You could refer to several instances where a game’s marketing is no more than a misdirect, a red herring to distract from a troubled development. BioShock Infinite is one I so often think of, even Bright Memory Infinite fell short of its ambitions to be a veritable multitool of a game. Every vertical slice we’ve seen of Atomic Heart seems to be a promise of everything that a small team shouldn’t be capable of and so, of course, heading into our preview session, I felt an unnerving sense that I was about to be duped.
Astonishingly, Atomic Heart mostly fulfils the promise of its marketing while delivering an even more diverse game than I’d originally thought. Each bombastic ad so far has sold the game as a pacey arena-shooter not unlike the more recent Doom outings, however it isn’t the case. Although our fragmented session was simply a tasting of the whole offering, Atomic Heart’s first hour and a half is a carefully curated and guided tour of the world, its major players, and the shady ethics that ultimately causes an A.I labour force to uproot and overthrow its creators, days out from its “2.0” rollout.
Watch us discuss our hands-on alongside new gameplay footage.
The world’s decor—which is deeply entrenched in that post-war, decadent capitalistic aesthetic—is just one way that Atomic Heart seeks to emulate BioShock’s stunning world-building. Though it isn’t exactly housed within a bathysphere, beating hopefully against the deep sea current, Atomic Heart’s introductory crawl is reminiscent of when we first laid eyes on Rapture or Columbia. The game quickly locks its pieces in place: there’s a brilliant, bold scientist responsible for developing an incredible power source that fuels both technological progress and the unmatched robotic labour force that saw the Soviets take home the chocolates in this alternate history’s World War II.
Our tour takes us to a stunning view where towering statues of the world’s visionaries are built into the mountainside. Just as it’s explained that these monuments to man were only made possible due to the toil of a machine army, things take a turn for the worse as the robots revolt and we’re driven underground for refuge.
From here, we’re slowly introduced to the game’s mechanics as we trawl corridors, dispatching resilient droid after resilient droid. While some might feel the first hour is rather plodding, I think it serves to establish a few things. These droids do mean business, and resourcefulness is an attribute that’ll be forced on you given how frugal the game is in dealing out the more useful loot—it’s fortunate that Atomic Heart has the coolest looting mechanic I’ve ever seen, as your glove hoovers everything up in sight with a single prompt.
It’s actually surprisingly similar to something like Dying Light in its opening hour, with a focus on spry movement and melee combat. Of course, you’d find the odd gun however ammunition was rather sparse meaning you’d often rely on bashing heads in—which is a frightful endeavour given the game’s atmospheric corridor-trawling which can see moustachioed droids lunge at you from all angles.
After I spent an hour and a half moving through a narrow, labyrinthian facility, I was dropped into a much more vast, open space, presumably many hours into Atomic Heart’s apparent twenty-five hour campaign. Like the underrated Generation Zero before it, the space had some resemblance to the dilapidated worlds gifted to us by Simon Stålenberg. It was at this point that I realised the game bears a structural resemblance to Halo Infinite, with a big hub space serving as an entry point to dungeon-like quests.
It’s here that the world’s security systems can alert the steel horde, so to speak, as the alarm level climbs slowly much like a Grand Theft Auto wanted level. Once it’s maxed, you’ll definitely be set upon. Fortunately, I was heavily armed so I got to bare my teeth a bit against these robots. The guns work beautifully in tandem with the player’s powers—delivered via their polymer-powered A.I glove Charles—and it’s a genuine blast skying a mob of bots, stinging them with an electrified Shok, all before riddling them with rounds from a Kalash.
This open area led me to my first boss encounter in Atomic Heart, the legged, ground pounding orb that’s been rather prevalent in all of the pre-release footage so far. It’s a frantic fight full of patterns to learn and cool platforming elements, and it’s backed by Mick Gordon crushing riffs as though he’s got something to prove. If the game can continue to strike a balance between these linear missions, the wide spaces, and these boss arenas—like Halo Infinite did, which was structural dynamite—then I think Atomic Heart is going to go a long way toward impressing a lot of people.
Any aforementioned concerns over downgrades or shortcuts taken during development certainly aren’t evident from the portions of Atomic Heart we got to play.
The game is beyond gorgeous. It’s clear from the opening salvo that the art team at Mundfish had an absolute field day crafting not only each crevice of this world, but even the automatons that upend its utopian ideals. It’s a keen imagination that gets tapped to put moustaches on androids and have gravity-defiant water anomalies veining from the earth.
If what we played on PC is comparable to the current generation of home consoles, Atomic Heart will be as good a looking game as we’ve seen this console cycle, although there are a few kinks I’m hoping the team iron out between now and launch—texture bugs, pop in issues and a couple of instances of sequence breaking which left objectives impossible to complete. The only minor gripe I’ve got toward the game in terms of presentation is its script and somewhat lesser grade acting—which while not terrible does mar an otherwise tremendously designed game as far as audio goes.
I’ll be damned if the lead actor doesn’t sound like Tim Allen doing a grim dark Buzz Lightyear. Tell me I’m wrong.
I came into the preview session believing Atomic Heart would be a short and sharp technical showcase, almost a fleeting demonstration of the developer’s ability to ship a lavish, expensive looking title if someone bet on them to do something bigger. Mundfish bet on themselves long ago and Atomic Heart, as it exists, is testament to that. There’s so much more to Atomic Heart than meets the eye and I am all too excited to comb this high-tech wasteland when the game launches next month.
Although it’s very much its own beast, Atomic Heart really is the BioShock game—or spiritual successor to diamond in the rough Singularity, if you don’t mind—that I’ve been waiting for.
Atomic Heart is coming to PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC on February 21st, 2023.