I’ve been craving a new game like Irrational Game’s BioShock ever since I finished Infinite. In 2013. It was my favorite game that year and I loved the ending so much, I immediately went back and played it a second time from a previous save file. It’s been a full decade since that game was released so I’ve given up hope that there will eventually be another in the series. In steps a new studio called Mundfish with their very first video game, Atomic Heart. It has been compared to the BioShock series by reviewers in more ways that one, however, while there is a lot about Atomic Heart that would be a fair comparison, there are other areas that are at the heart, so to speak, of what makes the game what it is, that are no comparison at all.
You’re probably wondering, if this game is being compared to BioShock, what is it about? Atomic Heart is set in Russia in the year 1955. Science and technology rule the day and Russians are focused on using both to enable the average citizen to spend their days following their dreams instead of toiling away at a menial job. That is what the robots are for. Until they are not, and those same robots that were created to make life easier suddenly turn on the human populace. In addition, secret science experiments carried out by unscrupulous scientists have added terrible mutant monsters into the mix. As you’d expect at this point, it’s up to you, Intelligence Major “P-3,” to find out what is going on and stop them all from killing everyone.
Atomic Heart is basically a first-person shooter at its core and does a good job with the multiple guns and such to make you feel like you have some awesome firepower at your fingertips. There are also several melee weapons that allow you to get in there and really get your hands dirty should you choose that path. All of the weapons have a number of upgrades to discover as you make you way through the game. You can purchase these upgrades from NORA, the lust-driven upgrade vending machine, using various bits and bobs as currency that you collect from looting every nook and cranny that you find. To top it all off, you also attain the use of Char’les, your trusty “combat glove,” right from the start which gives you the ability, among many others, to shock your enemies with a bolt of electricity as well as to suck every useful item in a room immediately into your pocket, saving you the trouble of individually checking every drawer, closet and cabinet.
Combat in Atomic Heart was satisfying enough and having the choice to go in guns blazing or stealthy and sneak attack the enemies was a good way to give the player more agency over how you can approach dispatching the obstacle in your way. In the beginning, I found a shotgun and an axe, but they felt very underpowered and I struggled putting down the first few enemy types that I came across. I was eventually able to find an upgrade for each, as well as recipes to make more ammo, and my fortunes began to look up. Fights could be frantic at times as there isn’t a lock-on feature in the game but once I got used to the movement, I was able to come out victorious. Enemies perform special attacks that pack quite a punch knocking your ass to the ground and can reduce your health to zero in no time if you aren’t careful, so learning their attack patterns and dodging those attacks is crucial.
The visuals in Atomic Heart are really something to behold and stand as a testament to the dedication that the game designers were really trying their best to craft a work of art and not just a game. The retro-futuristic 1950’s theme of the game world is a nice touch and it felt fresh. Environments feel fleshed out and inviting and serve to pull you in to the narrative. The design of the buildings, machinery, and helper robots feels like The Jetsons have been updated for a new audience; they are unusual yet feel strangely familiar. Even the monster designs feel like they are right off of a 1950’s movie marquee poster.
The music and sound effect design in Atomic Heart is really top notch and fits the theme of a 1950s techno thriller to perfection. Gun fire, enemy CQC attacks as well as explosions and other sound effects are superbly designed to help engross you into the story and to set the tone. During certain parts of the game, you know the shit is about the hit the fan when the ominous background music begins to play. The voice acting, regardless of the complaints that you nay have read in other reviews, is not as bad as it has been reported. The voice actors do a really great job of bringing their characters to life which in turn makes it easier to get into the story and enjoy your time playing the game.
I was mostly impressed by what Mundfish was able to accomplish with their first professional project, and while its not a dealbreaker, there are a few nit-picks that I feel were missed opportunities to round out this almost perfect game. For instance, the save system is very antiquated by forcing you to go to a specific place to save your game as opposed to just allowing the player to save wherever they are. Unless you have played a particular area before, you have no idea when you are going to run into one of these safe rooms which made me uneasy about moving forward for fear of losing all of my progress up to that point if I was bested by an enemy before I was able to find it. Also, the game starts in a somewhat open area but quickly shuttles you into narrow corridors that ruin the open world feel of those first opening moments almost immediately. These areas feel claustrophobic and stifling and I couldn’t wait to get past this section and see what the next area had to offer.
I mentioned earlier that the game looks phenomenal, however there are some artistic design decisions that really left me scratching my head. While areas are photorealistic and look very much alive, there are certain elements in the environment that you would expect to be able to interact with but just cannot like big leafy plants that when brushed up against, do not move. In addition, I quickly noticed that the faces of many of the human NPCs are of only two or three different people. At the beginning of the game, there is a parade happening in town and you can hear the cheers and screams of the people in the crowd but when you look a little closer at those people standing along the parade route, they are static and not reacting at all to what is happening in front of them.
I think that the disconnect that many people are having with this game is that you don’t learn a lot about the protagonist and his motivations. What is his backstory, why is he so snarky with Char’les who is only trying to be helpful, and how is it that he is the one who is tasked with ending the conflict with the malfunctioning robots and crazed science experiment monsters? He comes off as a condescending asshole who is convinced of his own greatness so it is easy to mistake his motivations as mere bravado. He’s just an updated version of Duke Nukem or William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, in my opinion, so I can understand why he gets under the skin of some people. Maybe we will find out the answer to those questions and more if we get a second installment of this franchise.
Atomic Heart brings nothing new or special to the FPS genre gameplay-wise but I have to admit that it is definitely a decent first outing for a studio that just opened its doors. The story is good enough to keep you guessing at what is around the next corner, it’s just not a story that people will be talking about at the water cooler. Gameplay is actually fun and it wasn’t a buggy mess like many games have been upon release lately. Many gamers will overlook this game but it will be to their detriment. There are a lot of heavy hitters that will be downloaded to hard drives this year and Atomic Heart will be quickly forgotten. However, if you don’t have anything to play while you are waiting for one of those behemoth games to launch, why not give this game a try.
This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Gameplay - 8/10
Plot/Writing - 7/10
Design/Visuals - 9.5/10
A dazzling adventure through an alternate-reality atom-punk Soviet Russia.
+ Beautiful visuals, one of the best looking games of the year. + Combat is fast and furious. + Decent FPS with plenty of replay-ability.
– Environments lack a certain amount of interactivity to bring them more to life. – Certain sections of the game are just a series of corridors.
David is a native of Denver, CO who grew up at a time when the video game craze was just getting a foothold in the consciousness of people all over America. His earliest exposure to video games was...