For nearly the entirety of its existence, the immersive sim genre has been a difficult one to get into. Not because the games are particularly difficult, but rather because they allow their players an otherwise unheard of level of freedom. Not just to go wherever they want whenever they want, but also in how they go about reaching their objectives.
Immersive sims like Prey and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided rarely give guidance when it comes to how to accomplish something, usually leaving it entirely up to the player. Understandably, this can be overwhelming for those unaccustomed to such freedom, so the best thing one can do is find a suitable bridge into the genre. Before, only BioShock fit the bill, but now there’s another option: Mundfish’s Atomic Heart.
While it lacks the narrative brilliance of BioShock and is still in some need of polish, Atomic Heart is still mechanically one of the best games one can play before diving into a full-scale immersive sim. It has many of the hallmarks of the genre such as free-roaming, free-form upgrading and letting players find their own solutions, but it only does so to a point.
The experience in Atomic Heart is more curated than in something like Prey, especially in the beginning. Players can’t just do whatever from the outset, and resource costs will encourage certain choices in the early game. One also can’t just break a window in order to enter a building. While this is disappointing for those who already enjoy immersive sims, it’s actually great for anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure.
The early linearity and higher level of limitation both ensure that genre newcomers have plenty of time to not just get used to what they can do, but also to think about what they could do. Atomic Heart gives players plenty of exotic combat abilities to play around with, but also features a rudimentary stealth system. Players are also actively incentivized to not engage with the robots patrolling Facility 3826 thanks to the threat of infinite reinforcements.
Players can easily take down any single robot or even small groups, but that won’t help them traverse the facility grounds. This forces one to think about what they could do instead. A properly spec’d character could just run through everything, creep up and stun everything before shutting down the local network, or even do some mix of both. Whatever the decision, it’ll have to be one that’s more creative than just “shoot everything.”
The same goes for puzzle solutions, in particular those found after the opening chapters. If one’s been paying attention, then they’ll have been trained to look for things like Polymer tunnels, yellow outcroppings, magnets and really anything that looks traversable. Noticing these quickly becomes the key to moving forward, as there’s always a convenient sign or series of environmental clues to highlight the path. Again, Atomic Heart doesn’t go so far as to allow players to quite literally make their own paths, but it does reward observation and creative thinking.
The ability to refund upgrades helps enhance all this too, as it means players aren’t forced into sticking with one character build over the course of the game. Players always have the option to remove upgrades and recycle weapons they no longer want, and they can recoup 100 percent of the resources spent to get them.
In this way, one can play around with high-level versions of virtually every weapon and ability in a single playthrough, making it easy to make a personalized build later on. Neither Prey nor Deus Ex: Mankind Divided were nearly as forgiving, but then both games were made for players who had a better idea of what they were doing. With Atomic Heart, though, learning how to play these sorts of games seems to be a big point of its design.
Atomic Heart is a more curated experience that stops sort of giving players the near-total freedom of execution seen in full-fledged immersive sims like Prey, but that’s a boon rather than a bane. Players can’t do everything they can think of, but they are nonetheless still given a lot of leeway.
It presents players with many options in many scenarios, inflicts no penalties for respec’-ing, re-upgrading and it often rewards careful observation and outside-the-box thinking. Even better, one can also just run through and enjoy it as a semi-open world FPS. It’s up to the player how much they engage with Atomic Heart’s immersive elements, and those that do will be ready for the real deal should they want to.