Atomic Heart has had quite a journey. Announced way back in 2017 originally as a VR game (before that got renamed Soviet Lunapark and then canceled), and then being reintroduced the next year as an open-world FPS, something always felt off. There were always claims that Atomic Heart was a fake game or an investor scheme. Well, it turns out the game is real, and now it's in our hands. Was it worth the wait?
Taking place in an alternate 1950s where the USSR has created what appears to be a communist utopia, you play as military man Agent P-3. Attempting to enjoy some downtime during a national holiday, P-3 has his day interrupted when he's asked to report to a lab for some work. It seems simple, but upon arriving P-3 stumbles upon a lab currently under siege by robots gone killer. Now P-3 and his talking glove Char-les need to figure out how this started and how to stop it.
I know that sounds simple, and I promise that Atomic Heart's story has way more to it, but it's impossible for me to tell you what's really going on. You see, Atomic Heart has a major problem at its, well, heart. That problem? This is quite possibly the worst-written game I have ever played in my entire life. I've been asked not to use hyperbole in my reviews, but I swear this isn't hyperbole. I have never been more confused and baffled at any point in time than I am while playing Atomic Heart.
I do not say this lightly when I say that Atomic Heart's melee combat is genuinely, honestly, fun.
I really don't know if I can explain the sheer level of nonsense that Atomic Heart gets into. Characters walk in and out of the plot at random, so don't get attached to anyone because they may just sort of find some better game to be in. The entire plot hinges on the fact that Russia let a literal traitor build 'Kollektive 2.0', essentially mind linking internet, and got surprised when he put in a back door to make robots go haywire. One character gets decapitated, shows up later just totally fine, then gets decapitated a second time. Scientists just keep creating giant murder plants and don't really seem to have a solid reason why.
One of the characters in the game is NORA, the weapons upgrade vendor that looks like a red fridge for some reason. Atomic Heart makes the choice to have this character sexually harass the player for 5+ minutes at a time when you go to upgrade weapons early in the game. Then she's replaced by a generic computer personality, but P-3 still acts like she's there. It's really weird. I don't know how else to describe it.
It's not just that the actual plot is bad, but everything story related as well. The writing is awful: characters keep saying words that often have nothing to do with any of the other words in their sentence. About three hours into the game P-3 suddenly decides his catchphrase is "crispy critters" and he shoves it into every scene in the most awkward and nonsensical ways. At another point, when asked to make a right angle with his hand, P-3 responds "what am I, the Spanish Inquisition?" and I still have no clue what that's supposed to mean. Speaking of P-3, he's so absurdly angry and rude to every character for no reason. A guy saves his life and is bleeding out and P-3 makes fun of him and gets distracted. Why am I supposed to think this guy is the hero? It doesn't help that every cutscene has constant endless dialogue. Characters talk and talk with no end in sight. They all just spew verbal diarrhea.
But wait, it gets worse. This is all assuming you can keep visual track of what's going on. Every cutscene, be it in first or third person, has the camera swing around wildly. Then there are the echo effects. Several cutscenes are inside big rooms and the characters' voices echo so badly that they're completely impossible to understand. Even if there isn't an echo, there's a solid chance that you'll spend the scene next to a machine that just makes loud noises the entire time, and it's always louder than the dialogue.
Look, I can excuse a bad story. I know not all games need to have good ones. But Atomic Heart is probably the first time I've seen a game's story and writing be so aggressively bad it detracts from the experience in a meaningful way. Characters talk in cutscenes, out of cutscenes, randomly, all the time. They just dribble poorly-acted nonsense constantly. Sometimes it loops around to being so bad it's good. Most of the time it's so bad it's just bad.
It's a good thing punching robots is so damn fun.
I understand that first-person melee combat is really difficult to do right. Few games manage to, and one of the best is still, to this day, Xbox 360 launch game Condemned: Criminal Origins. So I do not say this lightly when I say that Atomic Heart's melee combat is genuinely, honestly, fun. Early in the game you only have an axe, but before the end I also found myself using a mace with detachable razor blades, a sword with a magnetic blade you can throw, and more. You can swing each weapon normally, or use a special attack, with several weapons having multiple special attacks that you can pick between.
It's not just melee weapons that are fun though. Unlike The Callisto Protocol, which tried to combine the two but couldn't manage to make guns fun to use, I enjoyed every weapon I found. The first gun you get is a shotgun, and from the first time I shot a robot with it and watched them go flying back I knew that it would be a favorite. A lot of this can be attributed to how powerful both melee and ranged weapons feel thanks to some honestly impressive destruction on the enemies. As you hit them you'll tear off chunks of their outer layers, leaving giant gashes and holes in their bodies, and usually removing limbs, heads, or just straight up tearing them in two on death.
You'll combine both of these with some Bioshock-styled powers. At all times your character can shoot a small bolt of lightning that can damage and stun robots, and then you have a few other powers you can choose to equip. I personally went with a freeze spray that would slow them down, and a shield to protect myself, but others include a mass telekinesis to throw objects and a sprayable goo that you can light on fire. Combining all of this just felt satisfying in a way that's hard to describe.
There's a good chunk of enemies to use these abilities against too. Basic human-looking robots will attempt to punch, kick, and shoot lasers at you. Later on, they'll upgrade to get energy shields and stun batons as well. However, you'll also encounter robots made for the purpose of lumber work, swinging giant saw blades at you. Some fly above the arena and shoot lasers, and others are made to harvest wheat and will spin around like toy tops. This speaks nothing of the mutant zombie enemies in the game as well.
Even better, there are a lot of really great boss fights. They're frantic battles where you need to dash and dodge out of the way of enemies, learning their attack patterns and striking when they're exposed or weakest. One highlight has a rolling enemy that, to counter its speedy attacks, I could raise statues out of the ground for it to crash into. Another, a mutant that seemed to just be a mass of muscle fiber in the vague shape of a person, was just a knockdown brawl that was a joy to play. They're absolutely the highlights of Atomic Heart.
Characters talk and talk with no end in sight. They all just spew verbal diarrhea.
Unfortunately, as the game goes on, combat starts to hit a wall. The problem mostly comes from an extreme excess of enemies. Late game fights can often have you fighting massive swarm after massive swarm. Eventually, you'll start to repeat the same boss fights as well. It almost reminds me of a bad Half-Life 2 mod map, where the creator ran out of ideas and decided to just spawn massive walls of enemies at you. It's not really fun, and it causes the game to slow down to a slog.
There are also a ton of other mechanics that the game seems to dabble in but never fully commits to. There's a very basic stealth feature, but the enemy's line of sight and hearing are too powerful to use it reliably. There are first-person platforming sections, but there's not much to them outside of some ledge movement. A couple of puzzles are sprinkled in the game, but almost all of them are rotating lasers into the correct position. At one point you just play the game Snake on a video screen. It makes it feel like the developers of Atomic Heart wanted to do more, but all of these elements ended up half-baked and dropped.
For some reason, there are not one or two but five different lockpicking minigames. This includes the classic Elder Scrolls-styled "rotate stick to find the right spot", rotating colors on a wheel to match them, a timed button press game, and more. It's just another example of some of Atomic Heart's extremely all over the place design decisions.
You know what's not half-baked though? The soundtrack. In his first soundtrack since 2020's Doom Eternal, Mick Gordon is firing on all cylinders here. Even better, the game doesn't seem to have just one style, and Gordon really gets a chance to go all out. One boss fight is set to a Doom-styled guitar-heavy track that would rank among the best in those games. Another has a dark thumping electronic beat. Even if the story concerned me and the rush of repeated bosses was frustrating, consistently getting to hear what Gordon whipped up next was a real delight.
Since it is an open-world game, you will be spending time between missions navigating the open world. The general design isn't bad. It was a world I wouldn't mind getting lost in, and there feels like there was plenty to explore. There's just one major problem: you can't get anywhere without starting a neverending rolling firefight. The open world is just littered with cameras and enemies. Worse: you can't kill them. At least not for good. Any time an enemy dies, a drone is dispatched to revive them. There's no way to stop the endless revival drones, so once you start the fight you have to run. I have never wanted to engage with an open world less than in Atomic Heart. Before long I was just running from story mission to story mission. The game was better that way.
If you choose not to follow the story path and explore, what is there to find? I'm not entirely sure. I never found any side quests or collectibles on the world map. There are certain zones marked as having challenge fights, but nothing ever really seems to happen in those zones and even then I was never sure I was in one. This is because the map never worked for me. I don't mean this in the sense that it was poorly made or didn't give enough info, I mean any time I opened up the map it was blacked out and told me to move to open ground. I still am not sure what "open ground" is, but not once did I get an actual map outside of a couple of tutorial screens.
This could have been a glitch, and boy did I run into a lot of those. Some of my glitches were things like animations being stuttery and missing frames. Others involved enemies spawning inside walls or underground, and sometimes I would also get stuck on the geometry. One room had the audio messed up, and every sound in the room would be twice as loud and skipping constantly. At one point I couldn't select one of my weapons, and the game insisted I still had it in my inventory even when I didn't. All of this made me feel like Atomic Heart needed a couple more months in the oven.
Atomic Heart Review | Final Verdict
I really went into Atomic Heart looking for some weird and unique game that really throws everything at the wall with bravado and sees what sticks. I got something like that, but not nearly as much stuck as I was hoping. Some fun gameplay moments and a kickass soundtrack can't hide the fact that the open world is bad, the game has a bunch of glitches, the late game becomes a repetitive slog, and Atomic Heart simply has the most aggressively terrible writing I've ever seen in my life. I'm not sure this heart has the blood to keep pumping.
TechRaptor reviewed Atomic Heart on PlayStation 5 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.
- Genuienly fun combat and boss fights
- Soundtrack absolutely slaps
- Hilarious (albeit unintentionally)
- Aggressively bad story, writing, dialogue, and voice acting
- Late game encounters drag
- Lots of half-used mechanics
- Terrible open world is a pain to explore
- Really glitchy