Atomic Heart doesn’t hide its BioShock Infinite inspirations. The game begins in a city in the clouds, features reality-bending and elemental powers you can employ in your fight against advanced robots, sees you scrounging for resources in an idyllic city that’s falling apart, and stars an amnesiac protagonist grappling with the nuances of free will. By the time you reach the climax of the story and you’re asked to visit a lighthouse, you know what’s up. Where Atomic Heart most differs from its inspiration is in the lens through which it focuses its narrative, exploring concepts of free will via Soviet Russian collectivism instead of the U.S.’ individualism. However, its intriguing premise is let down by a deeply unlikable protagonist and a predictable storyline that doesn’t do anything interesting with its cool ideas.
In the alternate history of Atomic Heart, a scientist named Dmitry Sechenov kickstarts a robotics boom in Russia in the 1930s. By the 1950s, the working class has been abolished in the Soviet Union and completely replaced by robots controlled through a hive-mind network called Kollectiv 1.0. The game begins a few years after that, just prior to the public unveiling of Kollectiv 2.0, which will allow all humans to have equal access to the hive-mind to control robots remotely through a Thought device wired straight to their brain, as well as connect and share information with each other across great distances. Basically, it’s the Internet plugged into your brain and available 24/7.
With the benefit of 21st-century hindsight, we know the Internet will not end up being a 100% good idea even if the main character Major Sergei Nechaev, an agent who serves Sechenov, fully believes in the dream of a world where everyone equally has access to each other and the wealth of information that will surely be shared. Assigned to investigate a disturbance in Facility 3826, the Soviet Union’s foremost scientific research hub, Sergei is joined by Charles, a sentient glove that gifts the agent with a host of polymer-fed technopowers like telekinesis and cryokinesis, and provides a sounding board for Sergei’s oftentimes annoying and borderline abusive collection of quips and unfunny comebacks.
Within the now blood-soaked hallways and flickering lights of the partially destroyed underground facility, Sergei discovers experiments into mutation gone awry and finds that the once-peaceful robot assistants have turned blood-thirsty. The true horror doesn’t come until later, however, when Charles talks to Sergei about the ways in which Kollectiv 2.0 (which is already installed into Sergei) may not be entirely beneficial. Hasn’t Sergei noticed that all those audio logs he’s found and computers he’s logged into only give him information that’s relevant to furthering the mission he’s been assigned? Wow, it’s almost as if an algorithm is feeding him with information about what it thinks he should see and hear more of, disguising it in a way where he can’t spot the manipulation. It’s not as overt a form of control as a spoken command but Charles hints that humans can be directed just as easily as robots once they’ve all logged into the same hive-mind of information, especially if there is a way to control that information.
It’s an intriguing concept, one furthered by the notion that Atomic Heart is a video game and so we, the player, have been directing Sergei’s actions the entire time. So it’s not just Sergei who’s being manipulated to view the game’s world in a certain way based on a fictional Internet algorithm, it’s us too. But as interesting as it is, exploring free will through the scope of a video game’s story has been done before, and Atomic Heart doesn’t do anything notably novel with the concept. In fact, its protagonist actively gets in the way of this concept being explored, raging at Charles that he doesn’t have time to wax poetic about hypotheticals. He can’t be bothered to offer any sort of introspection because there are robots that need to be stopped and a bad guy to blame that needs killing. Over and over, Charles brings up the morality of their mission and the larger implications of what’s going on, and repeatedly Sergei just doesn’t care, citing that he’ll leave the thinking to Sechenov. The first and second times it happens, you’re hopeful that this flaw is setting up some form of character development for Sergei. When you’re 10 hours in and Sergei is still spinning in the same pattern and showing no signs of growing as a person, you can’t help but wonder how anyone could be this stubbornly bone-headed and annoyingly naive.
Sergei is also deeply unlikable as a person. He’s antagonistic to everyone around him, including the regularly helpful Charles, and it’s never explained why, leading to the slow realization of the painful truth that you’re just playing as a shitty human being. You don’t feel good playing as Sergei whenever he opens his mouth to talk to anyone–I empathize more with the people who have to tolerate his barrage of unfunny insults than I do him.
It’s familiar but still fun.
Despite being a jerk, he does know how to fight. Wielding polymer abilities with his left hand and an assortment of firearms and weapons with his right, Sergei is a hard-hitting fighter. While the robots and mutants he goes up against are far faster than he is, you can easily escape the swarms by using Sergei’s dash to reposition, curating a frenetic hit-and-run combat experience. Though relatively simple at first, combat evolves into a more engaging experience as more enemy types are introduced, each with its own attack patterns and weaknesses.
Atomic Heart has a healthy diversity of enemy types. However, there’s nothing you’ll face you probably haven’t fought a variation of before in other games–ranging from dog-like enemies that try to circle you before pouncing in your direction to turret-like adversaries that shoot at you from afar to bulky foes who heavily telegraph their attacks but can take a hit. The same goes for the weapons and powers you use to fight them. The pump-action shotgun hits like you’d expect a shotgun should, for instance, and the cold polymer power freezes enemies in their tracks just as you’d assume. There’s nothing revolutionary to how combat plays out, but it all works as it should. It’s familiar but still fun.
Looting is surprisingly the most enjoyable aspect of Atomic Heart, as, with just the click of a button, Charles can use telekinesis to pull loot into Sergei’s pocket. In practice, this causes drawers to fly open, cabinet doors to almost swing off their hinges, and the bodies of enemies to erupt as the magnetic pull of Charles rips the resources of a room towards Sergei. It never got old to enter an unexplored room or clear out a group of enemies and then sit back to watch as everything around me exploded into a whirlwind of paper and scraps of metal, sucked into my coffers like a greedy tornado. Of course, you can then use these resources to craft new firearms, ammo, weapon attachments, and items, but the sheer delight of the act is almost enough of a reward in itself.
After completing the first mission, Sergei takes a monorail to the main area of the game, where Atomic Heart expands into an open-world format. At this point, the game’s narrative slows to an annoying crawl as Sergei journeys to one of several facilities to complete a mission, return to the surface of the open world, travel to the next facility, and repeat the process. Even if you don’t take the time to freely explore the map, complete optional challenges, and look for materials to unlock special attachments for your firearms, the journey between waypoints still bogs down the story. Nothing of narrative importance happens outside of the contained, linear levels of the different facilities, and combat benefits from the carefully structured layout of those contained levels. Even enemy placement and type are curated to fit specific areas of the linear levels, and that careful curation is lost within the breadth of the open world. I would often just hop in a car and drive straight to the next story beat, as that’s where the better gameplay is. It makes the open world feel superfluous, adding content at the expense of enjoyability.
Fortunately, some of the main levels have a distinct flavor and engaging themes to them, helping them to stand out against the largely forgettable open world. My favorite of these levels takes place in a theater known for being the first to feature a cast composed entirely of robots. The level sees Sergei chasing after a man who used to work there, who has twisted the theater into a macabre showcase of art–much like in BioShock. There’s this breadcrumb trail of diary entries you can uncover that reveals an engineer coming to terms with the strange parasocial relationship he’s developing with one of the robot dancers, a clever puzzle that incorporates ballet poses and blood splatters, and an incredible moment where you’re fighting off waves of enemies during a ballet that gets a hip-hop remix
It’s a great level, and I’m sad we didn’t get more like it or at least have more examples of using music to transform a familiar combat scenario into something more memorable. Atomic Heart has a great soundtrack filled with thumping, high-energy music from Doom composer Mick Gordon that will get your head bobbing during even the most butt-clenching of battles. But these powerful rhythms are usually reserved for boss encounters, meaning a lot of the game’s best music is fleeting and only pops up for one encounter before never being heard from again. That moment in the theater is cool, but it’s the only time something like that happens in the game. Atomic Heart doesn’t build on it to make more moments like it–in fact, there are quite a few instances where the powerful soundtrack feels wasted because the superb composition that’s playing doesn’t match the vibe of what you’re currently doing. Why play hard rock during a stressful fight in the dimly lit space of a morgue? It just doesn’t fit.
There are quite a few parts of Atomic Heart that just don’t neatly fit together, and those disparities create an experience that often feels at odds with itself. That disparity is most evident in how the history of the world in Atomic Heart is interesting and sets up an intriguing conversation about the nature of free will and collectivism, but then the unlikable protagonist repeatedly prevents that topic from being explored. Atomic Heart is certainly going to appeal to some people, especially those looking to relive BioShock Infinite, but it’s not an easy recommendation.