Review: "Atomic Heart" is a Russian valentine
And maybe just don't bother opening it.
Atomic Heart could have been wonderful—if it were made by another developer or didn’t receive funding from the Kremlin or didn’t seek to funnel money back into Russia to support their ongoing war and also if it didn’t have so many issues in the game itself.
It could have been great instead of mediocre and disappointing.
This FPS title from developer Mundfish (originally founded in Moscow and recently relocated to Cyprus) is under fire for more than its unsettling Soviet utopia content but also for its ties to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
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In this alternate history of the Soviet Union, Russia turned the tide of World War II through the use of robots. Scientist Dmitry Sechenov invented a liquid module named Polymer which ultimately leads to a revolutionary breakthrough in creating an artificial intelligence named Kollektiv. These inventions free many people from the burdens of manual labor, which is a dream come true. Another device, named Thought, allows Polymer to be integrated into the human body to allow direct interfacing with the robots linked together by Kollektiv.
But in 1955, terrorists hack this system, causing the utopian society and Facility 3826, the Soviet Union’s foremost scientific hub, to be plunged into pandemonium.
Major Comrade Sergei Nechaev, also nicknamed P-3, serves as the main protagonist, a KGB agent sent by Dr. Sechenov to Facility 3826 to regain control of the chaos. P-3 must fight through hacked robots, failed biomechanical experiments, and combat his own deteriorating mental health while at Facility 3826.
Visually, this game is stunning and will immediately make players think of Bioshock. But the movement is rather clumsy and jerky, which will then banish those impressions. Movement is one of the most basic functions that determine the enjoyment of a game. If you can’t move well, the entire experience just becomes draining.
However, Atomic Heart does do a beautiful job of crafting a world that walks the line between horror and suspense — from its disconcerting Soviet paradise to the unease inspired by the lifeless, humanoid robots on the streets. Even P-3 himself is shrouded in mystery, as he obeys his commands without hesitation and lacks any real memories of his own past. Everything about the world and society of Atomic Heart seems perfect but it isn’t.
Perhaps it’s the secrets of P-3’s past or perhaps it’s the seedy interior of Mundfish. Perhaps it’s both.
As far as problematic content in-game, it’s the usual culprits: bloody effects, gory images, scantily clad women, and hypersexualized feminized robots. To top it off, Atomic Heart includes the option to watch a cartoon from the real-world Soviet Era, one that contains harmful, racist imagery against people of color and indigenous tribes.
However, there are reasons besides the game content that may give players pause before purchasing, including allegations of the title being funded by the Kremlin. According to PCGamesN, the Ukrainian government issued an official letter to Valve, Microsoft, and Sony — all major digital storefronts for video games across the world —to remove Atomic Heart from Ukraine.
“We also urge limiting the distribution of this game in other countries due to its toxicity, potential data collection of users, and the potential use of money raised from game purchases to conduct a war against Ukraine,” stated Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation.
On February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis urged: “Let us remain close to the tormented Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer. And let us ask ourselves: has everything possible been done to stop the war?”
To buy or not to buy is the question for those of us who aren’t world leaders. It is by small gestures that we can make our own statement on the war and violence perpetuated by Russia.
Atomic Heart could have been great but it isn’t — and we should keep both Francis’ and Bornyakov’s words in mind when it comes to whether or not it’s worth supporting an unjust war.