Atomic Heart is a game that deeply confuses me. It starts with a tight focus and appeal but soon shifts to an entirely new vision. The story takes you down one path, only to retcon itself into another. It often feels like two different games spliced together and you are left with nothing to do except fill in the gaps.
These gaps can be quite fun and the visuals are phenomenal. Unfortunately, poor pacing and a litany of strange decisions force it into one too many boxes for it to put itself back together again.
Atomic Heart is an automaton barreling through the wilderness without a central voice capable of getting it back on track. Its batteries are low and it is getting dark.
Table of Contents
The perfect setup
Atomic Heart is set in an alternate history where Russian scientists found a programmable liquid called Polymer that led to a huge surge in technology. After automating much of the world, they were all linked together in a programme called the Kollectiv. Humans then responded, in turn, replacing parts of their own bodies with wiring and giving them the ability to communicate with robots.
Just before a ceremony linking all human thought together into one grander network, robots turn on their human counterparts. You, a soldier nicknamed P3, must go in and clean up their mess. Atomic Heart is a story about espionage, power struggles, and the systems that allow our worst parts to fester.
It's not a bad setup but the aesthetic and initially-tight pacing were the things that really kept me interested for the first few hours. Mechanically, it fits right into those faux survival horror games of the mid-'00s. You will often have to sneak around corners, prepping just the right amount of ammo until the next encounter. It's not a horror game but certainly has a dark tone that can be quite engrossing.
These opening hours really wowed me with fantastic visuals and an interesting atmosphere. Robots are creepy, the world is often quite demented, and there's a hopelessness that is surprisingly effective at unnerving you.
This being said, the writing really lets down a decent opening. Our protagonist is supposed to be shaped by war - often pessimistic and callous. This being said, P3 consistently oversteps the mark and makes him outright cruel. His bad actions aren't justified and good actions aren't earned. These are not the only places where the tone misses the mark.
Atomic Heart is a game defined by the male gaze. Women are objectives and missions - ways of actualising the self. To understand robotics and its role in humanity, you have to look inward. When we look inside, we find a history of mistreating those around us. In this sense, it can be hard to tell if all of the jokes about sexual assault, and gratuitous objectification is critical of the government that oversees the kollectiv or indicative of the power of writers who supersede that.
This being said, characters and conversations that are overtly sexual are entirely dropped at points in the game without warning and even the ballerina twins that were seen in multiple trailers are barely in the final product.
The world of Atomic Heart is often seen through a shiny veneer, only to come crumbling down. Functionally, this is also part of the narrative. The robots hunting humans isn't the only bad thing in this world and, the deeper you dig, the more dirt you find. It's a shame that Atomic Heart doesn't weaponise its own sexual depravity to drive this point further.
There are so many themes and ideas that are only left half explored in Atomic Heart that I stopped feeling invested by the halfway mark. There are points that could come away with something genuinely insightful but everything is left feeling rather flaccid.
Atomic Heart's music regularly flits between generic and great. Occasionally, the sound design is surprisingly good, with eerie creaks, good boss themes, and a real moving pulsing world. Unfortunately, the majority of your time will be eaten up by poor voice acting and even worse sound mixing. I regularly missed entire sections of dialogue due to an overeager NPC who just has to give an exposition dump. For the most part, stories told by those you encounter are genuine, if a little shallow, but the actors that tell them are another story.
Getting into the area just after all those robots have turned evil - you find plenty of dead bodies around the world. Some of them can be interacted with, where their robotic wiring has essentially held some of their last moments.
Feeling like something straight out of Dr Who, this is a really nice way of making the world feel a little less lonely while you explore. You can talk to them and even inform some of them of their own demise. As well as these, you have a mechanical glove called Charles that directs you throughout the game. He is both an exposition machine and a mechanic for fighting all those robots.
A good flow
Like a Roomba cleaning your floors or an AI Vtuber getting banned for saying racist things online, artificial intelligence represents both the best and worst parts of humanity. The robots of Atomic Heart are cruel, crass, and deadly. An indictment and an endorsement of the world they live in.
You have humanoid bots that fight you with punches, kicks and dives, and a whole host of other repurposed maintenance bots. Fundamentally, almost everything you fight has been designed to help out around the world but they have combat modes that utilise their unique tech. You will find small lumber mill robots that have a saw or hefty farming bots with scythes for arms.
For the most part, these machines are unique and interesting, fostering a sense of creativity as you fight. You have to leverage melee weapons, traditional firearms, energy weapons, and your glove to twirl around arenas taking them all down.
Unfortunately, fights do begin to get quite stale after a while. You are constantly given resources, some robots don't really put up a fight, and later boss fights go for quantity over quality.
This is a shame as combat movement can often feel quite good. You can dash in the middle of firefights and some abilities can be put together in combos. For instance, you can dash forward, shock one enemy, freeze two more, get to a clear range and fire off a rocket. This can be super satisfying but most of the combat will be the same two to three abilities and guns.
An open book
The world of Atomic Heart is draining. After getting through the first few hours, you are let loose on a semi-open world. This is dull. Landmarks are uninteresting and the vaults you explore to get the most out of your weapons feel tedious and long.
It does have a good crafting system, where you can build and upgrade weapons but heading into these vaults to fully upgrade your gear slows the game down to a crawl. Luckily, they aren't a needed detour.
The plot of the game takes you through parts of the world and goes on for much longer than the story demands. It feels inflated with fetch quests and arbitrary objectives. These left me just wanting to speed through and see the conclusion.
A mess of ideas
Ultimately, Atomic Heart feels unsure of itself and splits in hundreds of directions throughout the game. It picks up so many little things that made games like Stalker and Metro work but never quite commits to them.
There's an interesting meta-narrative there about your role as a player and the things we do when we don't have control but this is something done much better by Bioshock over a decade ago.
Its combat works reasonably well but it doesn't improve on games that have come before. Atomic Heart is decently fun in areas but never quite comes together.
A copy of Atomic Heart was provided by the publisher