I’m 10 hours into Atomic Heart and the end is nowhere in sight. The game feels like it has only just finished its initial throat-clearing, now throwing open the door and hinting at some weird, sci-fi Soviet mysteries. It’s violent and familiar, like so many other first-person shooters. But as I barrel into the core of Atomic Heart, I wonder whether this game is what it appears to be — or if it’s something much more interesting.
Set in 1955 in the USSR, Atomic Heart sees players step into the large shoes of Major Nechaev, also known as “P3.” Nechaev is in the employ of a scientist, Professor Sechenov, a member of a group of Soviet scientific geniuses whose technological marvels propelled the USSR to be the leading scientific nation in the world.
This is not our reality. Semi-sentient robots, advanced botanical research, devices that grant you instant knowledge, and so on are par for the course. P3’s main job is overseeing security for various facilities run by Sechenov and the government. It is Sechenov’s robots and systems at these various facilities that begin… well, failing.
P3, as Sechenov’s personal agent, must investigate and figure out just why the robots are turning on their human overlords.
The game begins with spectacle, peacocking its world, its aesthetics, its technology. Soviet technological advancements aren’t just colorful set decoration; they’re storytelling devices. Vendor scientists peddle their wares, museums and factories showcase the USSR’s achievements, and Sechenov prepares for a big speech unveiling his latest tech — incidentally providing plenty of juicy context and backstory.
The Soviet aesthetic is central to Atomic Heart in the way the original BioShock’s art deco design was inseparable from (and underpinned) its critique of Randian philosophy, or how BioShock Infinite targeted American exceptionalism by permeating its city in the sky with flag waving and American kitsch.
Like those utopias, Atomic Heart’s Soviet nation is failing, under leaders plagued by the Icarus complex in which grand ideas come to naught. Stalin is mentioned as a mere leader, recently dead, instead of a ruthless, murderous dictator — which makes sense, I suppose, from the perspective of P3, who is a worker of the state. (Stalin died in 1953, two years before this game takes place). And the crumbling Soviet setting, while glorified in the context of the story, seems to have been built spectacularly for an equally spectacular collapse.
At least, that’s where things appear to be heading in the opening 10 hours of the game. Divining what the game intends to say (or doesn’t) about society or culture is particularly challenging, considering its creation. Developer Mundfish is an international studio, but is headquartered out of Cyprus, a playground for Russian oligarchs. Indeed, Mundfish’s relationship to the Russian state remains murky.
It will be some time before I can tell where this game’s ideals land. But as I journey deeper, it helps my curiosity that the characters themselves are likable enough. P3 is a snarky military bro, with more muscle than mind. His blunt violence is balanced by his techno-magical glove named Charles, a snarky, talking device that aids him by providing information, some combat assistance, and various other interventions. (What’s with this trend of snarky clothing — see, for example, Forspoken.
P3 battles robots, demon plants, monstrous humans, and all manner of enemies. The combat and gameplay are solid and responsive, and P3 functions well as a playable character. Melee weapons and guns must be built at crafting stations, after scavenging the environment for bits and bobs. Fortunately, P3 has an exceptional search mechanic, where, by holding down a shoulder button, you effectively vacuum up all useful parts. The game is stingy with its ammo, so you will be using melee weapons more often than not — but thankfully, the melee works well, especially with P3’s upgradeable dodge maneuver.
Nearly every stage requires you to solve an environmental puzzle: from using magnets to manipulating lines for a tram, to powering up various fans while facing hordes of monsters, to fiddling with various locking mechanics. While I was often frustrated by poorly conveyed directions, I was never bored. I organically learned from my mistakes, as each puzzle built on the ones that came before.
Annoyingly, Atomic Heart lacks accessibility options: Subtitles are unbelievably tiny, making playing the game with Russian voice-acting practically impossible. While there is a Detective Mode to highlight useful objects, using it forces P3 to move at a snail’s pace, and the items lose their glow the moment you exit the mode. For a game where melee is encouraged, it’s far too difficult to clock incoming projectiles or flanking enemies. Lastly (but perhaps most bizarrely, for a modern FPS), the game doesn’t include a sprint option.
It can all feel a bit simple: a brutal retro shooter with inventory management and crafting and a macho lead character. Yet, here I am enjoying its old-school brand of chaos. It’s a beautiful game with clever environmental puzzles, in an enjoyable, bleak, and decaying world replete with incredible set pieces, animation, and two enjoyable leads.
It remains to be seen what Mundfish does with its Soviet aesthetic from here on out, and whether its world has been built up to be rapturously torn down — like those of BioShock, Metro, or Half-Life before it — or if it will remain, ostensibly, an uncomfortable and disturbing source of celebration. I’ll know more as I continue to play.
But for now, the pure pleasure of adventuring in this world as P3 is motivation enough to see this through to the end.
Atomic Heart will be released on Feb, 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. These impressions were written based on time with the Series X version, which was provided by Focus Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.