When Atomic heart first gained attention for its first official trailer in 2018, it was all about the artwork. The surreal, retro-futuristic designs of then-unknown developer Mundfish, set to an Iron Curtain tango, were all the rage: featureless, furry humanoids mixed with primitive robotics, crumbling 1950s utopianism and a more abstract kind of organic horror, gelatinous. . It was a more flamboyant and colorful Soviet version of the Fallout or BioShock aesthetic, with a perversely gleeful twist. It was natural to want to know more.
Now, just five weeks after release, the game remains firmly art-led. I had a chance to play Atomic hearthis opening program, plus a sneak preview of a later section, recently; opens with as big a tableau as you’ll ever see, as the player is carefully led through a spectacular tour of a flying city. It’s 40 minutes before you’re allowed to do anything other than look at the art team’s work and the utopian, technocratic, alternate-history Soviet Union they’ve imagined. Spiral propeller drones fly, smiling automatons give exhibitions, streamlined aircraft fuselages hang in an absurdly vast office lobby, and monumental art deco edifices tower over military parades.
But this is not the paradise we have come to play in. The voiceover – which eschews the potentially alienating effect of Russian accents in favor of the universal language of macho American video games – establishes the player as a code-named special forces agent. P-3, which was called into service by the scientist-priest-king of this society, Dmitri Sechenov. Sechenov hopes to usher in a new era with his “neural polymer,” which allows knowledge to be literally injected into the bloodstream and could link all human consciousness into the ultimate communist neural network. But there are problems on the surface to deal with: a robot uprising has plunged a splendid research facility into chaos.
Before we go any further, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Mundfish was founded in Moscow, but moved its headquarters to Cyprus sometime last year as the invasion of Ukraine threatened sanctions against Russian businesses. The developer’s website is keen to present it as an international operation and claims (plausibly enough, but unverifiably) to have Ukrainian team members. A French publisher, Focus Entertainment, was secured for Atomic heart.
For a year, Mundfish made no public statement about the war, pro or con. Shortly before this article was published, the developer offered this very non-specific comment on Twitter: “We want to assure you that Mundfish is a developer and studio with a global team focused on an innovative game and is undoubtedly a pro-peace organization against violence against people. We do not comment on politics or religion.” It’s unlikely to assuage some players’ concerns.
Whatever the nationality or politics of the people who did it, there’s no denying that Atomic heart is a deeply culturally Russian game, both in its context and in the way it internalized a certain flavor of late 90s/early 2000s hardcore PC gaming: advanced in terms of graphic, brutal, systemic and cynical in its worldview. The gleeful use of Soviet iconography, and all the accompanying echoes of Russian exceptionalism and imperialism, are hardly unique – many American and European studios have done the same, and without the specificity or imagination that Mundfish brings to the material. But it hit differently in 2023. For some, it will be hard to bear or sustain.
Analysis to what extent Atomic heart examines the political dimensions of his images will have to wait until the review. But the shadows of BioShock and Bioshock Infiniteas well as Half life 2, loom so large over this game that it seems unlikely they won’t examine them at all. Secherov is a ready-made figure by Andrew Ryan, while the research center presents the game’s strangely optimistic Soviet dream as a ghastly wreck, almost completely deserted by humans.
Instead, at least in the early stages, our commando hero faces off against killer robots and noise machines while speaking with the disembodied voice of his neural gauntlet. The gauntlet allows for some telekinesis and environmental scanning, as well as interfacing with neural polymers that grant limited P-3 superpowers such as an electric shock blast. But you’ll also have to deal with physical violence, through craftable and modifiable weapons of an old-school variety: a heavy ax and a shotgun early on, an assault rifle and a stun gun later.
Atomic heart he is not afraid of being hard to punish. After the long introduction to the game, the first brutal combat encounter comes as a shock. Ammo is scarce, melee can’t be avoided, and even the basic Android enemies you face, which look like jerky crash test dummies brought to life, are a mortal threat. There are some opportunities to hide, but this isn’t a polished, Arkane-style immersive simulator; it’s more about gritting your teeth, belting and brute-forcing the game’s systems until you get a better result. Reasonably, Mundfish doesn’t overwhelm the player with enemies, but it does include long spells of exploration, puzzle solving, and gathering crafting resources. They can be spent at an upgrade station that’s some kind of sex-crazed sentient closet that talks to P-3 in a deluge of crude, pornographic double entendres that is the most obvious element stripped from the script.
During the game’s opening hours, you’ll spend a lot of time confined to a claustrophobic subterranean building of corridors, labs, and offices, occasionally punctured by giant, furiously drilling robotic worms. In my preview, I ended up fast-forwarding to a limited open-world section that could be explored by car, which consisted mainly of wandering enemies and entrances to several underground complexes. A sports arena served as the stage for a boss fight with a spinning, spherical, tentacled robot reminiscent of the Omnidroid 1000 from The Incredibleswhose frenetic attack patterns were punctuated by periods where he was just exposing his weaknesses and standing still.
Atomic heart it’s a bit of a throwback, and that’s not a bad thing; Low-key corridor shooters with spectacular art direction used to be ubiquitous, but they’re no longer, and neither is their particular brand of masochistic fun. It’ll probably do well on Game Pass, where it’s included from day one, if audiences get comfortable with its Russian roots — and if Mundfish can whip it into shape (the build I played on PC was especially with errors).
Atomic heart will launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on February 21.