Surgically Reviewing Atomic Heart
Early last month, I became aware of a new video game: Atomic Heart. Set to be released by developer Mundfish, a Moscow born studio that had never released a game before. Not much was known about the title by myself or others interested at the time. Video of gameplay and details about its release were scarce, and as a result the only two places one could pull expectations about the title were twofold: Atomic Heart was being made with the popular and powerful Unreal Engine 4, and the preorder page boasted a Triple A studio price point ranging from $59.99 to $99.99.
When little else about a soon to be released game is known, the price tag often takes over as the primary point of interest for expectations. A studio who had never released a game before charging up to one hundred dollars was bold. So now that Atomic Heart is out, how does it fare?
Graphics and Art Direction
It was no surprise, really, that this game would turn out to be very visually appealing. Unreal Engine is known to be capable of creating stunning lighting and material effects, and Mundfish utilized Unreal Engine 4’s capabilities well. It is not the most beautiful game ever released, but it is visually impressive. There are times here and there where the graphical limitations show themselves, but overall the visual experience is just as good as advertised.
The art direction, unfortunately, is another story. While there are some really beautiful ideas within the world, the design for many elements of the game either feel lazy or ripped straight from other established IPs. The first connection one may make is that there are many elements that feel lifted from the Fallout series.
The game very clearly draws inspiration from Fallout’s mastery of 50’s retro futurist design, but it feels more like a cheap impression than an inspired remix. Some of the game’s menus feature an eerily familiar cartoonish style that some may mistake as parody of Fallout’s PipBoy cartoons.
Additionally, the robots in the game wouldn’t feel even slightly out of place if they were encountered in a Fallout game.
Even further, the underground robotics facility the player spends much of their time in looks like a sad combination of Prey’s Talos Space Station and Portal 2’s Aperture Research Facility. Under normal circumstances comparing this game to Prey or Portal 2 would be a compliment, but within the context of a playthrough these visual similarities left me wishing I was playing those games instead.
Voice and Sound Design
In contrast to my disappointments with the visuals in the game, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the voice work. There are a few problematic or down right annoying examples I discuss in the story section, but for the most part the performances from the voice cast was stellar. Voices were clear, mixed well, and sounded interesting to listen to. The characters sounded mostly convincing, real, and at times managed to be a little funny. The issues I did have with the voices came from the setting of the game itself.
This game takes place within an alternate version of Russia. However with a few exceptions the entire voice cast has an American or English accent. This is something I immediately felt at odds with from the very start. Throughout Soviet parades, conversations, and speaking to Russian made robots, it’s all the same. This feels directly opposed to the world these voices reside in, even more so when the voice actors attempt to use Russian pronunciations for certain proper nouns. On top of that, protagonist Major Sergey Nechayev follows suit, speaking in an American accent. This isn’t unheard of in the video game industry, but given the very stark setting of a sci-fi Soviet Russia, hearing my Russian Military protagonist use an American accent and American phrases/metaphors continually took me out of the game.
Moving on to music and sound I feel yet again both satisfied and disappointed. The soundtrack occasionally has the ability to bring tension and life into the world during gameplay, but more often than not feels like an afterthought. In some cases the music feels out of place or out of sync, playing intense music when not much is happening on screen. On the other hand, the ambiance of the world and the sound of distant enemies or hazards does have some quality to it. While I could not find a moment of sound design I felt was particularly innovative or creative, the sound of the game itself never really felt bad.
Story and Gameplay
I chose to save the story and gameplay for last because I felt it was the most disappointing. I went into this game hoping I would find some sort of experience that could justify the sixty dollar entry fee, but I couldn’t. The story is a lazily crafted, overly complicated mess that does offer some interesting ideas such as Russia’s initiative to colonize the solar system, but such ideas often become overshadowed by the real story.
Without giving any spoilers, any assumptions one could make about the ‘twists’ of a story about Soviet Russia’s rise to technological superiority are likely to be right on the money. The story was complicated, drawn out, and when I experienced the so-called culmination of the antagonist’s plans I felt unimaginably bored. Another major issue I had with my interest level was the protagonist. Major Nechayev does not stop talking for what feels like the entire game, and his dialogue is something that will haunt me for the rest of my days. He is the average macho man protagonist, and the only one who is more confused about the story than you. Throughout my entire experience there was no point in which I felt I could relate to him. I don’t imagine many others would have a different experience either.
The gameplay, unfortunately, I have even less to say about. It was fine. It was certainly not the worst I’ve ever experienced, but it was definitely held back by an unimaginative leveling system, a bare bones combat system, and a couple of omitted settings on PC. The protagonist is sluggish, his vision is incredibly narrow, and ammo is scarce. The ammo scarcity is a shame when the melee combat is unreliable. You either miss or get hit before you can swing.
Additionally, certain melee moves lock your camera to a certain angle, making it extremely easy for enemies to leave your vision and attack you from behind. This issue is coupled with the fact that you cannot change your field of vision nor turn off the default mouse acceleration which unfortunately means those who experience motion sickness will likely not be able to play this game at all. The gameplay is mediocre and boring with guns, and almost unplayable without them.
Finally, I have some deeper concerns about the game that have already been covered by a multitude of publications, but I felt were important to address. There are a number of elements in the game that make use of sexual content in such a way that is genuinely offensive. From the last minute addition of two overtly sexualized robots, their sexualized fight scenes, and a certain character that is the epitome of objectification, I found myself genuinely grossed out when these characters showed themselves in the game. It’s not visually graphic, and it’s not all the time, but it’s there, and it’s unapologetically geared towards male audiences. And that’s not to mention the borderline pornographic fan art that has been retweeted by Mundfish’s official account.
Secondly, the design of the world, its story, and its characters shows the developer’s true colors without any real hesitation. This game is unmistakably not just pro-Russian, but pro-Soviet. This is reinforced by a multitude of things, the two most egregious examples are as follows. Mundfish’s investors have direct involvement or connections to Russian Mass-Media companies known to be pushing Russian military Propaganda. Additionally, in a response to community requests to comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine given the nature of the game’s premise, the developer’s official twitter responded with a refusal to take a definitive stance, as well as a claim that they don’t want to be political. That notion is downright silly if you know literally anything about the game’s setting or plot.
This game is a mediocre, sexist, derivative cash grab at best, and an indirect harm to those in Ukraine at worst. I cannot and would not in good conscience recommend this game.