Atomic Heart review: Rage against the machines

By Luke Albigés,

Atomic Heart explodes onto Xbox this week, launching into Game Pass for all to enjoy its over-the-top mechanical mayhem. How does the game stack up to the intense footage we've been shown in the lead-up to launch?

Some things are just too good to be true. Take Atomic Heart's setting, for instance — a work-free paradise where machines do all the menial jobs and the populace is free to focus on self-improvement, academia, relaxation, or whatever else without a care in the world. Well, until it all goes wrong and that legion of mechanical labourers goes into Murder Mode, anyway. In some ways, Atomic Heart itself takes after its setting in this regard as well, and while it has looked absolutely jaw-dropping in most of its pre-launch footage, Mundfish's debut release was always going to find stepping out of the shadow of the similar BioShock games to be a tall order. It's a noble effort for the most part, with some superb set pieces and a fantastic world, but marred by a few weaker elements and odd decisions that hold it back from giving Rapture too much to worry about. Still, as one of the many games coming to Game Pass, Atomic Heart is worth a look, even if purely for the chaos and spectacle in which the game revels so.

Atomic Heart: BioShock via Asimov

You're probably going to hear a good few BioShock comparisons from people describing Atomic Heart, and it's not difficult to see why. The opening tour of this stylish retro-futuristic Soviet utopia has a similar feel to first arriving in BioShock Infinite's idyllic Columbia and your various powers and some of the more outlandish weapons feel like Plasmids but with fewer restrictions on their usage (abilities are all based on short cooldowns rather than requiring resources), while the focus on machines running wild takes us back to BioShock forerunner System Shock. Its alternate timeline setting where the Soviets have engineered a world-leading communist utopia after winning the second World War hasn't come at the best time and will be an immediate turn-off for some, though the world-building itself is excellent and it's a fascinating thing to explore.

Atomic Heart escalates fast. It doesn't take long for that sedate and serene opening section to make way for the absolute anarchy that ensues when a fully automated society goes wrong, and even that ramps up quickly — while just one or two of those regular worker bots will feel threatening at first, you quickly find yourself confronted with much, much worse. This is most noticeable once you get out of the labs and complexes and emerge in Atomic Heart's overworld, a semi-open-world playground where the bots are out for blood. It's a pretty drastic change of pace and it took some adjusting to at first, especially with how easy it can be to get spotted by the many security cameras and how hard it can be to escape the machines if and when they are onto you. There's also the fact that the drones swarming the skies can make life even harder, repairing damaged structures or enemies, flying in to pepper you with lasers and rockets, or even airdropping in huge crates filled with more robots if you let things get too far out of hand. Stealth allows you to get the drop on bots and instantly deactivate them so it does pay to be quiet, but you need to be mindful of the fact that destroyed cameras won't stay down for long with those annoying repair drones around, so you also need to work pretty fast. The open aspect doesn't add an awful lot as there are only really a handful of useful optional locations to visit, but it doesn't feel like it detracts either, at least once you readjust and change up how you approach things somewhat compared to when you're in the more linear internal locations that make up the meat of the game.

atomic heart review xbox

With so many weird and wonderful tools at your disposal, it's great that Atomic Heart doesn't penalise you for experimenting with new toys. Anything you invest in abilities or weapons is fully refunded should you change your mind down the line, meaning you aren't just left sitting on resources until something special comes along, while also letting you freely respec should you know one of your powers will be useless for an upcoming section or boss. The abilities are as satisfying as early footage made them look, and practical, too — taking opponents out of the fight by freezing them solid can let you focus down key targets in relative peace, for instance, while levitating an entire horde with Mass Telekinesis makes for a great crowd control tool when things start getting intense later in the game. There's a solid spread of weapons as well, and gunplay works well enough, plus a few of the guns feed into an interesting gameplay loop where melee attacks build energy in your suit which is then used by certain weapons in place of ammo. You can't take your entire arsenal with you due to the limited inventory grid (large weapons take up multiple slots and ammo stacks each sit in their own box as well, a la Resident Evil 4's attache case), but upgrade stations are frequent enough and let you swap your gear around and craft stuff you need each time you find one. Your first visit, it must be said, presents one of the most questionable scenes in the game... you'll see what we mean, but that was definitely a dubious design decision. Still, upgrade machines are usually accompanied by save stations as well, which you'll need to return to often since auto-saving is infrequent and you can stand to lose fair chunks of progress otherwise.

If you want to get the most out of your weapons, you need to hunt down their most potent mods and upgrades in the Test Chambers littered around the world. These typically play out as puzzle and platforming challenges with the odd bit of combat to stop you from getting rusty, and since they're dedicated testing sites, they can afford to go a little more extreme compared to similar obstacles you encounter during the story which need to remain somewhat grounded. Not that anything in Atomic Heart is what you'd typically call 'grounded,' of course, but that's kinda the game's thing. Oh, the things you'll see over the course of the game... if you've been following the many trailers, you'll already have witnessed some of the craziness but between the context of some of those sections and the ones that get even more ridiculous, you're in for a wild ride and we wouldn't want to spoil a thing.

atomic heart review xbox

One aspect that can spoil things at times is that encounter balance is all over the place, and not only through the unpredictability of the more open sections. Depending on your loadout, you may sometimes feel like your weapons and abilities aren't doing an awful lot, especially against some of the sturdier enemies — a couple of types in particular can feel like a chore to whittle down, especially when backed up by more of the rank-and-file bots. While the game does give the tools to mix up your loadout, part of the issue here is that it's hard to know what you'll be up against unless you're doing a runback after taking a death, and even then, clashes in the open areas always play out different depending on how and where things go south. It would have been hard to avoid this with so broad an array of both player tools and enemy types, though, and in Atomic Heart's defence, there are also plenty of encounters that feel fantastic, with the giant spherical bot Hedgie (who appeared in early footage) being a highlight in terms of boss fights and some of the all-out moshpits from late-game areas letting you really put your full arsenal to use with some typically wonderful musical encouragement from the one and only Mick Gordon.

Performance also seemed pretty impressive on Xbox Series X, with Atomic Heart being typically very smooth while still looking great. Its general slickness did make some elements stand out all the more, however, such as the out-of-control maintenance machines in some later areas moving at a significantly worse frame rate than the rest of the game (hop on one and watch the world chug if you're a fan of feeling unwell). There were a few other dips here and there, but they were rare and even with a lot going on in an open air clash when the bots sent everything they had it me, it usually managed to hold together well. The setting also gives Atomic Heart a free excuse for some of its occasionally wonky AI and pathfinding — why wouldn't a malfunctioning robot get stuck running into a barrier or not be able to navigate a rocky cliffside to reach you? Again, even issues like these seemed pretty infrequent, and certainly weren't anything that detracted from the experience even when they did occur.

atomic heart review xbox

You might find that you struggle to settle on a good balance in terms of presentation, mind. Knowing that the English dub isn't great, I quickly switched to Russian with subtitles, which feels more fitting but does mean you end up missing a lot — whether you're trying to focus on an intense fight or just drinking in the world, it's not unusual to have multiple people talking at once and it's impossible to catch everything. This might actually be a blessing in disguise, though. Sure, you miss some exposition when you're otherwise engaged but considering how bonkers the game is, its plot not exactly complicated, and a lot of the general dialogue just seems very poorly written. I love that protagonist P-3's catchphrase is using "crispy critters!" as an exclamation, but it's an oddly playful recurring line for someone as typically brash and crass as him and while some will probably enjoy his aggressive approach, it doesn't exactly help in making him a likeable hero. He doesn't shut up either, frequently launching into extended games of State The Obvious with his talking glove companion... yes, you read that right.

The achievement list is likely to cause some headaches as well. There's no chapter select or option to return to areas after beating the game, and this leads to lots of missables, ranging from killing bosses in certain ways to even some of the crafting ones, should you wind up at the point of no return without enough materials to make certain things. Audio logs are tiny and easy to miss anyway so picking up all of those without a guide isn't likely to happen, nor the ones for speaking with dead folks unless you know where to find them. Some appear to be trouble for other reasons, too — Explorer asks you to simply 'find a testing ground' but actually needs you to visit all eight, while Clean-up for finishing them all appears to be bugged for me after a puzzle mechanic broke in one of them causing a soft-lock, forcing me to reload an older auto-save to get out of there. I'm not convinced the trackers on some of the others are working properly, either. Below Zero should also be very easy and I met the conditions multiple times and it still hasn't popped, and there's talk of some trophies not tracking or unlocking properly on PlayStation so we'll have to wait and see how those shake out here, too.


There's a lot going on in Atomic Heart, so it's perhaps unsurprising that consistency and cohesion aren't the game's strong suits. It does, however, excel in spectacle, presenting a fascinating world and packing it with an assortment of incredible mechanical creations. Atomic Heart feels like it's at its best when sending you through its creepy labs and well-designed facilities (the questionable security measures of their weird puzzle locks aside), and you do start to miss that structure somewhat when it later sends you out into the semi-open world that ties them all together. It's a shame that rough dialogue lets the otherwise brilliant world down somewhat, and that the game doesn't always manage to feel like the full-on power fantasy it could with so many neat powers and gadgets on offer. But Atomic Heart remains mechanically solid and has enough impressive highlight moments to still be worth a play despite these and several other dubious design decisions. Good luck with the completion for the time being, though...
7 / 10
* Luke spent around 25 hours battling bots, unlocking 25 of the game's 42 achievements in the process. A review copy was provided by the publisher, and played on Xbox Series X.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.
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