IN Soviet Russia, killer robots hunt you!
Come on, there’s no way I could start this review without referencing that meme, and now that I’ve done it, we can get on with reading about Atomic Heart, developed by Mundfish and published by Focus on PC, Xbox and PlayStation.
Atomic Heart combines two of my many interests – in this case, retro-futurism and the Soviet Union.
I’m quite fond of Soviet firearms and consumer goods, because their rugged simplicity appeals to me – along with the fact that you can buy Soviet wristwatches and cameras on eBay for very reasonable prices; regular readers of my writings here may have even seen pictures of my Poljot Strela cosmonaut’s watch or my Vostok Amphibia diving watch as illustrations in previous stories.
In a nutshell, Atomic Heart is a cross between Bioshock and Half-Life – featuring special guest appearances by Fallout and Portal – set in an alternate version of the Soviet Union circa 1955, where thanks to the wonders of Soviet Super Science (widely regarded as considerably less evil than Nazi Super Science, although still not without its issues) the USSR is enjoying a golden age full of robots, computers, and advanced biomechanics.
I loved it for the most part.
You play Major Sergey Nechayev, codename P-3, who is a sort of special forces agent-slash-troubleshooter for a Soviet scientist named Sechenov, and arrives at the utopian Facility 3826 on a sunny day in 1955.
The Soviet Union is about to unveil a human-robot neural interface known as “Kollectiv 2.0”, allowing humans to control robots with their thoughts.
This is so obviously an idea with terrible and sinister implications that it will be no surprise at all to you, the player, that someone in the facility activates the robot’s combat mode, whereupon they proceed to kill everyone – which is about the point where you show up with a fire axe, a 12-gauge, and a multifunction AI glove named “Charles”.
Charles lets you access various skills known as “polymers” (the game explains it) but they allow you to do things like shoot lightning from your glove (extremely useful and your major skill throughout the game), move objects via telekinesis (which is how you loot containers, drawers, bodies, etc), and set enemies on fire.
The developers have absolutely nailed the Soviet Retro-Futuristic aesthetic; I absolutely believed if the Soviets had somehow invented robots and computers in the 1930s the result would be quite similar to what we experience in Atomic Heart.
The comparisons to Bioshock are not only justified, but the game itself leans into them quite openly – I’m not going to list them all here, but you can see them for yourself in the official gameplay video.
I really liked the variety in the levels – your adventure across Facility 3826 covers everything from marble-lobbied government buildings to farms to a theatre with robotic performers to science labs and more. The level design is also excellent, as are the puzzles – I found them just difficult enough to make you think, but not difficult or obtuse enough to be frustrating.
Combat was well done too, with the combination of melee weapons, firearms, energy weapons, and Polymer abilities leading to some enjoyable encounters – for example, unleashing chain-lightning on enemies before double-tapping the nearest with a Makarov pistol then hacking another one in twain with an ersatz machete.
The developers specifically suggest playing the game with Russian audio and English subtitles, which certainly is a more immersive experience (and how I played the game, as a result).
The problem is the main Russian voice actors sounded flat to my (non-Russian speaking) ears, but the English voice actors (who did a better job with the comic timing) were mostly American or British and it is just ridiculous to have a game set in the Soviet Union where everyone sounds like they’re from Los Angeles or London.
Even the English language voice actor for your character has a very obvious “American Action Movie Hero” accent and while their performance is good, it’s incredibly jarring and completely wrecks the suspension of disbelief regarding the whole “Soviet World Of Tomorrow!” vibe – along with the fact your character looks like a lumbersexual barista rather than someone you’d find on a Soviet Armed Forces recruiting poster exhorting the proletariat to take up arms against fascists.
The guys who made the Metro games were able to find talented English-speaking Russian voice actors and Atomic Heart really, REALLY needed the same treatment.
One thing I liked was the game had a lot of knowing winks to you, the player, about some of the tropes it employs – Major Nechayev, for example, repeatedly laments that the stuff he needs to find is never “just lying in a corner”, or that he’s obviously going to have to destroy a bunch of robots before he can progress further, and so on.
The main story was also very well done; I won’t spoil any of it except to say that some of the twists were unexpected but didn’t feel cheap or unearned; and there were some thought-provoking themes on (among other things) the nature of free will, human-robot relations, and the price of scientific advancement and progress.
Some of the abilities you can upgrade your character with are illustrated via series of cartoons featuring a Young Pioneer fighting a literal Capitalist Pig (these were really well done and quite humorous) and there are also a sort of Tom And Jerry-style cartoon playing on TVs in the break rooms you encounter throughout the world to save your game.
The open-world part of the Atomic Heart was less fun; there are enemy robots everywhere and it just felt like I was constantly under attack wherever I went. Adding to the frustration is the fact the robots respawn (well, get rebuilt), thanks to what seems like a near-infinite swarm of repair drones.
There is a way to shut the robots in a sector down, but it’s a complicated procedure involving finding a control tower, hacking into the camera network (a la Watch Dogs), finding the door to the Hawk monitoring station and remotely opening it, making your way there, then overloading the relay – which temporarily shuts all the robots down.
You can use a car (based on the Lada “Kopek”) to get around the open world sections, but unlike the real-life Lada (which was built like a T-54 tank), the ones in this came appear to be made of aluminium foil and will literally catch fire and explode shortly after a single medium-speed crash.
While potentially being a humorous satire of the East German Trabant (which was made out of a type of plastic resin, and was prone to catching fire in front-on collisions because the fuel tank was right above the engine), it’s still very frustrating from a gameplay perspective.
One of the surprising omissions from the open world map was a user-placeable waypoint. Yes, I know how to read a map and yes, I can work out which direction I should be heading to get to Secret Military Bunker No. 4, but considering how much time I will spend fighting robots, avoiding robots, or running away from robots, having an on-screen marker for something besides the main storyline would have been greatly appreciated.
The game also engages in a degree of sidestepping of a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of the real-life Soviet Union. For example, in the game, consumer goods are abundant, easily obtainable and of good quality, there is no mention at all of dissidents being arrested in the middle of the night and hauled off to the Gulags, there are no KGB agents looking for counter-revolutionary activities; you get the idea.
One or two of the game’s findable audio and text logs make vague references to Soviet society being reformed after the Stalinist era, but suddenly deciding to get rid of the secret police and so on stretches the bounds of believability, even in an alternate history world where it’s 1955, the Soviets are winning the Cold War, and there are robots and computers everywhere.
From a technical and gameplay perspective, the Atomic Heart looks amazing but I encountered a couple of glitches of varying seriousness when playing on PC, ranging from crashes to desktop at one end to “subtitles not playing during audio recordings” (a problem considering I was playing the game with Russian audio) to the occasional “item floating in mid-air” incident.
I also think there may have been an issue with the system deciding what loot you’d find while searching – I got right through the entire game without finding or acquiring the blueprints for a large number of the weapons in the game, including things like the Kalashnikov rifle and rocket launcher. I did, however, keep finding large quantities of ammunition for them, which struck me as odd.
By the end of the game there were still some unanswered questions, along with some character ideas that seemed promising but didn’t go anywhere, but I didn’t feel cheated or let down by the ending and my overall experience with the game – rushed as it was to meet the review embargo – was still very positive.
Teething issues aside, Atomic Heart is a remarkable achievement which I personally think is easily as good as the Bioshock games they so clearly draw inspiration from.
I’ve had a lot of fun in Atomic Heart’s universe and I hope we get to see (and play!) more games set in this intriguing alternate 1950s USSR – it’s a rich, well-realised world with a lot of potential and opportunity which I think we’ve only scratched the surface of.