The best way to describe how I feel about Russian-developed first-person shooter Atomic Heart is through a distinctly American metaphor: Atomic Heart is a Fancy Hamburger at the Fancy Hamburger Place™.
Served on a wooden cutting board, with a bun emblazoned with the burned-in logo of the restaurant. It’s about five stories high and glistens in the light of the exposed bulbs hanging above the booth.
It’s juicy. It’s meaty. There are four different aiolis. Only a cobra could eat it comfortably, but at least it’s delicious –
Except it's not. It tastes fine. The aiolis add a sauciness to it but the farm-fresh tomato fell out the back because it was too slippery, and the bun is disintegrating because there’s too much aioli and the meat is just a little too dry which should be impossible because there’s so much aioli –
Atomic Heart is that burger.
It looks absolutely fantastic but falls apart once you bite into it.
For background, Mundfish announced Atomic Heart in 2018 and instantly captivated audiences with its striking reveal trailer that featured killer robots, grotesque creatures and a haunting Soviet waltz. The game promised something audiences hadn’t seen before. It finally came out last week after a troubled development cycle plagued by delays. Other reviews have been divisive – some call it genius, others call it a mess. Some think it’s tainted by Russian investment ( the company is based in Cyprus and has offered equivocal statements on the invasion of Ukraine, but one of its main investors is an oligarch connected to Vladimir Putin). The only thing anyone agrees on with this game is that it looks awesome, but the gorgeous aesthetic can’t stitch together a Frankenstein’s monster of mechanics.
Atomic Heart stars P-3, a gruff, badass KGB agent and go-to guy for Dmitry Sechenov, the brilliant scientist responsible for the technology that catapulted the USSR into a global superpower. The game opens with the unveiling of Kolektiv 2.0, a new technology that will further improve the USSR and allow humanity to reach even greater heights. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and P-3 is dispatched to solve the problem using his violent talents.
The opening hour or so of the game does a wonderful job of showcasing the game’s main strength: its breathtaking aesthetic. Drones fly overhead in goose-like formations. A military parade comprised entirely of robots marches down the street while Sechenov waxes poetic. A pair of sexy robots greet me in a palatial office. The opening spectacle of Atomic Heart is incredibly beautiful, and the quality of the visuals did not diminish as I entered gameplay proper. The robot designs are unique. The soundtrack, composed by Mick Gordon of Doom fame, is great. The flair is on point.
The main problem of the game is that the writing is terrible. P-3 is annoying and mean. He’ll ask his cybernetic glove companion Charles a question, Charles will answer and then P-3 will cuss him out for no reason. Their banter is grating and distracting rather than funny. I thought playing the game in Russian would be more immersive, but the tiny subtitle text presented yet another annoyance. When it comes to it, I just don’t care about P-3 or what he’s doing. He sort of just stumbles around because his boss told him to. He cusses too frequently and comes across as vaguely annoyed by everything and everyone – a sentiment I soon shared. The game also includes audio logs and computer messages to enhance the world, but I stopped reading and listening to them because they weren’t engaging enough or got cut off by some chatter by P-3 and Charles.
As far as gameplay goes, Atomic Heart tries to do too many things at once. It has an interesting combat trifecta. Melee weapons charge up energy weapons, which can be used to conserve the ammo of conventional firearms, but the sluggishness of the fighting rubbed me the wrong way. Even basic enemies take several hits with an axe to take down. I appreciate its attempt to do something different, but I quickly became tired of it. Encounter design isn’t great either, enemies just feel sprinkled throughout cookie-cutter combat spaces without opportunities for interesting movement dynamics. I found myself several times backed into a corner by enemies, which was partly my own fault but it was still frustrating that the rooms were designed so that this could happen.
Atomic Heart supposedly has a moderately sized open world traversable by car, but I never got to see it. I quit Atomic Heart just a few hours in because I found myself comparing it unfavorably to just about every game I thought it conceivably took inspiration from. If I wanted a gripping story about man’s hubris, I’d play Bioshock. If I wanted to explore scientific complexes and solve problems creatively, I’d play Prey. If I wanted to mindlessly blast robots with loud, powerful guns I’d play Borderlands 2. If I wanted a cohesive action experience I’d play Black Mesa.
For a first effort by an unknown studio, Atomic Heart is certainly impressive. The alt-Soviet aesthetic is super cool, and the commitment to making it presentable even on a mid-tier computer like mine is admirable. Unfortunately, like me with my burger, Mundfish bit off way more than it could chew with Atomic Heart.
Thumbnail credit: Mundfish