Sometimes, when you first start to play a video game, you notice that something doesn’t feel quite right, and no matter how small or insignificant it may be, it still taints the experience. That, unfortunately, is what happened when I started playing Atomic Heart (PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC), a first-person sci-fi action / adventure game that could’ve been unique, exciting, and interesting…had they not made one simple mistake.
In the alternate version of history…
in which Atomic Heart takes place, it’s been many years since Russia used robots to win World War II, and their society now resembles the art deco utopia we were promised in ’50s sci-fi movies and the beginning of Fallout 4. But when a terrorist hacks their operating system, causing them to see humans as a threat, it’s up to you, comrade, to infiltrate the facility where the bad guy’s supposedly hiding so you can stop the robots from turning Russia into a human free zone.
In many ways, Atomic Heart feels like a bunch of other first-person action / adventure games and shooters mixed together. Because you’re armed with both melee weapons and firearms, this feels more like Dead Island, Condemned, and, to a certain extent, Skyrim than, say, the guns-only Call Of Duty. There’s also an alert system like the one that goes off in Grand Theft Auto when you’re being chased by the cops, while the stylized interior design owes as much to the Metro games as it does the recent Wolfenstein ones (and something else we’ll get to in a moment).
This also recalls the Far Cry games in how you sometimes have to climb and jump to get around, as well as Doom Eternal in how you can jump even further by using a mid-air dash. Though none of those games get nearly as intricate with the gymnastics as this does, especially when it starts messing around with perspective and gravity.
But the games that Atomic Heart recall most are the ones in the BioShock series. And not just because they seem to have influenced some of the interior design choices. Along with your weapons, you’re armed with a sentient A.I. glove which has mechanical abilities that, in another game, might be described as magical or Jedi-esque. Not only can you shoot bolts of electricity that incapacitate or destroy robots and mechanical devices, or a blast of cold, but it can also help you move such heavy objects as metal doors and platforms.
having all these combat options is only helpful if you have someone equally skilled to fight. Which you do in Atomic Heart. For starters, there’s a nice variety of ‘bots, each with their own attacks and strengths. Some recall the flying turrets from BioShock, some were clearly built to cut down large trees, and some have the same shocking attack as your glove.
Then there are the different humanoid ones who, if they get close enough, will grab you by the throat. Especially if you make fun of their porno ‘stache. They also tend to leap at you, fists or feet first, like they were originally built to train soldiers in the martial arts. And I do mean “train,” since their first shot always seems to knock you down, not out, or in such a way that you find yourself with a robot arm where your heart used to be. Good thing they telegraph these attacks with a red light, and that the aforementioned mid-air dash move also works when you’re on the ground and would like to dodge an incoming attack.
As if angry robots weren’t enough, Atomic Heart also has you taking on infected humans who look like they escaped from The Last Of Us. And are those mutant flowers?
Most importantly, your enemies are not idiots. While the robots’ operating system may be compromised, their survival subroutines are still functional. When the aforementioned alert is raised, Grant Theft Auto-style, a lot of them come running. And right at you. All of which makes combat in Atomic Heart rather frantic and harried, especially when you’re being attacked from behind as well as from above.
all of this probably has you thinking that Atomic Heart sounds like an engaging game. It has an interesting premise, combat is multilayered and challenging, and the puzzling situations that are designed to keep you from getting anywhere can be rather clever.
It also gets points for not having a stamina meter that drains when you use a melee weapon. Or having said melee weapons break after you only use them a couple times. And for having pistols that are effective.
But whenever you start to walk or run, you can’t help but notice how your movement feels stifled and jerky. Like you have a pebble in your shoe. Or you stepped in something sticky and now your right foot is constantly getting stuck to the floor. Or maybe you walk in time to the waltz that’s only playing in your head.
Granted, it’s not a hindrance that puts your life in danger. It’s not like when, in a game, you’re running fine on dry land but then slow down when you try to go through waist high water. But it’s persistent, and while it never gets worse, it also never gets better, even if you adjust the sensitivity. And because of this, it does get more and more annoying. Like, well, a pebble in your shoe when you can’t stop to take it out.
this is not the only annoying aspect of Atomic Heart (though it is the biggest one).
For starters, while you have melee weapons, you can’t, inexplicably, smack ‘bots with the butt of your gun. There’s also a glitch with the reload button that sometimes causes you to use a health recharging Neuromed Capsules instead.
Then there are the doors which are locked with puzzles. Like in a Resident Evil game, their existence doesn’t make any sense, especially given that they’re on doors in a scientific facility. But it’s also odd that your A.I. glove can’t automatically unlock them. Sure, it’s stylish, fits well, and is able to have full conversations with you, complete with snark, but it can’t hack an electric lock?
And while we’re on the subject of the A.I. in the game (as opposed to the A.I. that runs the game), can someone please explain why the sentient, soda machine-looking device that dispenses weapons, ammo, supplies, and upgrades is sexually harassing me? I’m not offended or anything (though I wouldn’t fault anyone who was), but it gets tiresome after a while.
Atomic Heart also…
makes mistakes we’ve seen in other games. For instance, because you press in the right thumbstick to crouch, and that’s something you may accidentally do during moments of frantic combat, you frequently find yourself smacking ‘bots in the knees when you’d rather be smacking them upside the head. Even worse, because you’re not Batman in one of his Arkham games, or Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell, crouching down also causes you to move slower, something you don’t want to do when being beset upon by robots.
Your character’s voice acting is also distractingly bad. Like it was done as a temp track but they forgot to replace it. Did we learn nothing from the male Sheppard in Mass Effect?
Speaking of which, why are elevators in Atomic Heart so…slow…
And don’t get me started on the time I ended up in a part of a warehouse from which I could not extricate myself and I had to reload an earlier save file. Or how the supposedly special abilities — save for the ones I mentioned — are equal parts uninteresting and unhelpful.
Even the menus…
and interface have problems. Not only is the text super small, making it hard to read the mission objectives, menus, instructions, and subtitles, but this makes the same mistake as Destiny, Outriders, and other games by having the menus use the thumbstick like a mouse, which is never accurate or intuitive.
I also hate games in which you get knocked down as opposed to just getting hurt, as well as ones in which your character is trained in the use of firearms, but somehow never learned to reload their gun when the clip is empty, thus requiring you to hit the reload button as opposed to them just doing it automatically if you hit the trigger when you’re out of ammo. Though, admittedly, these are more matters of personal preference than mistakes.
But honestly, I could get past most of these issues were it not for the awkward movement controls. I can forgive a lot when a game grabs me, so long as its fundamentals work right. Y’know, like I do with the Resident Evil games and their ridiculous door locks.
In fact, the awkward movement isn’t really this game’s biggest sin. It’s that the awkward movement ruins what could’ve been an engaging game. It’s one thing if an uninteresting game is badly made; who cares? But when you have a potentially compelling set-up, story, or set of mechanics, and you undermine it with flawed fundamentals — like, say, awkward walking — then you’ve wasted a good opportunity. And that’s a shame. It’s like putting ketchup on a nice steak. As you yourself say at one point in this game, “I don’t have time for this crap.”
it’s entirely possible that the good people of Mundfish who made Atomic Heart will fix the movement controls. In which case, this will become a much better game. Not BioShock better, or Metro Exodus better, or even Doom Eternal better, but certainly Dead Island better, or the kind of better you get from one of the better Far Cry games. But until that happens — and who knows if or when that will — Atomic Heart can take a long awkward walk off a short pier.