I had doubts about Atomic Heart when it was first revealed in 2018. I love me a good, janky Eastern European shooter—somebody really should remaster Cryostasis—but it looked a little too good, especially for a debut game from an unknown studio. I needn’t have worried though, because boy, it delivers: It’s a frantic, funny game, far more polished than I expected, and absolutely bonkers—but not in quite the way I expected.
(Image credit: Future)
In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2023, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Atomic Heart is sometimes described as a “Russian BioShock,” and that’s accurate to an extent. But one big difference, and one of my favorite things about the game, is that the hero, Major Nechaev—codename P-3—is such a regular guy. Sure, he’s a super-agent, but he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree and he’s really not interested in any of this nonsense. He just wants to have a nice day and do a good job for his boss, and his emotional range veers from mildly irritated to righteously pissed off as he sinks ever-deeper into a world doing its very best to keep him from doing those things. (And, more to the point, to kill him.) He even gets a bit meta when encountering ridiculous videogame bullshit like a locked door that requires items from three separate parts of an underground facility to open. What kind of asshole would design a lock like that, he wants to know, and hey, that’s a fair question.
And when he’s asked to deliver a brain, still inside a decapitated skull, to a research institute for reasons he suspects may not be entirely on the up-and-up? He is not comfortable with that. No sir, he does not like it at all.
Maybe it’s just me, and the fact that I am of a certain age and temperament, but I found Nechaev’s whole thing very relatable: If I was a guy with a gun in a videogame situation, I think I’d react in pretty much the same way—not in terms of heroics so much, but in terms of not being happy about it.
(Image credit: Mundfish)
Nechaev’s interactions with other members of Atomic Heart’s cast aren’t always convincing, but the buddy-cop routine between him and his AI-powered sidekick, a glove named Charles, hits far more often than it misses. Charles is Nechaev’s polar opposite: Calm, thoughtful, soft-spoken, and not prone to extended outbursts of cursing when things go sideways. He serves primarily as an exposition machine, which is handy given that Atomic Heart’s narrative isn’t the most coherent thing ever, but he also helps bring out Nechaev’s “regular guy in an irregular situation” humanity that makes him such a likeable dude.
And he’s funny, too. I still don’t know if it was intentional or the outcome of a goofball game being played too straight—or maybe it’s because I find “dad gets mad” to be extremely funny as a general thing—but Nechaev’s competent-but-not-smooth antics and dialog (buttressed by my own competent-but-not-smooth gaming skills) had me laughing more than any other game I’ve played in ages.
A silly example:
Is it sophisticated? No. Do I still laugh when I see the clip? Yes. (“Crispy critters,” for reasons that are explained later in the game, is Nechaev’s ridiculous catchphrase. He says it a lot.)
The action is where Atomic Heart really shines, because it is riotous. The story advances through closed-off, linear areas like laboratories, medical facilities, and underground research facilities, all of them tied together in an open overworld with endlessly spawning enemies. It’s frustrating at first, when guns and powers are both in limited supply, because there’s no escape from the constant onslaught of enemies.
But by the mid-game I was having a ball with it, especially after I discovered that the numerous Lada-style vehicles scattered all over the countryside are driveable: There is no fun quite like that of running down mustachioed killer robots with a cheap, underpowered Soviet-era car that has a nasty (and entirely believable) tendency to roll if you turn too hard.
(Image credit: Mundfish)
The endless supply of enemies and Nechaev’s blunt-force approach to dealing with them (as the game notes several times, the quiet, covert approach is really not his thing) feels aggressively silly in places, which stands in sharp contrast to Atomic Heart’s very dark, grim subject matter. It became apparent as I got deeper into the game that all was not as it seemed in the great, glorious Soviet Socialist Republic (big surprise, I know) and the further I went down that hole, the worse it got. Yet the gameplay remained consistent throughout, and that led to some very discordant moments: One particularly epic brawl was an exhilarating orgy of robot-bashing and mutant-squashing as Russian speed metal blared in the background and Nechaev dropped occasional dad-joke-level outbursts of profanity and excitement.
It was a blast from start to finish, and when it was finally over I was very quickly reminded that, oh by the way, horrific things are happening here, the death toll is probably beyond reckoning, and there’s a very good chance that you’re a murderous pawn in a madman’s scheme. That was fun though, right?
(It really was.)
(Image credit: Mundfish)
That was maybe the biggest surprise about Atomic Heart: That it’s so stupidly, gleefully fun. I love games like Stalker and Cradle (Atomic Heart’s optional puzzle sections immediately reminded me of that game) but I don’t think I’d ever describe them as “wooo good times ahoy, baby!” But Atomic Heart really is. It’s thematically jarring, sure, but from moment to moment it’s a riot, and the overall aesthetic is so broad (to put it politely), I don’t consider that disconnect to be a problem. Maybe it’s a little weird to have such a bloody good time in a game built on such a disturbing underlying narrative, but it’s also weird that my allies include a talking glitter glove, an oversexed vending machine, and a murderous woman in her 70s who lives in a cybernetic Baba Yaga house. You can’t get too hung up on this stuff.
I think this bit from our Atomic Heart review really captures its essence: “A man points a gun at you, babbles something about blowing a giant plant to kingdom come, and your protagonist gruffly swears, complains, and sets about fetching the thing to blow up the thing. You’ll soon return, shove a bunch of explosives into the plant, see it ignited by a cigarette while your character calls the plant a ‘fuckbag,’ and watch the scientist die gruesomely in the aftermath because his role in the game is over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Folks, I laughed. A lot.