It may have been a bit prejudicial, but I have always been a little sceptical about Atomic Heart. The trailers and gameplay that developer Mundfish has shared on the lead up to launch have made the game look remarkable, and years of being disappointed by trailers have made me second guess any opinion like this. But anyway, Atomic Heart is now here and I've been thoroughly immersed in the world over the past few days to see how this anticipated project actually shapes up in practice.
Let me start by stating that the graphics and the presentation of Atomic Heart lives up to those trailers and then some. The world is marvellously realised, beautifully sculpted, packed with character, and all plays incredibly fluidly with silky smooth animations and frame rates. Atomic Heart's world of Facility 3826 is without a doubt one of the most creative game worlds I've come across yet, and while it is very reminiscent of BioShock (particularly the floating city of Columbia in BioShock Infinite, which is ironic because this is a game rooted in communism, whereas Columbia is all about capitalism and the American Dream), there's no denying that the team at Mundfish has really let their creative juices flow to cook up this striking video game.
The first 30 minutes of Atomic Heart is also one of the strongest openings of a video game I have ever experienced, with tons of detail and colour bringing to life this alternate Soviet Union world - although it is worth mentioning that the opening is distinctly lacking in player actions and agency. The narrative is also interesting and is rooted in mystery and betrayal, with you, the player, tasked with pulling together the pieces to determine why and how Facility 3826's robot population lost their marbles and what sorts of dark and horrible secrets the seemingly perfect utopian society is keeping. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, very BioShock, and I have absolutely no gripes with that whatsoever as the world and story are excellent.
But here's where things start to fall apart in Atomic Heart in my eyes, as the macro of this game, the wider and more influential parts, are all very good, but the micro, the small details that relate to the actual gameplay, tend to struggle. Take combat for example. The robots and the enemies you have to face off with are brilliantly designed and are genuinely terrifying at times. But fighting them feels like a chore because Atomic Heart is quite a rigid game in practice. You can't sprint, you're not really expected to fight all of the robots (even though you can if you want), and the gameplay has been designed in such a way that it doesn't feel as smooth and fluid as other FPS titles. This all culminates in an experience where I found myself avoiding combat whenever I could, because while the shooting mechanics are well designed and optimised, the movement and melee combat is far from it. It's sluggish and frustrating, and it feels like you are always fighting the game to push protagonist P-3 (also known as Major Nechaev) to be more of a generic and thrilling action hero.
Add to this the fact that ammunition is hard to come by, and even acquiring and upgrading new weapons is a slog because Atomic Heart has such an overwhelming resource system, which is overly complicated. You'll need to be gathering tons of different resources to be able to improve P-3's weapons and abilities, and with the looting being over-implemented as well (you will walk into a room and find that every drawer, desk, cabinet, chest, shelf etc. needs to be opened for you to acquire minimal amounts of resources) it all just mashes into an experience where I don't feel excited or enticed to improve my own gear.
Still the world is jaw-dropping to look at and wander around, even though it doesn't really beg to be explored. The closed world is designed in such a way that you are mainly supposed to follow the core narrative beats, and when you decide to explore elsewhere, you never really come across much of interest. The game does what it can to keep things thrilling in the form of the Kollektiv Neural Network engagement system, which will see robot reinforcements sent to wherever on the map you are causing trouble or are simply spotted by one of the hundreds of intrusive cameras. But, considering you're never really looking for a fight, this response system feels a bit disconnected from what Atomic Heart really wants to be as a game.
And I say this as it's clear that Atomic Heart wants to be more like BioShock 1 and 2 then it does Infinite. Yet, the gameplay is fundamentally built to resemble what Infinite brought to the table, with lots of combat opportunities in a striking, yet empty feeling world that has simply been created as a platform to tell the story, and little else. To me, this all gives Atomic Heart a hollow feeling, where on one hand I just can't help but drool over and celebrate the narrative and world design, but on the other hand, struggle to actually find entertainment and thrill when locked into the gameplay.
I will also add that there are some areas that are just genuinely awful, including P-3's voice acting and the dialogue he shares with his talking glove. It's flat, dull, and always makes you sigh with disappointment when one of the two say something incredibly stupid and silly reminiscent of Duke Nukem. Fortunately, the glove at least is useful as a tool, and can be used for one of many abilities, including telekinesis and frost attacks, which are handy for interacting with the world and slowing down enemies, which admittedly does alleviate and make combat and bit more enjoyable - although it's by no means a complete solution.
It probably won't surprise anyone to hear that a game of Atomic Heart's size also has its fair share of bugs and clunky design features, because from what I've experienced it does. Between doors not opening to repeated dialogue lines, to levels designed in such a way that enemies will pin you against jagged terrain and then beat you to death while you simply cannot move or counter, there have been many times where I have died for reasons outside of my control, and an equal if not larger amount of times where I have had to exit to the main menu to get the game working again.
Hopefully though Mundfish can iron out some of these issues on the run up until launch, because there really is a lot to love about this game. The graphics are about as "next-gen" as you can get, the world is marvellous, the audio and soundtrack is top quality, and the narrative is thoroughly interesting and engaging. If it wasn't for its clunky and overcomplicated nature, Atomic Heart would probably be one of the year's best games, which is why it's a shame that it's let down by such a broad list of minor but common problems.