Atomic Heart has been in the public consciousness for a long time. The original teaser announcement came all the way back in 2017, and ever since then, there has been a slow but steady build-up of anticipation. The idea of a Soviet-era Bioshock was intriguing, and if the game could nail the aesthetic and make full use of the setting, it would surely be something special. Unfortunately, Atomic Heart mostly falters, whether, in the design of combat encounters, the storytelling, or even the visuals; it usually stumbles before it can ever hit its stride.
Atomic Heart shows moments of brilliance. The aesthetic is unique, and the environmental design is where it shines, most of which are frequently jaw-dropping. Combat is generally satisfying depending on which enemies you are facing, and there is a wide variety of weaponry, upgrades, and skills to test out. Finally, exploration and looting are the highlights, and vacuuming up materials never gets old.
Atomic Heart’s main character is unbearable. His quips are constant, and he usually breaks what little tension there is in every scene. It is so pervasive that it extends to the rest of the story, forcing you to play as an unlikable character that is hard to relate to. He doggedly defends the clear villain for a large part of the story, and his motivations are so apparent that the only conclusion you can reach is that the protagonist is a bit of an idiot.
What Surprised Me
The writing and storytelling are the weakest points of the game. There are tons of videos you can watch showcasing the game’s cringy dialogue and terrible characterization, but the game fails even on a grander scale in terms of its storytelling. It never truly builds up to anything interesting, and many times whole conversations get cut off because they last so long. In fact, between the main character and his AI, there are rarely any moments of silence. Whatever tension or immersion is usually broken by your character exclaiming “crispy critters!” for the tenth time. Switching the spoken language to Russian helps the dialogue, but it is a band-aid for a mortal wound.
What Was Predictable
Atomic Heart is hurt by a lack of unique ideas when it comes to gameplay. Most of the game is spent shooting, scrounging for supplies, and engaging in simple melee combat. It never pushes itself past its inspirations, like Half-Life or Bioshock, and never even really comes close to them either. Combat is simple, with most fights playing out the same way, as they generally stick to one or two enemy types, and most of them are incredibly annoying. Many scraps get out of hand quickly, as Atomic Heart tends to sprinkle fights with tons of little enemies spawning ceaselessly. So many encounters are a chore, making you run around destroying the enemy spawn sources while the main threats harass you. It feels more like pulling weeds than engaging in dynamic combat encounters. Overall, the game has tons of interesting enemies and encounters, but it rarely puts them to good use, and enemies generally take so many hits, even on normal difficulty, that it makes most fights a chore.
Atomic Heart has flashes of brilliance but generally disappoints regarding the basics. Combat is occasionally satisfying but incredibly repetitive, and the balance of encounters is all over the place. The story is predictable and slog to work through, especially because of the terrible dialogue. While the visuals stand out, they never really are anything more than set dressing, and as you progress into the open world, the poor shadow quality can destroy the look of the game. Even visually, Atomic Heart is as uneven as it is with its story and gameplay.
The visuals are sometimes astounding, sometimes terrible, and frequently impressive. Early on, the game is truly a marvel, but as you progress and get into the more open areas, the limits of Unreal Engine 4 rear their ugly head, and the lack of Ray-traced global illumination or shadows makes the open world sections particularly ugly. Entering any interiors during these parts of the game makes for flat, borderline non-existent lighting and shadows.
The soundtrack is a particular highlight. Atomic Heart is brimming with licensed music and on top of that, Mick Gordon lent his talents to create a varied and impactful score, deftly switching from synthwave to industrial metal on the fly. Enemies and weaponry are also strong, but the voice acting is another story. The English track is terrible, but mostly due to the script.
Atomic Heart’s controls are unwieldy sometimes, but melee and shooting are satisfying. The main issue is the balancing of combat, especially in terms of how much damage each enemy takes. Fights are incredibly long, and resources you saved for hours can be wasted on even some basic enemies and encounters. The loop of exploration and survival becomes a chore instead of a challenge by the end.
There are glimmers of hope in the narrative, but it consistently falters like the rest of the game. There is some serious tonal whiplash between the high-concept ideas like polymer and the idea of a worker robot uprising, but none of these are explored much outside of being set-dressing. The setting is never used to truly critique or pick apart Soviet ideology or the issues with society at the time, and as a result, the whole thing feels toothless.
Replay Value: C-
Atomic Heart is large enough for 15-20 hours, especially if you want to explore and find every blueprint and upgrade. After that, there is not much left outside of playing on harder difficulties, and it would be hard to recommend that, especially with how unbalanced they feel now.
Overall Grade: C
Atomic Heart is available on PC (Microsoft Windows) / PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / PlayStation 5 / Xbox Series X|S
Derek has worked in games journalism and PC gaming hardware and has a depth and breadth of experience across many genres. He plays almost everything but has a particular fondness for challenging games like the -Souls series and real-time strategy titles.