Atomic Heart Review
Atomic Heart has a lot going for it when it launches: a unique premise, a strong setting and an interesting player character. At its core Atomic Heart has a promising story and various design elements that make it stand out, but as it progresses players will realize that the game stretches out the best and worst parts of the game until there’s nothing good left. A simple playthrough of Atomic Heart takes players around 25 hours to beat, which is generally solid playtime. This gives the game plenty of time to build its story, explore its most interesting parts, and support it with fun mechanics and gameplay.
But it doesn’t. Less than half of that playtime contains anything interesting or entertaining, while the rest is nothing but frustrating bloat, resulting in a game that can best be summarized as a discordant mess. Atomic Heart’s story has its moments. Players take the place of Major Sergei Nechaev, also referred to by his P-3 call sign in-game. Nechaev, a special mission officer assigned to USSR hero Dmitry Sechenov, wears an AI-controlled gauntlet called Charles, which gives Nechaev someone to talk to and unlocks some special abilities throughout the game. Essentially, Charles is almost identical to Cuff from Forspoken, and this may be Charles’ best point of comparison on all fronts. Sechenov is preparing for the launch of something called Collective 2.0, and P-3 must discover and end a conspiracy to disrupt said launch. Along the way, various secrets and relationships are brought to light, and there are several exciting moments created out of chaos. But the chaos is woven into everything else about its story.
P-3 is pulled in every possible direction and every character in the play manipulates him, or so it seems. Everyone wants him to accept some truth but none of them are forthright with the truth. This creates a seriously confusing dialog, as P-3 will find herself playing both sides. The back and forth between her and Charles changes so much with each passing hour that it is impossible to understand what P-3 or Charles believes. Perhaps the best way to explain this is that the entire story of Atomic Heart is based on the choice between two evils, one evil and the other more evil, and players are constantly shuffled between the two. It’s an interesting setup, but by the end of Atomic Heart, none of it works. Atomic Heart’s combat and gameplay on paper should be more than enough to overcome its distracting story.
There are some survival and stealth elements, the need to find blueprints and resources, an open-world sandbox behind Atomic Heart’s Facility 3826 setting, a unique “polymerization” of the world, mechanical and mutant threats, a wide variety of weapons and combat abilities, and more – all of which prove that Atomic Heart is ambitious. But in trying to accomplish so much, the game adds an equal amount of filler. There are a few interesting things to do in the open world, such as finding new weapon blueprints and an event called Training Grounds, for example, but they’re so sparse that it eventually becomes uninteresting to follow them.
With gauntlet abilities, a variety of weapons and elemental modes, and a plethora of enemies, the combat in Atomic Heart should at least be engaging, but it’s not. Whether it’s a SHOK ability, a simple shotgun or something explosive, no attack has power behind it. Sometimes enemies are pushed back, but most robots have the ability to shake it off and advance undaunted. Players have to shoot, seemingly arbitrarily, until the enemy falls to the ground. Meanwhile, the game offers many bosses that seem interesting at first, but by the second or third players will realize that they all actually use the same abilities and reward the same fighting style. There’s no variety, and each boss encounter in Atomic Heart feels just like the last. The size, location or type of boss doesn’t matter; once players have done one, they’ve done them all.
The game’s crafting mechanic is catchy, but for the worst reason. It’s not the weapons, resource collection or blueprints players can craft, but how gauntlet abilities are accessed or upgraded. The crafting mechanic is attached to a strange, red fridge-looking robot that violently grabs the player in the first few encounters, shouts disgusting and sexual remarks, and frequently harasses them. At one point, the crafting machine stops and doesn’t do it again with no explanation, and this strange occurrence feels like a fever dream that never happened in the first place.
Tonally speaking, Atomic Heart’s weirdest gameplay never gets that weird again, and it’s a miracle it makes it past the editing room floor; it’s that abrasive. Players will mainly move through open-world facilities that act as dungeons in Atomic Heart, but the problem is that each dungeon carries so many layers that it’s easy to forget why players are even there. Puzzles are arbitrarily scattered around, and instead of adding to the experience, they prolong otherwise simple tasks. Nearly every major door has a riddle that makes no sense. For example, when players are tasked with leaving one of the dungeons, they must find two objects that will open the door.
This requires backtracking through the area to find these two objects, and after using them, it’s revealed that they’ve done little more than power the door. They are then tasked with finding four other random objects that themselves become mission-length quests, at the end of which players will no longer remember what they were supposed to do after leaving.
The same thing happens in almost every dungeon, and removing that bloat from Atomic Heart would easily reduce the playtime to about 10-12 hours, and it would be a much better game as a result. Indeed, one could play Atomic Heart for twelve hours in a single day and feel like they’ve made about 3-4 hours of progress.
Shorter play sessions allow the game to progress at turtle speed on all fronts. And to make matters worse, Atomic Heart is absolutely riddled with performance issues and bugs on Xbox Series X. Almost an hour went by where we didn’t have to reload an old save, and more often than not we lost tons of progress as a result.
There were a few hard crashes as well, but the biggest problem is the reload and save system. Sometimes doors wouldn’t open, objectives would disappear, or the game would act as if we were completing an objective we did hours ago, but reloading the game would fix the problem every time. However, Atomic Heart’s custom and occasional autosave and checkpoint system saw us occasionally lose twenty minutes to two hours of gameplay or get locked into a combat encounter that came out of nowhere.
Entire mission sequences and chapters had to be re-completed, or checkpoints would trigger the moment the player made a mistake. As a result, death or bugs were extremely punishing from a technical perspective. P-3 will spend a lot of time questioning why it’s so hard to open doors or why it’s doing a certain task, and so will players. It feels like P-3 and the player cheats at every opportunity.
Atomic Heart’s story, gameplay and world design show promise, but the payoff is lacking overall. Atomic Heart is out on February 21st for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.