Back in the U.S.S.R.
Yesterday, my Review in Progress for Atomic Heart went live, focusing on a few of my thoughts covering the first ten hours of the game. When I submitted my draft for edits, I honestly didn’t know where I stood with the game.
There were elements I liked about it, mostly centered around its art direction, as well as some design choices that didn’t necessarily sit well with me. With a lot of games, ten hours is more than enough time to draw a clear conclusion about how you feel about it. With Atomic Heart, I needed to see it through to the end.
And then I needed to see it through to its other end.
The opening moments of Atomic Heart can best be described as a Stalinist’s wet dream with how it depicts its idealized vision of the Soviet Union. A city, floating in the clouds, with people lining its streets and waterways conversing about how great life is under communist rule as they prepare to learn about the future of their empire. Dmitry Sechenov, arguably the most famous scientist in all of the Soviet Union, is set to unveil Kollectiv 2.0, a neural network that will connect all Soviets using a small invention known as the THOUGHT.
Its full launch is imminent, but before it can be brought online, some matters need handling. Back on the surface world, an area known as Facility 3826 is no longer operational. Robots, built with a substance known as Polymer that has been the backbone of the Soviet’s successes, have lost control and killed most of the workers at the facility. To mitigate this disaster, Sechenov employs Major P-3, who, along with his Polymer-powered talking glove, CHAR-les, sets out to get to the bottom of this robot rampage.
The early hours of P-3’s journey across Facility 3826 are easily the most troublesome he’ll face. With just a melee axe and a gun at his disposal, players will have to adapt quickly to Atomic Heart‘s combat system lest they fall victim to the many robots that are out for blood. P-3 will have three different attacks at his disposal, including guns, melee weapons, and glove skills. As he kills robots and the other creatures that have ravaged this once-picturesque land, he’ll collect Polymer and materials he can use to craft and upgrade his skills and weapons. The first glove skill he unlocks is Shok, which lets him cast out an electrical charge that can stun enemies for a very brief time.
Other glove skills include a frost attack and shield, but Atomic Heart‘s choice of control scheme really limits a player’s ability to use their full suite of skills. While Shok is always equipped via the triangle button, P-3 can only equip two of his other glove skills at once, and only one of those can be used at a time. You can switch between these two skills by hitting up on the D-Pad, but I didn’t find it to be an intuitive system when trying to survive an onslaught of robots. Switching between weapons is just as cumbersome on a controller as you scroll through them pushing left or right on the D-Pad. Given that most of Atomic Heart‘s menus point to a game that was primarily optimized for a mouse and keyboard rather than a controller, the controls on the PlayStation 5 leave something to be desired.
That’s not to say I struggled with the game. In the early buildings of Facility 3826, I did encounter the Game Over screen more than I would have liked to, but it wasn’t an issue with the controls. Part of that was me getting into the rhythm of the combat. But it was also due to just how quiet these robots can be. You really have to be aware of your surroundings in this game because these robots enjoyed trying to take me from behind. And it wasn’t unusual to face off against several robots at once and have one or two try to sneak their way around me when I was distracted by other enemies. It’s a sound tactic, one I was able to counter once I gathered enough Polymer to improve P-3’s speed and dodge capabilities. Once I did that, I was able to peel back the curtain on Atomic Heart‘s combat and realized it was rather elementary.
Certain enemies do have elemental weaknesses that you can learn via scanning, but if you don’t have any weapons boosts that can exploit said weaknesses, then all you can do is hit them with a combination of dodges, melee attacks, gunshots, and whatever glove skills you have equipped at the time. While that combination might sound ripe for experimentation, the anemic nature of the glove skills can be a real letdown. Shok was the only consistent glove skill in my arsenal, though I got a good amount of use out of a skill that hangs your enemies in the air, letting you swing at them like pinatas. That’s pretty much how I spent all my Polymer beyond upgrading P-3 himself, and honestly, it was all I needed.
The game does attempt to amp up its difficulty by hitting you with clusters of enemy types, but as long as you stay on top of upgrading P-3’s capabilities, once you get out into the open area of Facility 3826, you probably won’t face too much trouble.
What you may have trouble with, however, is caring about Atomic Heart‘s story. It’s a rather basic tale of people in power trying to tighten their control of the world with P-3 standing in the middle. Social commentary is kept to a minimum, though various audio logs, emails, and audio attachments within emails do add some flavor to the world and show that life in the Soviet Union isn’t as glorious as they would like you to think it is. As for P-3, the secret to his backstory is largely predictable given that several early bits of dialogue tell you exactly who he is. Speaking of the dialogue, it’s atrocious in English, so you’re better off turning on subtitles and switching the language option over to Russian. Just know that, because Atomic Heart is heavy on the conversational dialogue between P-3 and CHAR-les, you might miss a great deal of exposition when trying to read the tiny subtitles during the heat of battle.
I was hoping the story would actually have something new to say, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been said countless times before. While the narrative threads do touch on some interesting topics, such as how Russian robots are changing life for workers in America, it ultimately plays it rather safe with two equally unsatisfying endings. When looking at P-3, he doesn’t venture far from his initial view of the Soviet Union. He comes into this journey as Communism Fanboy #1 and rarely ever bends.
I actually become frustrated by his lack of growth given the many conversations he has that should have been the catalyst for some introspection. Not that I’m arguing his adventure should have ended with him getting a massive erection for western capitalism, but this dude straight-up waffles on basically every piece of information he gets. I thought perhaps the developers were molding him to be a dumb hero who just doesn’t absorb anything he’s told, but he’s not dumb. He just chooses to ignore most of it because it clashes with the beliefs he already has.
If I were being generous, I would say that P-3 was Mundfish’s way of critiquing those who refuse to change their points of view despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but that might be giving the developers too much credit.
What I can say is Atomic Heart‘s narrative does not do its setting justice. Facility 3826 is a monumental achievement of design, with an outstanding representation of Stalinist Architecture and Socialist Realism. From the propaganda posters to the statues that tower over the land, Mundfish has crafted a Soviet Union that, outside of the floating cities and advanced robotics, feels like something Stalin and Lenin could have achieved if they weren’t so busy murdering their own people. There are so many breathtaking sights that I would often stop playing just to soak it all in. Credit where credit is due, the environmental artists and programmers who brought this world to life did an outstanding job.
It’s a shame, then, that the gameplay does this world a disservice by filling it with so much bloat. In the early hours, the bloat can be seen by all the keys you need to fetch to open doors. P-3 even comments on how he’s a magnet for shitty door-locking mechanisms. Once you get outside and into the fresh air, you can feel the developer padding the game time again with an open world that connects all the different stations that make up Facility 3826.
On paper, a sandbox open world sounds like a good idea. Why not connect all these intricate locations with the actual land and houses the workers of this facility call home? In practice, however, it’s mostly just a lot of open space. You can take your time and hoof it from place to place on foot, fighting robots and avoiding sensors along the way, but the game will supply you with poorly-controlled jalopies that hasten travel time. Though, given that most roads are littered with disabled vehicles and robots for you to crash into, you’re going to have to walk through these sections more than you might plan to.
If there is anything that makes these long treks across the land worth it, it’s the outstanding music you’ll hear along the way. Admittedly, the game is a bit overeager to explain why so much music that would never exist in 1955 Soviet Russia can be heard here, but that really doesn’t matter when the soundtrack is this good. Composers Mick Gordon, Geoffrey Day, and Andrey Bugrov did an outstanding job scoring this game, whether it’s music that sounds like it was ripped from an old Russian propaganda film or the ear-shattering metal that accompanies some of its fight sequences.
While you can wrap up Atomic Heart in about 15 hours, there are ways to extend your stay in Facility 3826, including puzzle-based training facilities that unlock upgrades for the weapons you can craft. After publishing my Review-in-Progress, the game was updated with a patch that added a way to return to the grounds of the facility after beating the game, allowing me to go back and finish up any tasks I may have missed. It’s a nice addition, but I honestly don’t have much reason to return to Atomic Heart other than to gawk at its architecture.
And really, unless an extensive photo mode is added in a future update, I don’t see myself ever booting up Atomic Heart again. I admire the gusto with which Mundfish approached its debut game because it’s created one hell of a world to explore. But beyond its pristine setting and ass-kicking soundtrack, it’s largely forgettable. Maybe if the gameplay evolved beyond its basic beginnings or if the story was — I don’t know, good — I might be willing to give it another go. However, given how unlikely such a monumental change like that would be, Atomic Heart is destined to be a one-and-done type of experience.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]