An alternate history set in the wake of World War II. A technological utopia hiding terrible secrets. A square-jawed, bloodthirsty protagonist. Mick Gordon spewing fire from the speakers. You'd be forgiven for thinking Bethesda just stealth-dropped another Wolfenstein. Alas, this isn't a new adventure for the Blazkowicz family, but it does owe a great debt to that franchise.
Finally released after a lengthy dev cycle at Mundfish, Atomic Heart is an FPS set in a scientifically superior Soviet empire. The reds have made pioneering advancements in robotics and AI thanks to scientist and industry minister Sechenov. Automatons fulfil every need of the Russian populace.
Of course, you can't have a society filled with robots without a robot uprising, which is exactly what happens in the game's opening minutes. Our hero P3, real name Sergei Nechaev, is sent on a routine mission by Sechenov following a parade to usher in a new golden age for the empire. When the bots run amok, he crashes on a massive airborne biome with only an axe and his AI Char-les for company. Fighting through increasingly hostile facilities, he must uncover the cause of the uprising and track down Viktor Petrov, the supposed traitor behind it.
The plot quickly thickens with mostly familiar beats, but some twists and turns occur along the way. Comparisons to Wolfenstein extend to the B-movie setup and emphasis on popcorn spectacle. P3 cracks wise like his middle name is Nukem while Char-les quips back at him constantly — it's banter straight out of the 90s. However, the script lacks the nuance and political bite of Machine Games' modern cycle and rarely goes for anything approaching emotional complexity.
Conversations about the intricacies of a communist state and the unifying power of scientific discovery smash headlong into crass jokes and catchphrases (P3 is constantly yelling "crispy critters"). Elsewhere, there's a sex-crazed, murderous upgrade station that spouts filth while you browse.
It may talk like an old-school shooter, but it walks more like an immersive sim, albeit one with a mostly linear path through its 15-20 hour story. P3 comes equipped with an experimental 'polymer glove', affording him a selection of powers that can be freely swapped out as the situation allows. Shielding, elemental damage, speed, and machine control can be equipped and upgraded using resources scattered around the levels.
It's this ability system — along with weapon customisation and stealth elements — that brings Atomic Heart closer to BioShock (the floating cities bear more than a passing resemblance to Columbia). Likewise, stalking around the ruined buildings of Facility 3826, seeking out cost-effective ways to navigate enemy encounters with your toolset, recalls 2017's PREY. Weaponry is sparse at first, with only a modified axe, shotgun, and energy pistol taking you through the first few hours. Ammo is scarce so the emphasis is on melee combat.
Enemies telegraph certain attacks to allow for a well-timed dodge counter, which never quite feels smooth but is useful when mastered. Later, as your arsenal grows, that vintage shooter vibe starts to creep back in. P3 goes from sneaking around corridors filled with bots and mutated plant people to blowing mechanised behemoths to bits while bickering with his glove. The option to go quiet and tactical is always there, but you can also use resources to make ammo and try to blast a way through.
Stealth is usually recommended in the semi-open world sections that connect the story's main facilities. P3 creeps through communities ravaged by the uprising, with cameras and hostile machines dotted around the map. Shuffling around these houses and hoovering resources with your glove's tendrils or interrogating the memories of dead androids is a nice way of breaking up the action between the game's main levels.
There's a lot going on in Atomic Heart, tonally and mechanically. It's trying to be many things at once and doesn't fully succeed at any of them. The writing is the biggest culprit, veering wildly between genuinely engaging and cringe-inducing. In one stand-out sequence, a pair of cybernetic ballerina bodyguards conjure a blood-red polymer demon with an ethereal dance. It's a beautifully atmospheric moment. Minutes later, we go back to expletive-filled tough-talking and hackneyed conspiracy plotting. Uncovering the rotten core at the heart of the empire and finding out just who and what P3 is can be genuinely intriguing, but it mostly feels messy and rushed.
Glove abilities and weapon mods are plentiful, creating a playground of choice reminiscent of the aforementioned titles from which Mundfish borrows. That said, combat with multiple enemies feels clunky, while boss fights are skill checks that don't necessarily respect your choice of skills. Projectile weapons look and feel great, but melee weapons don't pack as much of a punch as the marketing of the game has touted.
Another issue is pacing. Each of the game's levels are distinct enough, but the fetch quest objective structure and frequent treks through the open world can get repetitive.
The ruined farmsteads of Facility 3826 look great at least, with Unreal Engine 4 rendering stunning outdoor vistas and atmospheric interiors. It's worth noting, though, that the version we reviewed suffered some crashes, with no identifiable cause. The open world sections have infrequent checkpointing, so crashing was a bit of an annoyance during our playthrough.
This mashup of shooter, stealth, and RPG wears its influences proudly but rarely matches them. Its alt-history setting is interesting and there are plenty of ways to approach the robot-killing, but these elements are at odds with messy storytelling and characterisation.