If Fallout 3 kept the old-school RPG system, isometric view and was set in Russia it would look a lot like ATOM RPG. The setting, loot, graphics, skill system and combat mechanics are so surprisingly good that I’m instantly eager to play the final version. But I’m anxious about the writing. As much as I love everything about the first two Fallouts it’s the writing that made them classics.
19 years after nuclear armageddon pockets of humanity survive. Each community clings to varying levels of technology and civilization. You are an agent of a relatively intact and benign group on the trail of a missing expedition.
The game starts rough, committing the sin of taking control away in order to set up a dire starting situation. From there it opens up into the usual mix of visiting towns, talking to locals and helping them out for XP and reward. You can resolve conflict through dialogue or through granular, turn based combat. Underlying it all is an old school, complex RPG system with a wide range of skills.
It’s quite attractive with excellent models and textures. The sound and especially music is evocative of the setting. Even the intro voice acting is quite good, the english perfect but with enough Russian accent to help set the mood.
The slavic setting creates delicious little nuggets of flavor for a north american player. Strange cyrillic signage, the sad old-timey Russian music that plays when you flip on a gramophone. Amusing alcohol fetch missions (2 of my first 3 missions were highly specific alcohol requests :).
ATOM gives you all the wonderful foreign texture with none of the usual issues. It’s smooth and refined; from using WASD for camera movement to instant, silky smooth quicksave linked to the correct key.
Homage? Ripoff? I don’t care.
It’s so close to Fallout that you’ll know how many action points each attack type takes after the very first round. It’s that familiar. But I still love those systems and don’t think the upgrade to 3D and watering down of RPG elements improved the series. Since Fallout abandoned its own formula I have no issue with someone else taking it up, especially when it’s done with such thought and craft.
It’s one thing to have a lovely, detailed RPG system with skills like speechcraft and entomology but you have to make sure your game uses those skills so you don’t waste the players efforts. There are only 4 hours of gameplay before you start running into content in development but it was enough to see a number of novel skills and solutions used. There are also hints of factional loyalty to deal with and conflicting priorities. It’s instantly familiar but sufficiently new.
The world is post-apocalyptic and appropriately grim but also realistic in presenting a plausible society. I stopped playing Wasteland 2 specifically because the world was so ludicrously bloody. That level of violence and chaos would self destruct in weeks. By the 5th village I encountered where I was forced to take sides in a suddenly dire confrontation and invariably massacre half the town I lost all interest in the world.
ATOM has bandits, starvation and the usual tropes but the resulting world is reminiscent of the middle ages – lacking our comprehensive modern safety nets but not a complete collapse of civilization and people’s inherent tendencies to be decent to each other.
There are certain design decisions that I just like better than others and ATOM mostly picks what I like. Loot, for example, is entirely tangible. When you kill a human you find everything a person might carry. Not just weapons and a bit of cash but a secondary melee weapon, pack of cigarettes, a memento, lunch and hat. And that hat gives a small bonus to your survival skill if it has a sun-blocking brim, or a bonus to speechcraft if it’s the sort the proletariat favor.
I was disappointed when animals and insects didn’t drop loot, I was hungry but too poor to buy food from the bar. Then I found an old man fishing by a pond. Once I fetched him a bottle of liquor (unopened old world vodka as requested) he taught me how to strip mutant insects of their trophies and I gained the entomology skill. When I found a knife I was able to harvest meat from animals. There are many nice touches like that that make the world real.
There are also just as many mechanical considerations. The UI is not perfect, especially when dealing with a lot of inventory, but it helps where it can. Dragging over cash to complete a transaction automatically selects the correct amount for you. Turning on an ancient computer presented a quick programming puzzle that was perfectly plausible and keeping with the theme.
There are minor game design issues that I’d need to play the entire game to see how they pan out. You get early access to a massive amount of loot and equipment with only a minor barrier (a barrier which only adds to your loot once you defeat it). I don’t necessarily have a problem with it. It made sense to the narrative and these kinds of loot-heavy games limit your wealth by carrying capacity more than scarcity. But it did quickly make me far richer than any of the townsfolk.
It causes a bit of a disconnect from the grim setting. Within a few days after starting essentially naked you no longer have to worry about survival from a food and medicine standpoint. I was still squishy in a very deadly world and combat system, but already spoiled and turning my nose up at perfectly good loot if it wasn’t extremely valuable and portable.
Progression also feels fast and that’s without any min-maxing. With the arsenal of weapons I already have and rapid skill rise I can see becoming too deadly too early, especially when the system allows me to aim at weak-points. And while I worry about it being too powerful on the high end you’re too useless on the low. Lacking points in the throwing skill causes grenades to fall at your feet as often as fly towards the target.
The choice for wandering foes is tedious. Humans are always interesting to fight but you’ll tire of the stream of rats and giant insects. The fights are short and they’re a good source of early XP but the rest of the game has more imagination put into it, I wish these early monsters did too.
Some quests are likewise generic – I simply never want to solve another town murder again. I hated running around talking to everyone the first time a game made me do it. Repeating in every single RPG since has not increased my fondness.
OMG, the writing is like, so random
The writing is so strange I want to reach out to the devs out of sheer curiosity. At a guess I’d say a Russian wrote a grim script and handed it over to a jolly, bilingual Brit who had never watched a post apocalyptic movie. The end result is perfect sentences and narrative told through almost silly conversations. When grim, grizzled, apocalypse surviving Russian peasants respond to my questions with “Oh you don’t say” it pulls me out of the carefully constructed setting.
If the game released today with all the intended content but no improvement to writing I’d still play it. It’s not the subject of the narrative that’s a problem. The threads and ideas are interesting but the choice of words is so often bizarre. I’d still have enough to enjoy when combined with the rest of the quality components but I’d experience the game only skimming the dialogue and that would be a shame.
Aside from the jocular tone and strange reactions there’s a structural problem with repetition. Each encounter has the same four starting questions (plus any additional story or quest specific threads). After a few hours I mechanically tapped the same sequence of keyboard shortcuts to get through each conversation as quickly as possible.
Should you buy it?
ATOM is going to stay in early access for 5-6 months. That’s plenty of time to fix the script and balance issues. They’ve done so much of the hard work already with the graphics, high level of stability and polish. It could instantly become a classic if they pull the writing up to where the rest of the game is.
There’s no reason to buy it now other than supporting the devs. The price will remain the same and there are only a few hours of content. I’ll put it aside until release so I can enjoy a single, proper run-through instead of consuming it in bits. But put the game on your wish list. At CDN$17 it will be a bargain for how much quality content I think it will have.