I think it was the second time Atomic hearts (opens in new tab) protagonist uttered his quasi-catchphrase – a stunned “Crispy critters!” — that I was beginning to worry that my hopes for the game were misplaced. An FPS with RPG elements and plenty of immersive sim inspiration, it’s been one of the most intriguing games on my radar ever since the first trailer dropped back in 2018 (opens in new tab), following BioShock, Stalker, Nier – all pensive, ambitious and weird, really – and locating it all in a retro-future Soviet utopia gone wrong. Even the soundtrack for those trailers, featuring some of the most powerful implementations of Alla Pugacheva (opens in new tab) since the fall of the Berlin wall seemed to promise something confident and interesting. But now that I’ve done some hands-on with it, I’m afraid Atomic Heart might not be very interesting at all.
Let’s start with the good stuff: Atomic Heart looks like big. Imagine the polished, pearly optimism we associate in our own reality with the 1950s, and transplant it into a world of towering Stalinist skyscrapers and measly helpful robots. A technological revolution has turned the USSR into a seemingly undisputed global hegemony in the 1955 game version, and everyone is having a great old time while an android workforce – whose designs range from standard creepy valley humanoid fare to shuffling pot-bellied things that make you think from that 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (opens in new tab) movie – does all the actual work. The trailers didn’t lie, the game is really impressive visually creative.
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But as exciting as Atomic Heart looks, I never got the impression that the game would ever find much participation about many of these things. As a game from a Russian studio that takes clear inspiration from BioShock, I had gone to Atomic Heart with high hopes for a unique historical reflection. But outside a few musty social credit (opens in new tab) jokingly, the game never really seems to take much interest in the actual Soviet Union as anything other than a source of instantly recognizable visual weirdness. Well, Pogodi! (opens in new tab) plays in the game’s safe rooms (an odd Resident Evil-esque touch), and random Soviet propaganda posters cover the destroyed halls of device 3826 (opens in new tab), but they only feel like Easter eggs to those of us nerdy enough to care. From what I’ve played, it’s disappointingly disinterested in historical Soviet socialism.
However, it is interested in comedy, which I can’t say I expected. Whether it’s the granny lugging a rocket launcher or the annoyingly horny gun-upgrading robot that turns every interaction into an elaborate joke about “inserting” materials, Atomic Heart is undeniably wacky. Much of the humor comes from the player character, Major Nechaev, and his AI companion Charles. The pair have a kind of comedic double play, with Charles, the exasperated straight man, facing off against Nechaev’s mocking protagonist. Before I had even played five minutes, I was innocently communicating with a phone booth and was stunned to find myself caught up in a scene where Nechaev asked a stranger on the other end of the line if they had Prince Albert in a can . Charles was not amused.
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Neither did I, which was a much bigger problem for me personally. The emphasis is on humor over Disco Elysium-style meditations on the promises, successes, and failures of the October Revolution, but the comedy fails to deliver, leaving me with little to really care about. Nechaev and his endless witticisms – plus multiple awkward lines like “Crispy critters” and “What in the sweaty hell” – feel like bizarre transplants from an FPS that would have come out 15 years ago, right down to the bouts of tense curses and mysterious amnesia . It’s tired, familiar, and most of all deadly, like it was trying to be funny.
But maybe all those things aren’t important to you at all. Perhaps all you care about is reading other people’s emails, a passion I both respect and share. In that case, how can Atomic Heart – which called the sacred 0451 code within about 30 seconds of me pressing ‘Go’ – hold up as an immersive sim?
My time with the game was divided into two parts: a few hours in a fairly linear intro section and an hour to mess around in the open world. The intro section is pure BioShock: a bit of room for exploration, with material and story rewards (emails and audiologs of the “there’s something about the robots” and “argh, the robots are killing me” variations) for players who are diligent enough are around their noses in every nook and cranny, but mostly a series of corridors that lead you inexorably through the plot.
Well, a bit unrelenting. Those hallways are filled with robots going on a rampage, and while stealth is an option, your enemies have formidable lines of sight and an annoying tendency to get stuck on their patrol routes and spin around, spotting you as you sneak down for a murder, so progress ultimately feels very horrible indeed.
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I never felt I had the tools to develop a creative solution to this, and I hadn’t unlocked enough of the game’s myriad weapon and ability upgrades to make combat encounters shorter. I was stuck in a loop of trying stealth, failing, and getting caught up in a lengthy battle with one or more spongy androids. Sometimes a strategically placed vent allowed me to evade a camera or outrun an enemy, but I still found myself going toe-to-toe more often and much longer than I would have liked. The devs told me I was playing on normal and that the full release will include an easier mode for players who don’t want to spend so much time coming up with androids. If it shortens the length of these fights, I want to try it now.
That changes when you get into the open world. You have more tools and powers at your disposal, and the rolling green expanse of the overworld offers the exciting new opportunity to simply run from your troubles. At this point you are free to ignore your main quest for a while, you can just drop a waypoint on an interesting looking spot on the map and go check it out. I chose to investigate a disused science lab that turned out to be a collection of platforming puzzles where you had to use your powers to raise and lower platforms. It was a necessary respite from the struggle, and it also led me to discover that the Atomic Heart Soviets used quantum radios in 1955 to invent house music. Who says communism doesn’t work?
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However, the open world didn’t allow me to get as creative as I would have liked, and I miss the magic of Prey or Dishonored – games that allowed me to come up with schemes using their systems that the developers never intended. However, there is still fun to be had with goo. You can cover enemies with the stuff, which can then be affected or modified with elemental damage – fire turns into napalm, cryokinesis freezes enemies solid, and so on – from either upgraded weapons or the BioShock 2-like powers you can throw with your left hand .
Give me a reason
Most of the time, though, I collected huge trains of angry robots chasing me around the map while I went about my business. There wasn’t much point in turning them on nor was I really interested after spending ten minutes looking at what power combinations I could come up with. Even the demo’s final boss, the big scary ball you might remember from the trailers, didn’t take much creativity on my part. Lure it into crashing – classic toreador style for boss fights – and empty clip after clip into it. Job done.
Atomic Heart’s story didn’t captivate me, the humor was disappointing, and the gameplay – for all the brilliant and beautiful influences it wears up its sleeve – never offered the flexibility I really crave from an immersive sim. I’ve only played about four hours, 10% of the total of about 40 hours that the developers tell me will be the final game, and there’s always the possibility that there could be a story or gameplay twist later on that finally got me grabs . But right now Atomic Heart seems to have a great set of visuals stuck in a game that doesn’t live up to them, and I feel colder than Siberian snow.