This is an unscored review-in-progress. This review will be updated as we play more and finish Atomic Heart
There is no denying that BioShock and others of its ilk from Irrational Games and Arkane Studios are the inspiration for Atomic Heart. Set in a 1950s Soviet utopia Atomic Heart follows P-3 as he’s sent into underground facilities to clean up and investigate in the wake of all hell breaking loose.
That’s right. While the opening moments of the game paint a picture of a perfect world where humans are supported and cared for by Soviet robots, things very quickly go awry and the robots decide ‘to hell with the three robotic laws’. Fair game is declared on any and all humans as the robots go on the offensive.
What follows is a lengthy exploration by P-3 of how and why everything went so wrong and what he can do to fix it.
Atomic Heart Review
At its most basic, Atomic Heart is a first-person shooter / RPG. Like BioShock, you’ll unlock and use a variety of melee and ranged weapons while also wielding powers for dual-action combat. P-3’s powers in Atomic Heart come via CHAR-les, the AI-powered polymer glove who also provides a running commentary, unlocks doors, collects resources and…well pretty much everything else the game lets you do. CHAR-les is the Swiss Army Knife of power gloves. Initially, you’re only given access to an axe, though very quickly you’ll find this arsenal growing to include a shotgun, pistol, electric handgun, rocket launcher and so on.
The first power you gain access to is SHOK which is always available by pressing Y on an Xbox controller. Two other slots are open for when you learn other powers which are activated by LB and switched by pressing up on the D-PAD. SHOK is handy for shocking and stunning enemies but it serves other functions too. You can use it to power up machinery and to switch the polarity of magnetic objects. These functions are largely used for puzzle-solving but also do make an occasional appearance in combat, especially boss fights.
Other powers you’re able to unlock include a frost beam, shield, flammable polymer and more. Interestingly, although there are a huge number of options when it comes to combat, I still find myself sticking to the tried and true BioShock method of zapping and then smacking. It saves on ammo and (mostly) makes short work of enemies. Thankfully, Atomic Heart‘s enemies all have strengths and weaknesses so you’re not REALLY able to stick with one strategy for the duration. Which is a good thing. BioShock is an incredible game, but its combat did get to be very much the same after a very short time. Atomic Heart really steps up to try and make players experiment and use different weapons and powers.
What’s more, some weapons have ammo and some make use of CHAR-les power gauge. When you attack enemies with a melee weapon, CHAR-les’ gauge is charged, giving you more chances to fire your energy weapons and/or use your powers. It makes for a great see-saw-type combat system where you’re changing weapons on the fly to make sure you’re always staying charged and powered up. Atomic Heart wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include a tonne of skill and tech trees and of course, it does.
Each of P-3’s powers has its own skill tree which makes the power stronger as you level them up. For example, by upgrading SHOK, you can make it not only stun enemies but also electrify them. A further upgrade makes it so electrified enemies take more damage. As you mix and match P-3’s powers and upgrade them you’ll start to find some natural synergies which come in handy in battle. P-3 has his own skill tree too which includes fairly standard upgrades like extra health, greater carrying capacity, stronger armour and so on.
Each and every weapon also comes with a fairly detailed upgrade path that can turn a humble shotgun into an absolute weapon of mass destruction. As you play you’ll find blueprints for weapons, upgrades and craftable items. Weapons each have a number of upgradable parts such as the barrel, sights and so on. However, these parts don’t just get upgraded to become stronger or better versions, this is sci-fi we’re talking about and so the upgrades are bananas. Most weapons can be equipped with a cartridge slot which enables their attacks to be augmented with an element; fire, electricity or ice. This means you can have an ice power equipped to CHAR-les and have a fire element attached to your shotgun allowing you to deal both kinds of damage. You could even attach electricity to your axe and have all three if you really want…and why wouldn’t you?
The tech and skill trees as well as the upgrades for weapons are really deep and detailed but the best part is Atomic Heart lets you respec and change upgrades without any penalty. If you want to change your loadout, you simply need to visit the crafting bot NORA and make the change. You’ll be refunded any and all parts you used so you can put them towards something else. It’s a great system that encourages experimentation without punishing players for wanting to make a change.
Putting all of Atomic Heart’s mechanics to use isn’t quite as pain-free though. Combat is pretty awkward, for the most part. Robots and mutants tend to use melee attacks and want to close distance to you rapidly. Although you’re able to dodge and use powers and ADS, I found I often lose sight of the enemy and end up spending half the fight trying to find them again. Atomic Heart also tends to throw large groups of enemies at you at once which becomes rather difficult to contend with and not in a good, challenging way. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve ended up stuck up against a wall or some other geometry while a handful of robots kick the absolute shit out of me. As I’ve progressed and unlocked more weapons and upgrades, it has become better but I’m still finding combat to be mostly average.
I’m also struggling to pin down just what Atomic Heart is trying to achieve. There are large, long sections of mostly linear interiors intercut with sections set in what seems to be an open world and I’m not sure the two really marry up all that well. The first time I exited a ‘dungeon’ into the open world I was really thrown for a loop. Where the dungeons are mostly focused on combat and puzzle solving, the open sections feature security bots and cameras always on the lookout and ready to call in reinforcements at a moment’s notice. I felt constantly bombarded by enemies in the open sections and took to simply legging it to the next checkpoint rather than taking my time to explore. I simply may not have progressed far enough to fully explore the open sections as intended. I do know you’re able to deactivate the security forces in the open sections, but it’s not something I’ve seen yet.
I also have to give special mention to what must be the worst lock-picking mini-game in the history of video games. To open the lock you need to press the button in time with a light as it appears on a node. If you press the button when the light is on a node you’ve already completed, it undoes your progress. I truly hate this mini-game and every time it appears I cross my fingers and hope I get it on the first try. It really is painful.
Visually, Atomic Heart is incredible. I honestly can’t believe this is a debut game from a studio. It just looks so damn good and not just because the graphics are crisp and the game is vibrant and colourful. The art design is also first-class. I believe in this alternate USSR and every single detail strengthens the overall world. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the audio, specifically the dialogue. Do yourself a favour and switch to the Russian audio immediately. The English dub is absolute rubbish and makes P-3 so unlikeable you’ll wish him harm. The unfortunate side effect of using Russian dialogue is that there is so much of it, you’ll often have to choose between playing or reading subtitles. Trust me, if you don’t stop to pay attention you won’t have any clue what’s going on.
So far, Atomic Heart is a solid spin on the BioShock formula though it does seem to be a little lacking in cohesion. I’m not quite sure whether a more open-world approach really suits this style of gameplay and I’m not quite sold on the combat or the way it’s been implemented. That being said, I’m still enjoying it and am looking forward to finishing it, so that’s always a good sign.
Stay tuned as we update our review and give Atomic Heart a final score over the next couple of days.
Atomic Heart was reviewed on PC using digital code provided by the publisher.