Atomic Heart review: Beautiful world crumbles beneath the surface

Nathan Warby
Sisters in Atomic Heart

Atomic Heart, the hotly-anticipated debut from developer Mundfish, is an ambitious and occasionally incredible FPS, but poor writing and baffling gameplay choices make exploring its beautifully twisted sci-fi world a grueling experience.

As a fan of the Bioshock series who has been patiently waiting for more, it was hard not to get excited by Atomic Heart. Its striking presentation and flashy abilities seem to tick all the right boxes, and it kept me intrigued throughout its lengthy development.

It’s a shame, then, that although Atomic Heart shows flashes of brilliance that put it toe-to-toe with the games that clearly inspired it, a lackluster story and frequently infuriating gameplay make it a frustrating journey.

Atomic Heart: Key details

  • Developer: Mundfish
  • Price: $69.99 USD / £59.99 GBP
  • Release Date: February 21, 2023
  • Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC

Bioshock to the system

Despite its many faults, Atomic Heart absolutely nails its aesthetic. The retro-futuristic setting in an alternate history Soviet Russia constantly throws up eye-catching landmarks and gorgeous sights to stare at.

The albeit brief opening in the floating Chelomey City and the descent into Facility 3826 instantly captures the magic of when you first visited Rapture all those years ago, and I can pay it no higher compliment than that.

There isn’t too much time to stop and stare, however, as you’ll quickly be terrorized by one of the killer machines that have taken over the facility after suddenly becoming hostile toward humans.

But even with your life on the line, it’s hard not to be impressed by the enemy design of each individual robot. From mustachioed lab techs dressed in all white to the deadly worker bots armed with spinning saws, each mechanical foe is perfectly crafted and weirdly believable as part of the wider world.

Atomic Heart’s sci-fi world is a joy to behold.

An axe to a gunfight

After an engrossing prologue, any fuzzy sense of nostalgia is quickly stomped away when you’re thrown into combat. Atomic Heart is an extremely difficult game that rewards slow, methodical gameplay and punishes those who try to rush through encounters.

Every enemy, no matter how big or small, hunts you down like a Russian Terminator and can whittle away your health bar in a matter of seconds.

This difficulty wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but Atomic Heart’s combat is nowhere near refined enough to cope with the ruthlessly precise enemies and often throws you into situations that feel unfair rather than challenging.

Ammo is scarce, meaning you’ll often be relying on your melee weapons to deal with murder bots up close. But the sheer number of enemies to deal with, especially in the open-world sections, regularly overwhelm and back you into corners that are almost impossible to swing or dodge your way out of.

Powerful weapon upgrades and Polymer Glove abilities, not too dissimilar from Bioshock’s Plasmids, do go some way to leveling the playing field as the game progresses, allowing you to freeze sprinting robots in place or fling them into the air to create some dazzling combos.

Despite this, it wasn’t until experimenting with the easy difficulty for a few missions that I was truly able to appreciate Atomic Heart’s gameplay. Turning things down a notch finally allowed me to enjoy the power trip that comes with shooting electricity from my fingertips, rather than dreading the thought of which metal bullet sponge is the around the next corner.

player using powers in atomic heartYou have a range of abilities to choose from in Atomic Heart

Dull story isn’t worth the grind

The brutal gameplay would be worth it if there was an intriguing story tying it all together. Sadly, Atomic Heart falls flat here with a generic sci-fi tale full of cringy writing and unlikeable characters.

You play as Major Sergey Nechayev, known as Agent P-3, the foul-mouthed operative tasked with cleaning up the mess in Facility 3826, who also happens to be suffering from memory loss.

Despite the horrors P-3 is going through, the Major is an immediately detestable character who feels like a relic of video game protagonists we’ve largely moved on from, like Woldenstein’s B.J. Blazkowicz without any of the charisma or nuance to make him interesting.

The story is also arbitrarily padded out by repetitive sequences that force players to collect parts of a lock or certain materials to open a door. This is made worse by the fact that P-3 will constantly complain about how ridiculous and unnecessary these tasks are, as if making the character aware of how frustrating it is somehow excuses the poor pacing.

That being said, some of the side activities like Testing Grounds, which contain rare Blueprints, offer up some nice distractions in the form of creative puzzle rooms and combat challenges, many of which are the highlights of the entire game.

Atomic Heart verdict – 6/10

Atomic Heart makes a strong first impression thanks to its gorgeous setting and frequently impressive enemy design, making its unique sci-fi world instantly engrossing. Unfortunately, it wastes its satisfying combat on arbitrarily difficult encounters strung together by a generic story that lacks any memorable characters.

All in all, this adds up to Atomic Heart being an inconsistent experience that’s hard to recommend seeing through to the end, but well worth dropping into if you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber.

There’s certainly some potential here, and it’s a universe I’d happily return to in a sequel, but there’s serious work to be done to make Atomic Heart into the game it’s striving to be.

Reviewed on Xbox Series S

Image credit: Mundfish