Atomic Heart Preview – How to solve a problem like evil Soviet robots

Atomic Heart Header P-3

Having grabbed the attention of gamers from its very first announcement in 2017, trying to pin down exactly what kind of game Atomic Heart is has been like trying to hug a fog monster – is it just a communist BioShock Infinite with killer robots? Getting to sit down and play 4 hours of the game brings it far more into focus, showcasing how it stands out from the games it will still, inevitably, be compared to.

The entire tone of Atomic Heart is absolutely wild, initially building up this utopian Soviet setting on the backs of real Soviet propaganda imagery, huge leaps forward in robotics and technology, and blending in some of the kitschy communist overtones found in Red Alert and daft Hollywood movies, and then tearing it down in moments.

Those advanced robotics help the USSR win WW2 early, and tech advances have lead to mass automation through a proto-internet called Collectiv, with vast flying installations, research facilities and more pushing tech further and further – you can basically just inject a specialised education into your brain, for one thing. But just as Collectiv 2.0 starts rolling out, the robots start murdering everyone in sight after traitors flip the switch on their programming. You, Major “P-3” Nechaev, get sent to hunt down these traitors.

Putting it all together, there’s scope for this to examine the Soviet ethos as wild science fiction experiments run amok, in a similar fashion to BioShock’s themes drawn from 20th century utopian and dystopian thinkers. The visual styling and imagery captures the setting excellently, but there are places where it’s quite jarring as well, from the overtly sexualised faceless fembots to the bizarrely raunchy AI fridge where you can upgrade your weapons and character. As P-3 tells his glove’s AI to shut up for the umpteenth time, I also couldn’t help but feel that he sounds more like an all-American action hero from games of yesteryear than a Soviet one, thanks to both the writing and the American accent.

Atomic Heart Robot open face

Tone and story to one side, I love all of the out-of-control and openly hostile robots that have ravaged this world. This society was built up alongside a variety of different machines, including humanoid automatons with blank moustachioed faces that rush toward you, squat little farming robots, hovering repair bots, and so, so much more. There’s a huge amount of creativity that has gone into crafting their designs, giving them a real sense of specialised purpose and also giving the feel for how technology has evolved.

Battling these robots is a real test of endurance and skill with the scarcity of bullets and weapons in the opening hours. The basic moving mannequin enemies take a good few hits with an axe, or a blast or two with your precious shotgun ammunition, and it’s quite easy to be overwhelmed if two or more of them spot and come at you. They have powerful attacks that will knock you down, but are signalled clearly so you have a chance to dodge. Things get tougher when facing the black-coloured mannequins, which open their face for a sweeping laser attack. That’s just a prelude to the rest of the game and some of the insane robots and other monstrosities you’ll face, as shown during more recent trailers.

One of the difficulties is that, while stealth is encouraged to sneak up behind a robot and dish out a sneak attack, they can spot you very, very easily as you try to peak around cover, and are attracted by noise as much as sight. Get in a fight in the wrong area and you could find yourself swarmed and quickly taken apart.

The first boss is apparently some kind of civilian robot, but it’s an intimidating construct to face off against. A giant rolling ball, it races around the battle arena, jumps and slams down on the ground to release damaging shockwaves like it’s a bullet hell shooter, sprouts arms to leap around, and unleashes huge laser attacks. The key is to spot and get close enough during the damage phase where its cooling cores are exposed, but it’s impressively manic with its flailing arms, and will push your dodging skills quite hard.

Atomic Heart Electric Shock

From that basic axe and shotgun, your arsenal improves dramatically as the game goes on. New melee weapons earn strange telekinetic alternate attacks to unleash flurries of blades to keep enemies at a bit of distance, there’s beam weapons that draw power from your glove’s energy, assault rifles that can be enhanced with elemental bullets, and more. Your glove will also be upgraded with various powers, from shooting out an arc of electricity to damage and stun, to freezing blasts, and telekinetic powers.

One of the more intriguing abilities is to use globs of a mysterious polymer. You encounter this through the crumbling facility as streams that you can swim through, but as a glove ability, you can throw globs of polymer that can then enhance any elemental attack you apply to it. Instead of gradually slowing something as you freeze it, you can instantly freeze it in place by first slathering it in polymer.

While the opening few hours are linear, leading you through an underground facility on the hunt for the first in the game’s rogues gallery of traitors, suddenly you step out into the wider world and discover that there’s a more open world sandbox to act as connective tissue between more linear stretches. It’s a great change of pace, showing a world where the robots actually work in a kind of harmony – little bots look after the plant life, drones coming to repair anything that stops working (probably because you just blew it up), but that reacts to your presence like a body trying to reject an invasive virus if the many cameras spot you, airlifting in crated of hostile bots to battle you.

Atomic Heart open world

What’s intriguing is the presence of challenge zones, linear dungeons that, in the first instance that we found, featured a string of environmental puzzles and a handful of small combat encounters. With some sort of item or upgrade to snag by the end, they’re well worth doing, and I find a little reminiscent of the puzzle dungeons from Breath of the Wild, if on a very different scale.

Atomic Heart is bursting at the seams with ideas, from its menagerie of alt-history Soviet robotics gone wrong to the challenging combat style and blend of linear and some open world gameplay. On top of all that, it just looks absolutely stunning.

Atomic Heart is coming out for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One and PC on 21st February 2023. It will also be in Xbox Game Pass on day one.

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