Atomic Heart (Xbox Series) Impressions

Slow to fission

Given Mundfish has stuck to the claim they “do not comment on politics or religion”, it’s safe to assume some percentage of Atomic Heart sales is going to end up in the hands of the Russian government – a government responsible for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the unjustifiable suffering that has brought. As the development of Atomic Heart started 4 years before the invasion and Mundfish is a global team, we’re still covering it. Just remember that nothing is made or played in a political, cultural, or religious vacuum.

Atomic Heart slowly grew on me to the point I’m now hooked on seeing it to completion and tackling all the side content I stumble upon. The problem is that took the better part of 6 hours – an hour of which felt like a barely-interactive walking simulator – to get the story rolling, give the protagonist some depth, and settle into an engaging gameplay loop.

The opening sequence looks impressive but it takes ages to get into the action.

Set in an alternative 1955, the USSR has apparently emerged from the Second World War as a technological superpower thanks to an esteemed group of scientists and the discovery of a “neural polymer” – a versatile substance with the ability to encode and transfer knowledge directly to the user.

Two days before the start of a major social experiment, the “Kollectiv 2.0” shared consciousness, amnesiac war-veteran-turned-agent Major P-03 is summoned by the country’s chief scientist to deal with a situation at Facility 3628. The facility, which produces cutting-edge Soviet robots and experiments with polymer applications, has gone dark. Shot down on arrival by what should be non-lethal labour robots, P-03 and his neural polymer glove AI “CHARLES” discover they’ve turned on the human staff and he’s sent after a former scientist supposedly responsible for this traitorous act.

It takes a while to get going, but before long you’ll realise this research-focussed utopia is still beholden to an aggressive, militaristic government and there are power struggles within the scientific ministries.

Atomic Heart Puzzles
There’s a surprising number of puzzle- and platforming-focussed sequences to break up the combat.

When it comes to the gameplay, Atomic Heart is many things: a first-person shooter with elemental powers, a puzzle-platformer, and an RPG-lite survival game (there are even save rooms). However, it works best as the sum of its parts. Viewed in isolation, every mechanic feels simply functional and, more often than not, janky.

In the first half-dozen hours you spend exclusively in the “Vavilov Complex”, you take a convoluted route through a maze of expansive laboratories, dealing with a limited enemy roster, using a handful of weapons and few powers. The setting is interesting, the set pieces frequent, and the humour was quirky enough to feel novel. Despite the shooter-centric gameplay and a protagonist doing their best to act as dumb muscle – think MachineGames’ BJ Blazkowicz without post-war ambitions – the story is laid on heavy with plenty of exposition dumps and some cringe-worthy back-and-forth between P-03 and CHARLES.

Atomic Heart Combat
The Bioshock-esque combat is satisfying once you’ve got a few new weapons and powers to play with.

The problem is the shooting feels janky and boring at first; the platforming, which relies on jump-dashing and climbing, is an infuriating mix of imprecise movement and inconsistent inputs; and despite the absurd amount of neuropolymer and crafting materials you hoover up, crafting a new gun, upgrading an existing one, or investing in one of several skill trees doesn’t feel as impactful as it should. The overall sensation is not helped by a gamepad control scheme with combined and inconsistent inputs. Tapping X (or square) to reload might do that, or it might just flash the weapon wheel for a split second, or it might quick-use a consumable item.

But then – as I was exploring the last two laboratories for the final pair of McGuffins I needed to escape – I realised the story, protagonist, and gameplay loop were starting to grow on me. I was starting to have fun in scrappy combat against larger groups, while navigating the diverse puzzle-like environments provided a nice break between combat. When I reached the surface, I was also thrilled to discover Atomic Heart does not take the mindless open-world checklist approach, but sticks to a series of wide corridors between key locations, with interesting mini-locations to explore and scavenge on the way.

Atomic Heart Character Upgrades
The skill trees feel more perfunctory than impactful as they don’t seem to affect anything other than combat effectiveness.

Exploring Facility 3628’s weird research labs and the verdant, mountainous overworld is made that much more compelling thanks to striking visuals, immersive ambience, and a great soundtrack. However, as with the gameplay, you’ve got to be willing to accept some inconsistency and jank as part of the experience.

Interior locations often look incredible. They’re packed with small detail, beautifully lit, and atmospheric, but you’ll notice the repeating general layouts. The overworld hosts several striking vistas but if you explore thoroughly and you’ll find much of it filled with similar-looking structures and some unfinished-looking boundaries. Inside or out, you can expect to spot objects clipping through each other or the environment, witness prop and corpse physics bugging out, and it was too easy to get stuck in some areas and have to button mash to escape. Some post-launch patches to polish up the experience wouldn’t go amiss.

When it comes to the audio, combat sounds, and environmental ambience are fine, but the experience is really elevated by an eclectic soundtrack that – although not as dominant as I’d like – offers a mix of punchy combat tracks from Mick Gordon (more Prey than DOOM) and licensed Russian and Eastern European music, ranging from classical to pop. It kicks in during key moments, making the combat feel more exciting than it was mechanically, and it felt fantastic to cruise down a road in an old Russian hardback, smashing through robots to the sound of classical opera. The hammy voice acting – which sounds almost entirely American-accented when set to English – has its charms but won’t be for everyone.

The world feels big enough to justify the inclusion of a few vehicles but you’ll never get lost.

Current impressions

So as it stands, Atomic Heart feels like a game that works best when you’re doing a little bit of everything frequently. It needs to stay entertaining enough that you ignore the jank, while never giving you enough time to spot all the rough edges. Based on the opening narrative trajectory, it’s also a game that is easier to stomach if you can get on board with the absurd premise and quirky cast. Whether that’ll be enough for a full-priced game burdened by five years of hype remains to be seen.

A review code for Atomic Heart was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

If you’re in South Africa, you can pick up a retail copy of Atomic Heart at: Loot, Nexus, and Koodoo.

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