Atomic Heart — An Alternative History of the Soviet Union

Atomic Heart was sold to me like this, “It’s Soviet Bioshock, and you play as a mentally ill secret agent.” That was enough for me, plus it was free on Game Pass, so I dived in. I enjoyed Bioshock and nontraditional RPG first-person shooters, and Atomic Heart had a hook. A hook and a controversy. It was made by a Russian studio and released near the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They have not commented on it and say they do not comment on political affairs. Take that for what you will. I’m just reviewing the game as a gun guy.

Into the World of Atomic Heart

Atomic Heart takes place in 1955. An alternate 1955 in which a Soviet scientist discovered something called Polymer, which is a programmable liquid that led to massive technological gains. The Soviets stomped the Nazis by 1942, but the war had a heavy toll. The Soviets created robots, some humanlike, some not. They became the world’s workforce, and the Soviets became the most powerful superpower in the world.

Soviet utopia
Atomic Heart begins in a Soviet utopia but things go wrong quickly.

They have cities in the clouds, robotic workforces, flying drones, and cars. It’s the Americana version of the Soviet Union. Your character Major Sergey Nechayev is a WW2 veteran and special operations Major with some interesting memory problems. The setting is wonderful, huge, vibrant, and unique. It’s certainly something new and strays away from gray alleys and the urban environments you’ve seen everywhere. It’s a very interesting world to explore and enjoy.

Graphics

Apparently, the game has been in production for years now, a rather slow production. It’s made using Unreal4, but you can’t tell. The game is absolutely gorgeous. I’m playing on an Xbox One, and it looks great. The enemies, the weapons, and the environments are all sharp and good-looking.

The enemies range in variety quite a bit, with varying appearances signifying which enemies do what and their weaknesses. Being able to identify these threats with good graphics makes it easy to throw the right kind of lead.

Robot boss fight in Atomic Heart
This guy needs a round of 7.62×39 to his face.

The downside to good graphics on the last generation’s engine and hardware is long load times. Lord forbid you to die and have to sit through an ultra-long load screen. I suggest sitting with a book because the game can be fairly difficult, and you might spend some time staring at your load screens. More than enough to read all the tips.

The Story of Atomic Heart

The story starts in one direction, and well, it has some twists and turns. It’s not what you expect, and it’s a great story. I really don’t want to spoil it because the game is still very new, and plenty of people haven’t gotten a chance to play. Most first-person shooters I play are fairly plain as far as the story goes. This game has an ambitious story mode. The only time it underdelivers is with your player character. He’s not super fleshed out, but his interactions with his technologically advanced glove, Charles, help a bit.

The characters are interesting, especially Granny. It’s a unique romp, and it’s tough to say much more about it without giving anything away. The world really establishes itself with this soviet world. In fact, we even get a mention of Mr. Kalashnikov if you pay attention.

The Shooting and More

Atomic Heart offers you a small but interesting and upgradeable arsenal, but more than that, they offer you, Charles. Charles, your super-powered AI glove gives you the ability to mix shock, telekinesis, and freeze into your gunplay. The powers and shooting aren’t an ‘or’ ordeal. You don’t have to choose between guns and power.

The two work together, and your telekinesis can toss an enemy in the air, making them vulnerable to gunfire. Shock can do damage, and stun enemies, and so on and so forth. The powers mix in easily and quickly with the gunplay, adding a new degree of fun destruction to your threats.

looking down a rilfe barrel in a dark room in Atomic Heart video game.

Oh, and this game isn’t easy. Well, maybe it is on the easy mode, but on anything else, the game tends to be quite difficult. Luckily the controls are pretty tight, and if you die, you die. It’s your fault. Nothing more than that. The game doesn’t play soft, and the threats are real. Most of the common enemies can throw a serious punch at you as you play.

The shooting is pretty standard if you eliminate the powers. The game allows you to aim down sights, and the sights are realistic. The recoil is present and punchy, and the game gives you enough options to keep things flowing. Not to mention melee weapons are present, from the Swede, a fire ax to the improvised weapons you can build and fight with.

The Guns of Atomic Heart

Atomic Heart offers you a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the arsenal. All the weapons are great, but they are either entirely made up or very real. Guns like the Makarov, KS-23, and AKM are present and provide that Soviet-era military technology. With that said, I find it hard to believe that with all their tech advancements, the Makarov would have succeeded.

The AK atomic heart
Customization goes far in this game.

I, as a shotgun nerd, love that the KS-23 is in the game. The KS-23 is a Russian four-gauge shotgun that uses barrels made for anti-aircraft guns. It’s rare to see it in a game, so I’m happy to see it. Although the recoil seems to be a bit low for a four gauge admittedly, I have no experience with an actual KS-23.

The fictional weapons include the Dominator, the Electro, the Rail Gun, and a few others. Sadly no PPSH-41s in the future. The game allows you to upgrade your weaponry to add different effects to its design. The upgrades are not just performance-based but also give the guns a new look depending on the upgrade. Your ammo can use the elements to deliver spicier blasts to certain foes.

The KS23 in Atomic Heart video game
My early upgrade KS23 features a heat shield and rifle sights. Oh and you can do a +1 for max capacity.

Oh, and make your shots count. Finding extra ammo isn’t always easy, and it’s fairly scant. Luckily, along your journey, you can find these booths that not only upgrade weapons but also allow you to create ammo, health packs, etc.

The Atomic Heart Beat

Atomic Heart is very much a Bioshock-style shooter, and that’s perfectly fine with me. It doesn’t seem like we are getting a new Bioshock anytime soon. A Russian design team also provides a different look at the Soviets, and it’s an interesting take on our old enemy. Give it a play. It’s one of my favorite games of 2023, for what that’s worth.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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