Atomic Heart wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s a graphic first-person shooter packed with superpower-like abilities and owes a lot to classics of the genre, Bioshock and Half-Life. However, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got many of its own unique ideas and surprises also hidden up that same sleeve, and from playing a considerable amount of Mundfish’s debut, I’ve found there’s a lot to be excited about.
Atomic Heart lulls you into familiar territory straight off the bat, albeit in a very unfamiliar world. Its opening takes obvious cues from Bioshock Infinite’s masterful introduction to Columbia as you take a leisurely trip through a peaceful alternate-history Soviet city. Thanks to the big brains at the fictional Facility 3826, robots have been integrated into society and help relieve the public from everyday stresses and labour. The calm is short-lived, however, as – inevitably – the AI turns not so friendly and the game begins in earnest. From there I’ve jumped around to several different points in Atomic Heart to get a proper feel of what it has to offer, consistently being surprised by what came next. It’s not the straight-up corridor shooter some may envisage, nor a sprawling open-world full of nooks to explore, or a puzzle-filled brainteaser. It’s all of those things and more. The scope of Atomic Heart is impressive, and seemingly unfolds and builds as you make your way through its many distinct and large sci-fi complexes over the course of its 20-hour-plus campaign.
Atomic Heart’s closest analogue structurally would likely be Halo Infinite – an open world littered with mobs of enemies and linear story dungeons to dip in and out of. These dungeons are where the majority of main missions lie and comprise of learning more about the facility, the people behind it, and what exactly has gone wrong there. You battle through sections patrolled by rogue AI units before facing off against a challenging boss. Atomic Heart isn’t reinventing the wheel in this regard but definitely adds its own flair into the mix.
One of the first things that struck me about Atomic Heart is its thoroughly distinctive art style. It’s a gorgeous game packed with lush forests, eye-catching architecture, and all manner of bonkers-looking machinery. It’s noticeably vast, endlessly creative, and frankly hard to take in all at once as you drive, zipline, swim, and, run away from killer robots. These robots are each a visual delight to take in, but rarely are you ever given the opportunity to do so as razor blades, electric pulses, and flying kicks are hurled at you with frightening regularity. They each emphasise the ‘intelligence’ in AI, never shying away from a battle or afraid of showing off their varied arsenals. Of course, there are larger-scale enemies and boss battles aplenty, both in linear story sections and in arenas across the open world. They often provide challenge and spectacle in equal measure as they unleash one devastating attack after another while you chip away at their monstrous health bars.
Atomic Heart isn’t afraid to switch up its combat either, frequently flitting between frantic firefights against onrushing hordes to slower, more deliberate melee duels. It’s an exciting way to keep you on your toes and a testament to the work Mundfish has done to maintain balance. First and foremost it’s a shooter, and has an impressive collection of firearms to back that up. These range from the relentlessly chattering AK-47 to heavyweight RPGs. Then there’s the more experimental end of the spectrum, reserved for guns that blast out electric bombs to something that only be described as a large metal pole that fires whirling blades that carve up enemies before returning to your hand. On the whole, shooting feels competent if not spectacular, fitting somewhere in between the rustic feel of Fallout and the snappier gunplay of Call of Duty.
Speaking of your hand, an essential part of the Atomic Heart kit is the Glove – a sci-fi piece of gear that grants elemental powers. It’s a lot of fun to play around with and adds layers to combat as you learn to start comboing weapons and abilities. Using the electrified Shok to halt mechanical foes in their stride before following up with a flurry of bullets is a surefire way of causing a lethal circuit malfunction. Similarly, some of the telekinesis attacks are glorious to wield as you lift a group of enemies into the air before introducing them back to the ground with a violent thud. It’s a joy to play with and, even more, fun to experiment with. Freezing an enemy before shattering through their brittle metal shell with a massive axe is always a good time.
A stellar example of the hand-to-hatchet combat is in one of Atomic Heart’s earliest missions. You’re thrown into the deep end as you’re taught how to survive in the dark corridors of the facility’s many underground labs. Atomic Heart is not an easy game – it has been designed first and foremost as a hardcore shooter experience, and although difficulty options are available, it doesn’t take many hits or kicks from a mustachioed android to take you down. Evading and knowing when to attack requires precise timing and reading your enemy’s moves. Thankfully, more powerful charged attacks are signaled by a glowing red ring moments before impact, which signal when you must dodge. Miss it, though, and you’ll be on the floor scrambling for a health kit.
This sort of patient back-and-forth melee combat will be familiar to anyone who has played almost any action game over the past decade, but nonetheless it’s a surprise to see it pop up in a first-person shooter. It’s much less forgiving or quick-hitting as something like Dying Light or Far Cry, instead making each heavy swing meaningful rather than relying on a flurry of hits to get out of a sticky situation. It’s almost survival horror in nature, with moments from the aforementioned early level leaning into this. Its dark hallways are lit only by the occasional flicker of light, and the oppressive silence broken by the sound of smashing glass, as bloodthirsty robots practice what they’re going to do with your skull. As I hesitantly made my way through I couldn’t help but be reminded of the first time I entered Rapture or some of Half-Life 2’s scarier moments.
Another Valve game Atomic Heart appears to draws influence from is Portal, not from any of its robot designs but the surprising revelation that puzzles play such a considerable part. Test Sites are puzzle boxes lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to complete. They’re essentially abandoned lab facilities, requiring you to put combat skills through a cerebral exam. For example, use your glove’s Shok ability to magnetise nodes, which in turn move platforms to help you on your way. The puzzles I’ve tried haven’t been the most challenging, but provide a welcome change of pace nonetheless, and come with the added bonus of granting valuable upgrades upon completion.
Weapons and abilities can be modified and upgraded throughout, a process that’s essential in taking down the many threats. Robots are controlled by a central AI that is always on the lookout for you. Ways of combatting its glare include avoiding its cameras, either by disabling them or making the glove perform its best gravity gun impression to hurl objects as a distraction. Make a wrong move and you’ll quickly find yourself overcome by enemies, as the facility sends them out straight from the production line to attack the more the alert level is raised. It really evokes the feeling of going up against an intelligent, aggressive global ecosystem that acts as a unit, rather than occasional pockets of activity.
The hours I’ve spent with Atomic Heart have left me yearning for more. It’s an engrossing world to get lost in, with dynamic combat and inspired art and enemy design. I have a few doubts over whether the main story will deliver a tale worthy of such a stellar location, and I’ve seen some heavy-handed writing and performances that leave a little to be desired. Then there’s the nauseating forward roll animation that had my stomach churning on more than one occasion. I can’t say these gripes were ever enough to fully take away from all of the exciting things I found myself engaging with along the way, though. Time will tell if Atomic Heart lives up to its lofty aspirations, but it certainly makes a very strong first impression.
Simon Cardy thinks we should stop trying to build robots that might turn against us. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.