Atomic Heart (Xbox Series) Review

Atomic ambitions, janky execution

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 had brought. As the development of Atomic Heart started 4 years before the invasion and Mundfish has team members from across the globe, we’re still covering it. Just remember – no matter how hard people might try to convince you otherwise – nothing is developed or played in a social, political, cultural, or religious vacuum.

Atomic Heart is a compelling mess of narrative ideas and mechanics that, after a slow and meandering start, settles into an enjoyable but inconsistent rhythm.

As developer Mundfish’s first game, the ambition on display is impressive – but Atomic Heart’s striking aesthetics and soundtrack can’t obscure the fact it’s a janky mid-tier game at heart, stretched a little too thin. The pacing is all over the place, with little sense of escalation. The dialogue can swing from philosophical to farcical in the same exchange. The gameplay mechanics range from clunky and frustrating, to slick and streamlined. The over-world feels underdeveloped and underutilised. The production values often feel sky-high, but you don’t have to look too closely to see the rough edges.

As a result, Atomic Heart rarely feels as coherent or cohesive as it should be – but then that might just be part of its charm for fans of Eastern European developers.

Atomic Heart Facility 3628
Although it looks expansive from the air, Facility 3628 functions more like a very wide corridor between key locations.

Weird, dumb, fun in need of an edit or three

Although the protagonist Major Nechayev, a.k.a. agent “P-03”, tries hard to role-play the dumb muscle unwilling to question orders, Atomic Heart has a lot to say – and I’m not just referring to the narrative themes.

The script is bloated with what feels like hours of extra voice work dedicated to excessive exposition, obvious observations, and swearing so juvenile I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at times. Every exchange lasts longer than it needs to and should you move through an area too quickly – something that’s always a possibility with easy sequence breaks – you’ll find yourself skipping past, or queueing up multiple conversations. If you’re a compulsive reader, there are also dozens of amusing but lengthy emails, voice recordings, and talking corpses to sift through.

The reason I bring this up is that despite being marketed as a frenetic first-person shooter, Atomic Heart has an intriguing narrative thread, with a weird cast, ridiculous set pieces, and no shortage of plot twists – all of which kept me pushing forward once I grew tired of the gameplay loop. It would benefit massively from aggressive editing to keep the player focussed on the overarching plot, themes, and frequent foreshadowing.

Half-deranged non-hostile robots carry a lot of the storytelling between traditional cutscenes with other human characters.

Atomic Heart’s novel setting is an alternate history of 1955. The USSR emerged as a technological superpower after the Second World War, thanks to their sought-after labour robots and the invention of a versatile organic “polymer” by one of their leading scientists, Dr. Sechenov. A substance able to transfer encoded knowledge to humans (a narrative excuse for the upgrade system) and genetically modify living cells to survive in extreme conditions. Sechenov is about to launch a shared consciousness experiment – “Kollectiv 2.0” – which aims to create a socialist utopia where every citizen’s needs are recognised and robots handle labour, leaving mankind free to pursue scientific and artistic endeavours.

If that sounds vaguely ominous, it’s because Atomic Heart was heavily inspired – both narratively and mechanically – by Bioshock and its critique of leader figures and utopian fantasies.

Enter Major Nechayev, an amnesiac war-veteran-turned-agent, devoted to Sechenov and communist ideals. Partnered with an excessively-talkative AI – “CHARLES” – in a neuropolymer glove, he’s summoned by Sechenov to discretely deal with a situation at Facility 3628. They’re swiftly shot down on arrival, discover the robots have butchered most of the human staff, and are sent after a former scientist responsible for the traitorous act.

It takes time, but Nechayev and CHARLES reveal more character depth as the story unfolds. CHARLES constantly questions and challenges Nechayev’s beliefs, while he grows increasingly uncertain of his own limited memories and starts questioning events. Why are labour robots so efficient at killing? Why have Sechenov’s fellow scientists been dying off? What is the “Atomic Heart” project and why does the government want to control it? Design issues may affect pacing, but Atomic Heart offers up an intriguing central mystery; you to be in the mood for a story that’s dark but deliberately whacky, and crudely over-sexualised in places. Thankfully, as someone who still enjoys crude humour, I found the exchanges between Nechayev and the NORA upgrade station incredible – but your mileage may vary.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say Atomic Heart is not designed to glamorise the Soviet-era worldview or justify the staggering human toll. It highlights the stark contrast between ideology and its implementation, while reminding us most people in power only ever endeavour to stay there.

Atomic Heart Hedgie Boss Fight
So much for just mowing lawns and hedgerows.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

When it comes to the gameplay loop, Atomic Heart is part first-person shooter with elemental powers similar to Bioshock: Infinite; part puzzle-platformer with first-person climbing like Dying Light; and part survival game with crafting and light RPG elements, not dissimilar to Metro: Exodus. My issue is the quantity-over-quality approach that results in several unpolished mechanics and a game world that feels stitched together from disparate pieces.

The shooting is satisfyingly scrappy, but enemy tracking is often an constant issue in cluttered, vegetated, or dark environments. The neuropolymer powers add tactical depth and feature in a few puzzle-like scenarios, but they’re clunky to use mid-combat. Platforming and climbing, which relies on jump-dashing between coloured handholds, suffers from imprecise movement and inconsistent inputs. The weapon crafting and character upgrade systems are designed to encourage experimentation – freely refunding resources at upgrade stations – but 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 is never as impactful as it should be.

The Bioshock-style left-hand-power, right-hand-gun approach still holds up so well.

Viewed in isolation, every mechanic is functional but, more often than not, janky. It’s most noticeable in the opening hours that keep you on a tight leash but, thankfully, Atomic Heart eventually finds a better balance of exploration, traversal, puzzling, combat, scavenging, and upgrading. However, even once it settles into a more enjoyable rythym, Atomic Heart‘s game world still lacks cohesion.

The early Vavilov Complex section, which serves as a 4-5 hour prologue, could have been an indie game in its own right. It serves as a good example of the disconnect between sections set inside research facilities and testing labs, and sections that have you traverse the over-world. The interior locations are often dense and confusing, with multi-part objectives leading you deeper, before branching out into new multi-part objectives. You explore different parts of the facility, discover key items, unlock shortcuts back, and often return to safe rooms to manually save, manage your inventory, and upgrade gear (don’t worry, there are auto-saves too).

Atomic Heart Character Upgrades
There are a dozen weapons to craft and plenty to upgrade, but improvements feel incremental and powers are underutilised outside of combat.

In contrast, the over-world is more of a long, wide corridor with a focus on scavenging resources and mobile combat, while occasionally tasking you with hacking cameras to unlock doors or temporarily shut down robots in a sector. It’s fun enough at first but it feels padding between the better-developed research complexes and optional testing laboratories – mini puzzle- and/or combat-focused dungeons that contain weapon upgrade blueprints.

The more I played, the more it felt like Atomic Heart was constantly expanded upon during development, and not enough time was spent on ensuring the end result felt cohesive and well-paced. Examples include the aforementioned shift in quality between interior and exterior locations; puzzle mechanics that are introduced, dropped, and (maybe) reintroduced with no particular rhythm; the amount of empty space in most locations; scripted dialogue hours in that repeated tutorial information; and the often haphazard placement of manual save and upgrade stations. Every major story location or testing laboratory runs on longer than it needed to, with too many locked doors following a Zelda-like rule-of-three approach. It makes completing them feel exhausting – and not in the good “I survived a gruelling challenge” sort of way.

The optional testing laboratories are padding but they’re a reasonably entertaining diversion and contain most of the weapon upgrades. As a bonus, I could bypass dozens of challenges by just clambering around wall fixtures and air-dashing.

Music über alles

When it comes to the visuals “inconsistent” is, once again, appropriate. That said, while Atomic Heart is clearly a “cross-gen” game, what it may lack in advanced rendering techniques, it makes up for with style and atmosphere.

Interior locations have received the most attention and often look incredible. They’re packed with small details and environmental storytelling, beautifully lit, and atmospheric. There’s no shortage of unique and memorable locations, but such a large world was clearly built using an asset library. It’s skilfully done for the most part and significant locations always look great, but you’ll recognise repeated layouts and generic corridors. In contrast, the over-world has several striking vistas and an impressive sense of scale, but it feels flat and bland. Everything is enhanced by the Soviet-inspired aesthetics and the creative, intricate robot designs – even if their animations don’t always cope with uneven terrain or cluttered interiors.

Unfortunately, and regardless of where you are, you’ll find corners with simple geometry and low-resolution textures; watch objects clip through each other or the environment; and discover how easy it is to bypass developer-intended routes thanks to angular geometry and creative platforming (a lack of polish works in your favour as I was always able to get myself unstuck). Console performance could also do with yet another patch or two, as well Atomic Heart runs at a near-locked 60fps on both Xbox Series S and X when inside, the framerate is noticeably variable when exploring the over-world.

The VDNH science museum is an early highlight, with some great scenery and a tough-as-hell boss fight.

Now where Atomic Heart really shines is on the audio front.

The combat sounds and environmental ambience are fine, and the voice acting is competent. To the VOs credit, the cast feels like they’re hamming it up in their respective roles. When played in English, almost everyone has a strong American accent – at odds with the Soviet setting, yet works with the weird and quirky atmosphere.

The strongest audio element is the dominant, borderline overpowering soundtrack. Thanks to the “Ministry of the Future” predicting music trends using Soviet supercomputers, it’s an eclectic mix of punchy combat tracks from Mick Gordon – think Prey rather than DOOM – and plenty of licensed Russian and Eastern European tunes, ranging from classical to metal. Rock tracks and thumping bass provides the intensity you want during combat, while chilled electronic or house tunes are perfect when managing upgrades, sorting through your inventory, or tackling the puzzle-oriented testing laboratories.

Blowing mutants apart with a rocket launcher is twice as fun with an incredible soundtrack.

Atomic ambitions, janky execution

I’ve come accross more negative than intended, especially given Atomic Heart slowly grew on me and I was more than happy to commit 30 hours into seeing the credits roll. However, any recommendation must come with caveats as Atomic Heart is a game at its best when you’re doing a little bit of everything, frequently enough to ignore the flaws. It’s stylish, weird, has an amazing soundtrack, and can be mechanically satisfying – but the pacing and world design are uneven and there are times it feels janky to the point of breaking. Despite lacking the scale, complexity, and production values of Cyberpunk 2077, Atomic Heart provided a similar sensation.

Although not long by “AAA” standards, I really wish Atomic Heart was a tighter experience. The main story already takes almost 20 hours to see through, with a few simple side quests and optional testing labs adding another 10 hours. There’s so much that could have been trimmed from both the script and game world without losing any impact, and all this bloat gives players plenty of time to recognise the flaws and grow increasingly frustrated by them. I still think it’s a good game overall – even great if you’re already a fan of similar games – but if Atomic Heart was half the length and twice as polished, it might have offered a perfect Bioshock alternative with a distinctive Soviet flavour.

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.

Atomic Heart (Xbox Series) Review

Atomic Heart (Xbox Series) Review
7 10 0 1
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
  • Audio
    9/10 Amazing

The Good

  • The novel setting and unpredictably weird narrative
  • The janky mechanics eventually coalesce into an enjoyable gameplay loop
  • Striking visuals and atmosphere - at least within the research complexes of Facility 3628
  • A phenomenal, dominant soundtrack that elevates every moment

The Bad

  • The bloated script could do with an aggressive edit
  • The pacing and world design feel uneven throughout
  • Ongoing performance issues despite huge patches
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