Atomic Heart (if you go after all the optional stuff) which is a pretty decent offering for a game of this ilk. Atomic Heart does a pretty good job of keeping you interested, throwing a curveball or changing up things just a little when the action may be in danger of turning stale.
As is the nature of the world, you’ll be constantly asking yourself who the real monsters are. This is a dark tale with plenty of layers which need peeling back one by one, as you try to uncover the truth behind Atomic Heart.
Atomic Heart may not feel wholly original, but you can’t deny the craftsmanship that has gone into building an immersive, vibrant world. It may be a familiar tale of tech gone wrong, but there’s enough creative flair here to justify treading the path once again.
Atomic Heart is on the Xbox Store