I’m going to flip the script a little and lead with my Xbox Game Pass line instead of ending with it; if you’re an Xbox Game Pass member, Cyprus-based developer Mundfish’s first-ever game, Atomic Heart will be launching into Microsoft’s game subscription service on Day One and is an absolute, no-brainer download. If you’re a service member and reading this, you should be pre-downloading it and/or playing it right now.
With that out of the way, if you don’t subscribe to Xbox Game Pass and are trying to determine whether you should spend $69.99 USD to own the game outright on Xbox or another platform, or you’re just looking for something to read while you wait for it to download, Xbox Game Pass member or not, keep reading.
In Atomic Heart, players assume the role of Major Sergey Nechaev (codenamed P-3), a highly skilled agent (read: assassin) who served during Atomic Heart’s alternate version of World War II, which ultimately saw Russia not only topple the Nazis but also emerge from the conflict as the most technologically advanced of the Allied nations, ushering in a revolutionary era of scientific progress not only for Russia but for the entire world. During the war, P-3 suffered an injury that caused him to lose all of his pre-war memories. His life was saved on the operating table by Dmitri Sechenov, former neurosurgeon and now leader and benefactor of the USSR.
P-3 is a loyal friend and protector of Sechenov and does not hesitate when the scientist calls upon him to discreetly neutralize (but not kill) a target that poses a threat to “Mankind and its destiny.” Assisting P-3 in this important task is CHAR-Les (aka Charles), an advanced, sentient AI invented by Sechenov and integrated into the glove on P3’s left hand, which imbues P3 with various psionic and telekinetic abilities.
Speaking of cutting-edge, P3’s arrival at Sechenov’s top-secret facility in Chelomey coincidentally comes on the same day that Sechenov is publicly unveiling Kollective 2.0, a neural network that will, among other things, further integrate and enhance humanity’s connection to its robotic workforce. Virtually every inhabitant of the city of Chelomey has been ordered to undergo both ‘polymerization’ and installation of the ‘THOUGHT’ device in preparation for the launch, and robots parade through the streets as the citizens celebrate and watch. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as is usually the case in videogames, P-3’s vehicle is inexplicably attacked on the way to the mission by the flying robots it is transporting, and he narrowly escapes death only to find himself in the midst of a killer robot uprising on the ground. With Sechenov implicating P-3’s target, programmer Viktor Petrov, in the current crisis, P-3 and Charles must locate and apprehend Petrov in order to obtain the access codes needed to stop them.
It only takes a few glances at Atomic Heart’s gameplay to see its strong Bioshock influences, and these first impressions are certainly borne out by how the game feels once you’ve played it for a few hours. Yes, the game is effectively a first-person shooter, and there are definitely a number of weapons that players will eventually have access to, but even when the game is played in ‘Peaceful Atom’ (i.e. Easy) mode, ammunition for traditional weapons such as pistols, shotguns and automatic rifles is hard to come by, making P-3’s polymer glove abilities, melee weapons, energy weapons and dodging the ‘go-to tools’ for surviving combat.
Striking enemies with melee attacks will accumulate energy that can then be released with energy weapons, and dodging enemy power attacks with precision will help players avoid taking heavy damage and destroy enemies more quickly when exposed. The most important weapon, of course, is the Polymer Glove, through which players can use abilities such as Shok to electrify enemies or temporarily disable equipment.
Frostbite to flash freeze enemies and then shatter them with melee or projectile weapons, Telekinesis to lift multiple enemies into the air and then bring them down for massive damage, Polymer Shield to become impervious to damage and explode the shield temporarily outwards to damage enemies upon release, and much more.
In total, Atomic Heart has five active Glove Skill-related branches, each with its own skill tree, and of these five Glove Skills, players can have up to two actively enabled, in addition to the Shok ability, for a total of 94 skills to master. Glove skills can be re-specified, and resources invested in these ‘returned’ skills are not lost but are returned to the pool, essentially encouraging players to experiment with their powers without risk.
The Polymer Glove also uses telekinesis in more subtle but no less impressive ways to perform normally repetitive tasks, such as opening open multiple cabinets at once and pulling all their contents towards P-3 (a great way to cut down on time spent rummaging in offices while feeling like a Jedi Master, and also a quick way to salvage resources from fallen enemies).
“Weapons add to the complexity of Atomic Heart.“
As players progress, they’ll soon find themselves using TK to move and manipulate objects to solve environmental puzzles that approach those of Half-Life 2 and its gravity gun in both scale and complexity, but at the other end of the spectrum, they’ll be using the glove’s very cool interface tendrils to hack equipment and pick locks of various types through simpler, brain-teasing minigames.
Weapons add to the complexity of Atomic Heart. Having crash-landed at the start of the game, P-3 starts with nothing but his glove and a found axe, and from that point on, every weapon the player acquires is either one that P-3 finds or one that is built from blueprints and resources salvaged from combat or exploration. Various upgrades to each weapon’s attributes, such as damage, range, ammunition capacity, cartridge type (read: elemental type), etc., require even more resources, and some salvage can be harder to find than others.
In fact, certain weapon blueprints and resources can only be found in Polygons (also known as Hidden Test Rooms), and fully upgrading a weapon to level 4 will require players to find and solve at least some of the puzzles in these rooms. However, similar to how Glove Skills work, applied upgrades can be removed and the resources used to make them can be reapplied to new ones, so players don’t necessarily need to unlock or max out every weapon unless they are completionists.
“Where Atomic Heart excels, however, is in the way it builds its chilling atmosphere through a fully realized alternate history of the USSR…”
In general, I found the combat in Atomic Heart to be fast and engaging due to the fact that even the lowest of the humanoid robots that players will face in the game, the mustachioed VOV-A6 lab tech robots, can automatically knock P-3 off his feet when their power attack connects, and it only takes a few of them in quick succession to kill him, so players need to stay on their toes. Enemies won’t necessarily kick you when you’re down, but they won’t wait for you to get up either and will often mix up their attacks.
Where Atomic Heart excels, however, is in the way it builds its chilling atmosphere through a fully realized alternate history of the USSR, lovingly crafted with an incredible level of detail and deep lore, combined with the ever-present threat of deadly, emotionless robots potentially lurking around every corner. In particular, the hyper-fluid animations and wildly bizarre designs of Atomic Heart’s wide cast of murderous machines nail the uncanny valley effect that Mundfish is seemingly aiming for and are particularly effective in ratcheting up the tension of each new encounter.
Despite this, Atomic Heart manages to keep the overall experience light-hearted through the relationship that develops between P-3 and Charles, which can best be described as Bioshock Infinite meets The Odd Couple (at least as far as the English dub is concerned). The soldier and his “brand new” AI companion, assigned to Sechenov, bicker from the start and seem to have little reason to like each other. P-3 is surly, antisocial and harbours an unjustified distrust of robots and AIs in general.
Charles, on the other hand, is an overly talkative personal assistant who vacillates between trying to impress P-3 with his advanced software skills and questioning his master’s judgement. At first, their dialogue seems one-note and bound to be annoying, but as the story progresses and P-3’s dependence on both Charles and the polymer glove grows, the façade is largely dropped in exchange for banter that provides players with information that enriches the experience and/or entertains, with P-3 and Charles serving as comic foils for each other.
While Atomic Heart is a visually stunning game, there are times when cracks in the veneer take the player out of the experience, at least as far as the Xbox Series version I played is concerned. The game aims for a framerate of around 60fps and generally achieves this level of performance in both combat and quieter, more exploratory sections, but at other times objects in the medium and far distance often update at much lower, sub-30fps numbers, resulting in less critical NPCs and other moving objects such as robot forklifts or mechanical engines animating so choppily that it is impossible for any player to ignore.
Meanwhile, cutscenes with lots of action and/or alpha effects are ubiquitous and can often push the game framerate into the low 30s. At the time of writing, there are no in-game graphics performance options available to players, so there’s no way to make this less of a distraction.
Atomic Heart also cuts corners to almost comedic effect by consistently using the same human NPC character model for just about every dead corpse that P-3 and CHAR-LES come across during their exploration. As you rummage through offices, labs, test areas and the like, you’ll quickly get used to seeing the same red-haired, military-cap-wearing private twisted into various gruesome death poses countless times.
In fact, the first time I came across a dead scientist in a lab coat, I was thrilled, if only for the change of clothes, but shortly afterwards, I was deflated to discover that just about every other corpse in the lab was of the same model. I suppose such recycling is a small price to pay if it contributes to better overall visual performance, but just like the sub-30fps animations mentioned earlier, this clumsy bit of programming is rather immersion-breaking.
In any event, something tells me we are going to be seeing and hearing a lot from Mundfish in the future based on the quality of this stellar first effort. Players can look forward to a meaty narrative, challenging combat, brain-teasing puzzles and thought-provoking questions that few games these days are capable of delivering, making it easy to forgive Atomic Heart’s few visual and performance flaws.