I think it’s fair to say that Atomic Heart has been the subject of a decent amount of skepticism during its development cycle. At times it looked too good to be true, especially so from a developer who had yet to release a project. It’s a game that blatantly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, the likes of which are some of most iconic franchises in video games. Perhaps you’ve heard of BioShock and Fallout? Atomic Heart doesn’t come close to the best entries in those series, but it sure does pour all of its (atomic) heart and soul into what is, ultimately, a solid debut from developer Mundfish.
Atomic Heart starts strong, introducing you to a dystopian, alternate history where a technologically advanced Cold War-era Soviet Union is on top of the world in many ways. We’ve been asked not to discuss much of anything in regards to the story, and I can understand why, as it is one of the game’s high marks. If you’re going in totally blind, just know that an internal power struggle at a Soviet research facility sets off a chain of events where the seemingly benign robotic creations overrun the place. As you might imagine, the plot is underscored by geopolitical motivations with sights set on global domination.
The story and world of Atomic Heart are truly fascinating. I was often stunned by the incredible indoor areas and environmental storytelling, yet disturbed by how familiar its themes felt in relation to life here in the real world. Beyond the “take over the world” motif going on, there are also the more sci-fi story beats which I found quite interesting. There’s something about the premise of an injection giving you the knowledge level of a PhD in quantum physics that just doesn’t sound all that farfetched. The plot itself, combined with excellent art direction and imagery are major highlights, and I hope that sounds appealing to you, because Atomic Heart starts off slow by first-person shooter standards. The first 30-minutes are mostly exposition, which is likely to turn a few people off who don’t get caught up in the narrative.
Eventually the rubber meets the road and you assume control of Major Nechaev, a security officer for the facility and its director, who excels at dealing with…complicated situations. A variety of weapons are available for you to shred robots and other things with, including pistols, assault rifles, melee weapons, electric weapons, shotguns, and Fat Boy (a personal favorite). Additionally, your glove – whose name is Charles, by the way – provides a range of abilities from telekinesis to electric shock to aid in your fight against bad guys. The combat is another high mark for Atomic Heart, as ripping apart enemies with your favorite combination of weapons and abilities is a ton of fun most of the time. Lifting an enemy off the ground and blasting them in the face with a shotgun never got old. The game lets you re-spec your character’s abilities at any of the upgrade stations as often as you wish, which I really appreciated. Sometimes it was necessary to swap out and level-up abilities for a particular boss fight for example, and then you could just change it back afterwards. It removed that anxiety of wondering if you’re beefing up the wrong skill tree in vain, setting yourself up to get walloped in the late game. One other really nice feature that I always appreciate are enemies visually showing damage, and physically reacting to the damage you’re dealing. Whacking robots with an axe scars them up appropriately, limbs get sliced off, and bullets don’t do those pristine robot paint jobs any favors either.
I say that combat is fun most of the time because you will likely experience some frustrations at no fault of your own. One complaint is that the game doesn’t do a great job of telling you which buttons do what. I didn’t discover until almost half way through that holding left trigger with a melee weapon performs a heavy attack, for instance. Maybe I missed a tutorial prompt, maybe not, but it shouldn’t even be a question. More egregious is the game’s seemingly unbalanced difficulty. For the first half of the game I played on normal difficulty, enjoying what I would describe as a fair challenge, but then something changed. I started getting overwhelmed in fights, I was running out of health boosts rather quickly, and I felt helpless at times regardless of my ability and weapon loadout. So, I capitulated and dropped down to the easiest difficulty, attributing my struggles to simply losing a step in my advanced gaming age. My survivability improved after that, but having to make a change midway I feel is an indictment on the difficulty balancing as a whole. A late game sequence drove that point home for me, as even on the easiest difficulty I was quite literally running for my life between story objectives.
When things are working as intended, they work very well. The “dungeons” as Mundfish calls them (interior areas to others) are where Atomic Heart beats the strongest. The environments are highly detailed and there are lots of rooms to explore and loot to be gathered. Alternate pathways can hide blueprints for weapons, or enemies lying in wait to attack you. One moment in a restroom particularly stands outs. Upon entering I noticed that all but one of the toilet stalls were open, and having seen this trick before in other games, I approached it with caution. Nothing happened, at least not until I turned around to head out of the room, at which point the robot got the drop on me – it was a real “clever girl” moment. Dungeons also feature some excellent environmental puzzles, from using telekinesis to guide an object through pipes to snapping your fingers in the right sequence to unlock a door.
Oddly enough, door locks are a great transition to discuss the tone of the game, which I suspect will be divisive given the recent climate surrounding in-game dialogue. Atomic Heart’s protagonist, Major Nechaev, is akin to Woody Harrelson’s character in the movie Zombieland. He respects that the situation is dire, but he has zero respect for all of the obstacles that stand in his way, and approaches those obstacles with a flippantly foul-mouthed disregard. In other words, this game is not suitable for work, your children, your mother, your partner, and perhaps not even your pet. Things get moderately serious when they need to, but overall, the witty dialogue totally works for Atomic Heart. Outside of one overused catchphrase, I loved it, but I know it won’t be for everyone. I think the reason it stuck the landing for me is because it felt like I would react in a similar way in certain situations, with some of the good Major’s lines bordering on breaking the fourth wall. I recall one moment where I approached my umpteenth locked door, let out a small sigh, only for Major Nechaev to chime in with something along the lines of, “Oh wow, look at that. Another locked door – never (seven-letter word) saw that one coming.” It was so timely and accurate that I laughed out loud. However, there are issues with cutscene dialogue in particular not presenting correctly, playing back at a hurried pace that feels rather off-putting.
You may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned the game’s open world yet. That’s because frankly it feels bland and tacked-on in comparison to the more meticulously crafted dungeons. My only memories of being out and about are ones of annoyance, such as the aforementioned “running for my life” sequence. I always felt hounded by enemies when outside and that became a tedious slog. The open world felt like it really only existed to make me travel between story objectives, which is also partially due to the bad map interface and the inability to set waypoints. On top of it all, glitches and game crashes reared their ugly heads the most in the open environment, one of which came at the expense of some progress.
All things considered, Atomic Heart is a pretty impressive debut title from developer Mundfish. It’s a competent and fun first-person shooter with a fascinating alternate history premise and gorgeous interior environments. You can clearly see the game is inspired by other legendary IP, and while it mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do, Atomic Heart never comes close to the greatness of its inspirations due to gameplay and technical incongruities.
A competent first-person shooter set against the fascinating backdrop of an alternate history, technologically advanced Soviet Union. Atomic Heart wears its gaming inspirations on its sleeve, but never comes close to their greatness.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! I'm Jason, the resident noob here at Gaming Nexus. When not working my day job, I moonlight as a husband to a human and a father to two canines. Of course, I am also an avid gamer and general nerd. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours.
My first video game system was the NES and I never looked back. I currently play on PS5 and PS Vita, although I recently dabbled in Xbox Game Pass on PC for a short while. I co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast with a lifelong friend/family member called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @TheDualSensePod, or check out my YouTube channel.