Set in an alternate 1950s where the Soviet Union is the largest world power, Atomic Heart offers one of the most visually distinct worlds in gaming. As striking as a current-gen BioShock Infinite, Mundfish’s FPS infuriatingly disappoints in every aspect outside of its stunning aesthetic.
After five years of hype, Atomic Heart’s gorgeous art direction and unique setting are woefully wasted by clunky gameplay and horrendous writing. It’s a game that feels confused in every aspect of design other than its visuals. Is it an open-world game or a linear shooter? Is it Doom Eternal or BioShock? Is it a corny B-movie or a political thriller?
It turns out that developer Mundfish has decided to make all of the above. Instead of picking its battles, the fledgling development team has made a game full of so many bits and pieces that it fails to keep track of it all. Its brutalist, Stalinist visuals may adorn the eyes, but it’s a layer of gloss lacquer over one of the dullest, buggiest and most annoying action games of the past decade.
Playing as special operations soldier Major Sergei Nechaev, you’re tasked with investigating a robot uprising within the isolated Facility 3826 before the launch of Kollectiv, a worldwide thought device that will let humans telepathically control machines. The stakes are high but poorly explained; failing your mission could collapse the world’s Soviet-led communist Utopia.
Rather unexpectedly, Atomic Heart is less of an intelligent look at Soviet socialism and reliance on automation and more of a straight-to-DVD parody of a more sophisticated idea. In your first minutes within Facility 3826, you’ll be blown up twice. In twenty minutes, you’ll have been involved in a cinematic explosive knockback four times. After that, you’ll get attacked by a sexed-up vending machine called Nora that spits euphemisms more than a llama on clozapine. After your first couple of meetings with this machine, the game just forgets about its horny personality altogether.
Atomic Heart’s B-movie story may have been more forgivable if its protagonist was silent, a lá Jack from BioShock. Instead, Nechaev talks almost constantly alongside his AI-powered glove Charles. The failed comedy duo talk so much that they interrupt their own lines with new dialogue, slicing up essential exposition with swear-filled one-liners that are at best poorly translated and at worst pure nonsense. The character even has his own catchphrase — “crispy critters!” — that he says far too many times for it to be enjoyable.
Outside of its cerebral-boring writing, Mundfish’s gameplay systems are just as disappointing. In fleeting moments, an intriguing immersive sim leaks through the cracks, filling dungeons with puzzles and lore-supplying PCs. Unfortunately, with combat more suited to hyperactive, Doom-esque arena fights and a truly useless stealth system, it’s more of an action game in BioShock’s clothing.
The confusion only continues in the game’s equally bizarre structure. After an hour or so of linear play, Atomic Heart becomes an open-world game, but it feels like an afterthought. The open world features explorable buildings with loot, hidden puzzle dungeons with lockable weapon attachments, alert statuses, hackable cameras, drivable vehicles and more, but none of it is essential and it feels like little more than set dressing.
Unless you really want a scope for your Kalashnikov, or a handle for your machete, you’ll never need to explore any of the optional dungeons at all. It’s a shame, as these are usually the most engaging parts of the entire adventure, mostly due to a lack of cringy voice lines.
Even worse, Mundfish’s confused attempt at a Doom-style BioShock is downright broken at times. Enemies often get clipped into the environment or de-aggro during fights; sometimes entire mechanics will stop working such as telekinesis and the game’s essential SHOK power, a quick electric jolt that attacks enemies and triggers magnetic fields.
Nevertheless, there are moments where Atomic Heart does click and become something special. One early boss fight, adorably dubbed Hughie, is a short-but-sweet example of Mundfish’s game at its best. An unadulterated action set piece, the gigantic rolling robot spins through a wide outdoor arena, tearing up dirt and bouncing on the grass as a rocking track from Doom Eternal composer Mick Gordon pumps alongside your shotgun. Other boss fights also impress, although most don’t hit this high, and they can feel quite satisfying to beat.
However, for each moment of triumph, there are two or three that feel underwhelming. Fighting through a museum, collecting pieces of a dismembered Tereshkova is fun. Finding out that elemental weapon cartridges — an entire combat mechanic — have no button binding on console (it’s middle mouse button if you plug in a mouse) is not fun.
As painful as it is, Atomic Heart’s biggest issue is that it feels simultaneously under and over-designed. Developer Mundfish has included everything a modern game has, minus a fishing mini-game, and nothing has enough time or polish to stick. Factor in one of the most annoying protagonists in years, who I wish would shut up, and this gorgeous, intriguing world falls flat on its face.
There are moments of fun to be had, and playing it in hour-long bursts may be preferential, but at the end of the day it’s a mediocre experience with a cool look. In a few years, it may be worth a shot on a sale (or a quick gander on Xbox Game Pass at launch), but you shouldn’t rush to play Atomic Heart unless you want to be disappointed and annoyed.