Is there a greater good worth fighting for? In the last three years I’ve begun to more seriously entertain the argument that the device-connected portion of the human race has mentally devolved at such a rapid, blinding rate that there is no communal goal or value worth protecting in the grotesquely distracted minds of any population. Human beings are simply too easy to manipulate, too selfish under duress, and this is especially true when attention spans cannot keep up with the slothful reality of bureaucracy. It just doesn’t compare to the convenient glare of corporate technology, that which feeds collective disarray (social engineering) by way of machine learning. Bickering commentary and divisive politico is the major pastime of identity void, capitalism-raised mutants today… money hungered, culture malnourished freaks whom none would ever trust as additions to the concept of “the will of the people” for their sheer lack of connection with reality. This notion of collective purpose is an ugly old propagandic lie which both Russian and United States governments outright feign, knowing just how in the palm of their hand we all are within equally corrupt corporation-run federal republics. The coin is not so different, only the economy resultant, eh? Slip on the jumpsuit of a brainwashed super solider, apply a bit of pressure to the greater machine and see how it turns out here:

This would seem like the perfect point of view, or, the right cynical mindset to apply to the tortured narrative and thought-barren experience I’d had trampling through Facility 3826 for roughly seventeen hours as I shot and puzzled my way through Mundfish Games‘ first video game, Atomic Heart, a quasi-AAA immersive sim influenced first-person shooter. Though I’d admittedly soaked up its take on a classic, beloved form eagerly to start I couldn’t help but feel like the experience was not only incomplete in its greater arc but frustratingly self-shackled in crafting a story which carried zero tact, nary an impactful message or even any real challenge to the well-engaged mind of the player. Apart from a few brief tosses at a discussion on free will and government their eyes are so set on their ambitions, the stars in their eyes, that this impressive first project ramps up ’til it breaks the surface tension and… bops up a very pretty floater. A really pretty floater.

You basically just, cross the bridge. That’s it?

You’re stupid comrade! No, in fact you’re deadass brain-damaged! You’re basically a fuckin’ cyborg-limbed super soldier dickhead, man, and you have no idea who you are plus hey get this: Your personality is -awful-, bro. You are agent P-3, full name Command Sergeant Major Sergey Nechayev and your tagline, your mantra whenever shit hits the fan, is “Crispy critters“. The most brilliant thing that the script/screenwriters for this game have done is put you fully in control of a complete dumbass brainwashed yet still kinda maverick soldier who never once thought to challenge the orders they were given due to fealty to the man who’d saved their life a few years prior. Amnesiac, unquestioning, but always ready to complain your ass off at the drop of a hat I’m almost sure we were supposed to see a steady sea-change in the mind of P-3 but for the sake of a short and action packed experience you are a persistently stumbling idiot who purposefully never feels like he’ll every have any personal agency in this world beyond destruction. All you are good for is smashing up robots, killing targets, and puzzling your way out of shit. Don’t over think it, dummy.

Bro is like, dumb dawg. Srsly.

Your “master” and savior is Dr. Dmitry Sechenov, a genius of technology and science who’d revolutionized the Soviet Union’s robotics development when he’d discovered a “Polymer” substance which allows a psychic chain of command between humans and robotic technology. He is the sort of mad scientist millionaire leader with an unclear ethical stance we’d only truly explored in fiction beyond the inception of the Cold War. Despite stoking the rampant and often justified-in-hindsight Russophobia which still persists across the United States and Europe today during unjust wartime the choice to set this type of video game in an alternate history U.S.S.R. is not only inspired but allows for a truly creative application of the reality that the history of the Cold War is also indisputably interconnected as the catalyst for the history of modern science as it pertains to federal control (and funding) of research within the United States university system. Science as an institution exists today for the sake of corporate interests in many ways but the formal practice had not truly unified under federal interests/funding ’til the race for space and the bomb were underway. Anyhow, this setting allows for the subordinate super soldier P-3 and his keeper Sechenov as idealists who both believe in the “greater good” with all of their actions justified and reinforced by a proud and patriotic communist stance. The man rebuilt Russia with robots, brain glop and science so of course this both convinces us of P-3‘s fealty to state and commander but also makes this over the top architectural setting and its bunker-based military facilities arrive believably for the sake of the story. The setting is beautiful, artfully designed, and all of the core elements add to the immersion into this slice of surreal, everything-gone-awry action.

Before we crash land on Facility 3826 and get to work quelling a seeming robot rebellion which has left basically every single human inhabitant excepting three “dead” (we’ll get to that) we can at this point note the first two very big influences I’d posit on this game’s long list inspiration, the first is perhaps obvious in the sense that the alternative history “for the worse” depending on your point of view is immediately evocative of one of my personal favorite games Wolfenstein: The New Order (2011). The second evocation comes within the slow-moving, somehow chatty introduction to P-3 and his talking left hand-strapped glove CHAR-les as they approach the Chelomey complex where Sechenov works, a set of interactive scenes clearly inspired by the opening moments of BioShock Infinite (2013) in terms of pacing and presentation as the world is revealed in an artful way before the player comes crashing down. In many ways we must conceded that this type of ‘immersive sim’ game will never recover from the influence brought on by Half-Life (1998) as we spend the first 4-5 hours of the game solving a long list of puzzles, traversal, and combat challenges throughout a large laboratory, the Vavilov Complex, which introduces myriad mechanics in a reasonable roll-out. There is no lock-on mechanism to allow for strafing and this means aggressive enemies will have you spinning in circles to hit them with your axe to start. You eventually get guns, an electrical spark from your hand (the “Shok” skill), a dash which works in mid-air, a way to scan through all walls, and can use telekinesis to vacuum loot from containers. All of these can be upgraded and from there one could feasibly focus on a build or, on the non-hardcore difficulty, likely come close to crafting all weapons and suit skill upgrades before finishing the game. The introduction to the game, its world building and on-boarding with the interactivity of the world is memorable as it is refined with plenty of curious mechanics to fiddle with, many different types of puzzles to solve, and combat which initially feels somewhat imposing and dangerous enough to kill you outright.

I’ve tasked you with one simple feat, be an ignoramus… Take ownership of your stupidity. — With Char-LES in hand and helping out P-3 maintains a shitty attitude, he never shuts up and says stupid shit constantly as if a newborn babe entering a mysterious world. The glove is initially the never-ending foil for bad jokes, frequent backseating, and snarky complaining about every single task and I just about turned the game off before I left the first lab area. The attitude of “lets get this shit over with” is asinine, just as boring as it was earlier this year in Forspoken but in this case the glove eventually resigns to meaningful additions to the story or only talks during an appropriate prompt. Nonetheless, the chatterbox video game sidekick is a plague and a pox upon already typically bad video game writing and it just isn’t as Twitter nerd hip as video game writers seem to think it is. This creates some real dissonance with the player actions as you’ll find yourself feeling smart as fuck tripping four different kinds of locks, solving basic physics puzzles, platforming like a pro, and quickly finding creative ways to kill each unique form of enemy. This portion of the game gives the early impression that Atomic Heart intends to forge a medium between the linear, action-scene spaced push of The New Order with the powers and movement of the third BioShock game but this doesn’t fully pan out so much as it heavily references other experiences for the sake of cheering the player on as they dive into those introductory hours.

The sound design in this game is excellent. You can hear your rewards coming in these instances.

Powers suggest a Prey (2018) level of traversal and combat options until they ultimately don’t deliver, as the splatters of Polymer in the world definitely allow the player to swim through them and charge the stuff with electricity but there is no Gloo Gun equivalent which allows clever platforming. Instead you can shoot polymer on the floor and strike it with elements, or you can spray enemies with it to slow them down. With movement limited to two dashes, a roll which prevents fall damage, and the option to run a little bit faster the initial emergence into the open world is rough. What is the open world? Well, it is semi-open for sure but not right away, instead you are set within a small village which is gated off by fanned laser grids and completely rife with alarm-readied cameras which not only alert various attack bots up to a critical mass of tank-like monstrosities but also ~infinitely regenerate like clockwork. You will not be able to dominate maps like this for a few more hours, you’ll need more resources and some smart skill choices, and only then will the open world portion of the game be even remotely fun to explore. The spectacle of this open world is its automated defense systems as a persistent set of rules, the immersive sim gone open world being procedural and contained is ultimately a good idea but not a fleshed-out enough one; One thing Atomic Heart does better than any BioShock game is allow you to develop and test out your preferred loadout early in the game and refund any of those choices back at any point for the sake of trying something else. You can fully respec you weapons and skills anytime you want provided you run into a N.O.R.A. bot and this encouraged a fair amount of experimentation on my part. At no point beyond entrance to the open world does the dialogue improve, the storytelling get better, or the enemy design improve but your options to take it all on gradually ramp up to a feeling of power within reason.

Five hours of gameplay, open world and Testing Grounds.

Testing the open world’s ability to throw combat challenges quickly became fun, the exploration of various Polygons or “testing labs” became the best part of the game for my taste as simple puzzles and combat eventually tested my ability to use various skills and get a bit better at the platforming available to the player. Each of these areas yielded some manner of reward be it resources for skill and weapon upgrades or blueprints for weapon add-ons and those blueprints, which allow for weapon customization above all else eventually made a big difference in combat. There is a more sophisticated loop here: Go to a tower and hack into an area’s cameras, unlock the controller for the HAWKs (mobile power generators in the sky) which provide power to medium-sized security areas which provide surveillance above these Polygons. To get into the “dungeon” and get the loot you have to infiltrate it, puzzle your way in before completing a series of 3-4 puzzle rooms with different qualities of loot. Even better, the dialogue between CHAR-les and P-3 don’t really fire off during these non-story sections much outside of warnings for high security alerts or if health becomes low. Much like God of War: Ragnarök late last year, the most fun I had with this game was when the characters shut up and let me parse through the world myself. The ambiance and the soundtrack of the game shine so much more when the characters aren’t chiming in. There is a case to be made here for turning off subtitles, muting the dialogue and just diving into this game with nothing but your wits and skills of observation.

Atomic Heart has a great soundtrack, fastidious sound design and perfectly curated pieces which quickly characterize the experience just as much as its visual design. In fact there is a memorable, rewarding sound or song played during every bit of interaction to the point of terrifying cacophony while exploring the open world. Testing grounds in particular often give you an electro piece to push you through puzzles, a reward song when reaching a loot area, Testing Ground specific fanfare as you enter, ominous music for combat (combat has its own elaborate playlist depending on alert level). The only way to ease up on the sheer assault of the soundtrack is to turn on “Streamer Mode” and you should -never- do this! When I’d watch some streamers play the game it was dull, lifeless, ambiance outside of one or two slow-growing combat themes and this is decidedly not the way to experience this game. From electro-metal remixes, traditional pieces warped into rap battles, and several well-placed classical music pieces so much of the character of this game comes from the broad-minded curation of its OST. While Mick Gordon did act as a composer and consultant on the soundtrack, due credit to Geoffrey Day who provides the heavier stuff you’ll likely attribute to Gordon‘s style, his remixes are the most memorable parts of the event.

After spending roughly eight hours exploring on my own through Testing Grounds 10, 2, 5 and nearby 8 I had upgraded almost all of my character skills, fully upgraded Shok and the Energy-related passive skills, and fully upgraded the three weapons I was using (Shock pistol, AK-47 equivalent automatic rifle, and Swede axe) alongside a few upgrades found in the training grounds. I began mowing through enemies, finding clever ways to fight them off and generally began having a lot more fun with the game now that I had mobility upgrades, healthy upgrades, two dashes, and faster recharge speed for energy weapons. If you’ve been weary of my comparisons to the linear carnival ride of the now aging BioShock games I would suggest the exploration of these open areas help to define this game in a different manner. One small tip for players who are prone to explore like I am.. You can’t get into Polygon 8 until you’ve finished the VDNK Complex section of the story, the game isn’t bugged you’re just too good and too fast.

Kalash, Snowball, and Electro are all I’d needed. Spec towards robot dmg, for obvious reasons.

At some point in the story CHAR-les begins to sway P-3 towards doubting his own history, his missing memories, and fealty to the U.S.S.R. cause in context of free will and the consequences of Sechenov potentially taking over the world with Kollektiv 2.0 a new version of the connection between humans and robots which may potentially allow elite members of government/society to control people and their thoughts as well. Here we find the main character insistent and blunt to start but soon doubtful of his master’s plan as certain events transpire. The natural response of the player is to butt up against this idiot’s thoughts and start to trust the glove but there is an interesting paradox drawn up as we reach the point where an important government official is killed, a blood spectre dissolves his bones, and such. The glove is a gift from and designed by Dr. Sechenov yet the glove makes clear arguments for the corruption of its maker and instills doubt through their dialogue leading up to that point. This is key framing for the story, the glove has the transcended mind of the -other- doctor who’d helped Sechenov develop the Neuro-polymer technology, he lives on in the glove after an accidental death.

This is where the core plot of the game becomes frustrating, since the motivations of Sechenov can never be clearly determined no matter the outcome. Our complete opposition of him would demand removal of the glove since he gave it to us, and if we choose complete fealty to him that would demand removal of the glove since it is actively promoting disobedience. There is, of course, no option to slap off the glove and lose all special powers associated with it. The story and the overall design of the game are quickly written into a corner at this point and this will eventually speak to the two possible, equally unsatisfying conclusions of the game. As these plot points reveal themselves the game reaches peak confusion, and I don’t mean that I was confused but the characters in the game become a frenzy of confused impassioned folks bent on various angles of revenge. I’d basically completed the skill progression of the game, mastered the basics of combat and now began to realize the remainder of the game would task me with focusing on the plot progression.

Calisthenics in the Matrix

Luckily enough the game only takes a somewhat surprising sixteen hours to beat and the final few sections of the game are not particularly involved beyond a very strange detour to kill our original hit, Dr. Petrov. In a completely terrible, unthinkably cringe-worthy section of the game which is even less interesting in its design than many of the Polygon underground lab centers we enter… The Theatre. [see also: Sandor Cohen‘s Footlight Theater per BioShock] // We’ve just completed Polygon 8 and Sechenov‘s lab and if you’d played that whole area in sequence, rather than exploring it all too early in the game like I had, that’ll have been one of the best parts of the game. Not to mention combing through the farmland, dipping down the valley into the coast, this part of the open world is exceptional and largely optional to some degree. This made the Theatre all the more bland, where we’re greeted by ballerina robots who assault the player with a hallway of their boring, thirsty ass sexual puns (nothing compared to the desperation of certain N.O.R.A. encounters) before engaging in several shooting gallery sequences, door unlocks, and a boss fight which I’d had little trouble with. Petrov is suddenly the Joker over coms during this sequence and it reaches a painfully stupid peak as he dances with robots ’til he is beheaded. I don’t mean to spoil every major story beat in the game but rather highlight just how inconsistently engaging and thoughtful the experience is, with the quality of these encounters and sections of the game losing their touch quickly beyond the VDNK Complex. From there the game really is a rush towards its conclusion and if you don’t engage with the testing facilities you can pretty much hop in a car, race to the next section, book it through the next lab and you’ve one or two boss fights before hitting the credits.

Dumb humans! Comfortable bitches!

Knowing how it ends will only heighten your senses to the nuance of an otherwise bland story. — As strong as the world is, as much big dumb fun is available to this game’s sandbox-and-dungeon feeling, as smart as the overall design is in how it has learned from so many great games in this style before it Atomic Heart cannot escape the feeling that so many video games today have: The idea was bigger than the budget. Time was already of the essence, the game took too long, and the vision could not be completed without cutting corners (which are arguably negligible to some) but this game absolutely had potential to be a classic if they’d found real intrigue in the story, made those final three areas even more fantastic, and gave us something more than the deflating choice of two endings chosen on the fly with a timer ticking at the end of the game. An homage to Deus Ex: Human Revolution? I kid, I kid… Now, I will admit that I loved the option to yank off the glove and walk away. This provides the sense of realization, insight gained and agency acted upon while leaving a plausible opening for a sequel which finds Dr. Sechenov alive and unperturbed by the uprising the supporting cast was attempting to brew by your hand. Where I’d found myself least interested in the game, to the point of deciding not to get the pass for additional DLC, was in the wackiness of the “bad” ending where the now very clearly Evil Glove gets its revenge, becomes the blood-Polymer man, absorbs Sechenov and destroys Kollektiv with no major mention of what happened to P-3.

16 hours and 18 minutes seems shorter than it felt.

Was Atomic Heart fun? Yes, I had fun playing this game and it wasn’t a huge time commitment. Was Atomic Heart good? This video game was essentially mediocre when all aspects were considered on a serious rubric but it did particularly excel in terms of visual design, world building, solid gameplay and scenario design especially within its first half. There were however a few brief performance issues on console (two crashes, one forced reset due to being stuck on geometry). Will I play this game again? Yes, and I would recommend this game at full price when it inevitably comes packaged with all DLC. Unless the price is reduced by half on sale the base experience is not worth full price. I paid a total of 77.16 USD including tax for this game and I can with great confidence suggest that this game did -not- deliver upon this valuation, at all. Atomic Heart is an experience which defeats its own replayability with a linear storyline which grants very little player choice alongside easy respec on weapons/skills which cuts away the idea of “builds”. The game likewise only lasts about ~16-20 hours depending on how thorough you are and presents a churlish somewhat bland story by way of a stupid and unlikable set of characters. I’d recommend buying this game for no more than the equivalent of 25.00-29.99 USD or less even if you are a huge fan of immersive sim games and feeling the hype, you would be better off holding out than settling for such a middling, overpriced experience. Regardless of how much you pay for entry, you will likely have fun.

Though Atomic Heart is an immersive, referential, and great looking first-person shooter its less polished rush toward the endpoint leaves behind a narrative that is still "playing dumb" in the midst of its greater realization/commentary.

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