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Atomic Heart is a very Russian kind of throwback

The Soviet Union rises — and maybe falls — again in this old-school shooter, but will 2023 audiences warm to it?

Two shiny chrome androids with featureless faces, decorated with Soviet stars, female bodies, and traditional Russian braided hair, face each other holding hands Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

When Atomic Heart first attracted attention for its first official trailer back in 2018, it was all about the artwork. The surreal, retro-futuristic designs of then-unknown developer Mundfish, set to a strutting Iron Curtain tango, caused a sensation: featureless, furry humanoids mixed with primitive robotics, 1950s utopianism in ruin, and a more abstract, gelatinous kind of organic horror. It was a more extravagant and colorful Soviet version of a Fallout or BioShock aesthetic, given a perversely cheerful spin. It was natural to want to know more.

Now, just five weeks from release, the game remains staunchly art-led. I had a chance to play Atomic Heart’s opening hours, plus a short preview of a later section, recently; it opens with as grand a piece of table setting as you’ll ever see, as the player is carefully shepherded through a spectacular tour of a flying city. It must be 40 minutes before you are allowed to do anything more than gaze upon the works of the art team, and the utopian, technocratic, alternate-history Soviet Union they have imagined. Spiral-propellered drones whiz around, smiling automatons dispense exposition, streamlined aircraft fuselages hang in a preposterously vast office lobby, and monumental art deco edifices tower over military parades.

But this isn’t the paradise we’ve come to play in. Voice-over — which eschews the potentially othering effect of Russian accents in favor of the universal language of macho American video game banter — establishes the player as a special forces operative codenamed P-3, who’s been called into service by this society’s scientist-priest-king, Dmitry Sechenov. Sechenov hopes to usher in a new age with his “neural polymer,” which allows knowledge to be literally injected into the bloodstream and could potentially link all human consciousnesses in the ultimate Communist neural network. But there’s trouble down on the surface to deal with: A robot uprising has plunged a splendid research facility into chaos.

A soviet style poster showing some kind of mind link device looms over a canal street decorated with balloons, with a huge statue of a figure holding an atom in the distance Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

Before we go any further, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Mundfish was founded in Moscow, but relocated its headquarters to Cyprus at some point 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 it claims (plausibly enough, but unverifiably) to have Ukrainian team members. It has secured a French publisher, Focus Entertainment, for Atomic Heart.

For a year, Mundfish made no public statement about the war, for or against. 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 undeniably a pro-peace organization against violence against people. We do not comment on politics or religion.” It’s unlikely to put the concerns of some players to rest.

Whatever the nationality or politics of the people who made it, there’s no denying that Atomic Heart is a deeply culturally Russian game, both in its setting and the way it has internalized a certain flavor of late-’90s/early-2000s hardcore PC game: graphically advanced, brutal, systemic, and cynical in its worldview. Its gleeful use of Soviet iconography, and all the echoes of Russian exceptionalism and imperialism that go with it, is hardly unique — many American and European studios have done the same, and without the specificity or the imagination that Mundfish brings to the material. But it does hit different in 2023. For some, it will be hard to stomach, or to support.

Analysis of the extent to which Atomic Heart examines the political dimensions of its imagery will have to wait until review. But the shadows of BioShock and BioShock Infinite, as well as Half-Life 2, loom so large over this game that it seems unlikely it won’t examine them at all. Secherov is a ready-made Andrew Ryan figure, while the research facility presents the game’s quirkily upbeat Soviet dream as a horrific wreck, almost completely deserted by humans.

A high-ceilinged, dark facility, lit by red spirals on the ceiling, with racks of cylindrical canisters and human figures dangling high up from long tendrils Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

Instead, during the early stages at least, our commando hero faces down murderous robots and haywire machines while chatting with the disembodied voice of his neurally linked glove. The glove enables some telekinesis and environmental scans, as well as interfacing with neural polymers that grant P-3 limited superpowers, like an electric shock blast. But you’ll need to deal out physical violence too, via craftable and modifiable weapons of a blunt, old-school variety: a heavy ax and a shotgun at first, an assault rifle and an electro-pistol later.

Atomic Heart is unafraid to be punishingly difficult. After the game’s long introduction, the brutal first combat encounter comes as a shock. Ammo is scarce, melee can’t really be avoided, and even the basic android enemies you face, which look like jerky crash-test dummies brought to life, present a mortal threat. There are some stealth opportunities, but this isn’t a refined, Arkane-style immersive sim; it’s more about gritting your teeth, buckling down, and brute-forcing the game’s systems until you get a better result. Sensibly, Mundfish does not overwhelm the player with enemies but includes lengthy spells of exploration, puzzle-solving, and gathering of crafting resources. These can be spent at an upgrade station that is a sort of sex-crazed sentient cupboard, and which speaks to P-3 in a deluge of crass, porny double entendre that is the most conspicuously out-of-touch element of the script.

An android approaches in a large room with theatrical masks on the wall and tiny ballerina figures hanging from the ceiling. In the foreground, the first-person view shows a hand holding a heavy bladed weapon Image: Mundfish/Focus Entertainment

During the opening hours of the game, you’ll spend a lot of time confined to a claustrophobic underground warren of corridors, labs, and offices, occasionally punctured by giant robotic drilling worms on the rampage. In my preview I got to skip forward to a limited open-world section that could be explored by car, which mostly consisted of wandering enemies and entrances to more underground complexes. A sports arena served as the stage for a boss battle with a whirling, spherical, tentacled robot reminiscent of the Omnidroid 1000 from The Incredibles, whose frenetic attack patterns were punctuated by periods when it just exposed its weak spots and sat still.

Atomic Heart is a bit of a throwback, and that’s not all a bad thing; mean-spirited corridor shooters with spectacular art direction used to be ubiquitous, but they aren’t anymore, nor is their particular brand of masochistic fun. It will probably do well on Game Pass, where it’s included from day one, if the audience can get comfortable with its Russian roots — and if Mundfish can get it in shape (the build I played on PC was notably buggy).

Atomic Heart will launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X on Feb. 21.