Atomic Heart launched after years of build up and hype recently, and while the game has certainly proven to be successful, it has also proven to be controversial and divisive. A lot of that comes from external global geopolitical factors surrounding the game, but even among the crowd that insists on separating “the politics from the games”, Atomic Heart hasn’t been a total home run. Which isn’t to say it has been a disaster or anything – it’s received a lot of praise for a lot of the stuff it does do well (which we will get in a bit), but for as much positive passion it has elicited from some players, it has also generated a lot of pushback.
Why, exactly, has Atomic Heart proven to be so divisive? It’s an interesting question, because on paper, you would think the game would mark the triumphant return of the style of “lite” immersive-sim/FPS/RPG blend that we saw so much of for a few years back in the day – you know, games like Deus Ex, and STALKER. People loved those games, and Atomic Heart looks to be the first big title in that lineage in a long time. That’s good, right?
The issue goes back to it being a great pitch on paper. While, on paper, Atomic Heart’s pitch is in fact very compelling – systems driven progression emphasizing player freedom and agency, a fusion of immersive sim, shooter, and RPG mechanics, set in an atmospheric open world, against the backdrop of an alternate history following the end of the Second World War, and the early years of the Cold War – to doesn’t end up coming together quite that well in execution, and fumbles the ball on certain key and critical things that keep the experience from reaching the kinds of highs that titles such as Deus Ex or STALKER did.
A key reason for these problems is, unfortunately, the writing and storytelling. Atomic Heart does certainly have an extremely interesting premise, and its blend of dystopia/alternate history/AI going rogue plot should provide the perfect backdrop to an immersive sim FPS adventure. However, the actual writing lets the potential of this plot (without getting into the troubling real world implications the plot has) constantly. We’ve gotten a bunch of extremely poorly written games this year already, that have gotten deservedly clowned for the poor quality of their writing, storytelling, and dialog, and Atomic Heart certainly belongs with the worst of them on these fronts. The writing is juvenile, disjointed, and heavy-handed, and is further let down by how awful the voice acting can often be (at least in English).
Simply having poor writing does not necessarily have to spell the death knell for a game’s storytelling ambitions; there have been several games with poor or subpar writing, but interesting enough story backdrops, that they can still captivate players (look at Bethesda Game Studio games, for example, which have great, compelling backstories, settings, and lore that engage the imaginations of millions of players around the world, in spite of frankly awful moment to moment writing). And certainly, if Atomic Heart was doing justice to the potential of its textured premise, then a lot of people might presumably be more inclined to engage with the story it is telling. But another common complaint from the game seems to be that the story does not play out in a satisfying way, and does not ever do justice to its initial pitch. Now, to be clear, our GamingBolt review found the story to be solid, and certainly didn’t find it lacking enough for it to be an knock against the game – however, the way the story unfolds is turning out to be a common enough complaint among some players so that even if you were able to look past the weak writing, chances are the story side of things would still be a total bust for you regardless.
This ends up being a major issue for the game, because the genre it is in has typically come part and parcel with expansive and rich settings that allow for read thematic and narrative coverage, and the potential for a lot of plot threads to allow micro- and macro- level stories playing out not just across individual quests or even games, but sometimes across multiple, forming compelling, overarching narratives that incentivize sticking with the game. It is almost impossible to talk about how cool Deus Ex or STALKER are without also getting into how great their settings are, and how imaginative and rich their plots and story are as well. Atomic Heart does not pass muster on that front for a significantly large number of players, meaning it drops the ball on a critical pillar of the genre it is in.
The gameplay side of things certainly holds up its end of the bargain better than the story and narrative side, but still ends up having several issues that might end up further dissuading someone who is already disinclined to continue with the game owing to the story and storytelling issues we mentioned above. The biggest issue is the general level of tank with the game – the menus, UX, and UI are extremely clunky and frankly baffling (and you will be spending a lot of time in them), with the in-game map being especially useless (a huge stumble for an open world game); there is a lot of systemic depth, but also a lot of systemic bloat, and there are entire mechanics and systems that feel not only poorly explained, but also entirely out of place, with what they do and how they fit into the rest of the game never feeling clear; the game is extremely buggy, with hard crashes and failed quest triggers abound (a popular Trophy and Achievement guides site infamously decided against putting out a guide for this game, given its general bugginess causing issues without figuring out why many achievements and trophies simply are not unlocking); even the moment to moment gameplay can feel janky, with extremely clumsy controls that can take a long time to get used to for many.
It also doesn’t help that so much of the game tries to bury a lot of what Atomic Heart is good at. As we mentioned before, at its beat, its a systems driven atmospheric open world lite-immersive sim RPG shooter hybrid, giving the player almost infinite flexibility in what they want to do and how they want to do it. When Atomic Heart does allow that, it is great. But so much of the game… doesn’t. Take, for example, the intro hours of the game, which force you through a series of linear fetch quests, bookended by a forced emphasis on storytelling and world building. Taking away the openness and agency to force linearity on the player in service of storytelling is certainly a choice for a game that sucks so bad at the storytelling, and it means Atomic Heart doesn’t exactly put its best foot forward to begin with. Take, also, the issues specified with the controls, UX, and UI previously. Having that freedom and agency in terms of engaging with the game is great, but the game goes out of its way to make that miserable for you. Do you want to engage with the open world? Here, have this totally useless map. Do you want to delve into the roleplaying or survival or immersive sim mechanics? Deal with these menus that border on being worse than useless, they border on being actively terrible to use. Simply playing the game can feel rough, given how poor the controls can feel.
A point of comparison for this game I have raised multiple times has been STALKER. It’s funny, because vanilla STALKER had a lot of issues as well – it wan’t always a beloved classic or a stalwart of the genre. A dedicated fan community on PC spent years fixing the game with mods, ironing out its problems, and helping it blossom to its full potential. Certainly, on PC at least, Atomic Heart could end up similarly motivating a cavalcade of fans to stick with it and iron out its problems, and help it achieve its potential. But STALKER’s issues were mostly all mechanical and relating to polish – that’s something mods can fix. Atomic Heart has those problems, but out also fails singularly hard on the whole story and setting front, which, as mentioned, can be a critical part of the genre’s experience to many, many players. It’s unclear whether those problems will be fixed buy the fan community, it’s unclear whether they can be fixed.
Even if they can’t be, at its beat, Atomic Heart seems to deliver an experience good enough that it has a legion of fans who do love it, warts and all (and after all, janky and flawed games is almost as much a hallmark of the genre itself). While it has proven to be more divisive than the games in whose footsteps it seeks to follow were, and while that may never change, if you are among those who can put up with its rough edges, you may end up being one of the many who did fall in love with the game. If, however, the issues sound too much for you to bear, my recommendation would be to hold off on Atomic Heart for now – it’s not like we don’t have other titles in this genre coming soon to turn to instead, after all.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.