Fallout 2 stands the test of time as one of my top two favourite games ever since 1999. While I’ve grown to like Bethesda’s first attempt at Fallout and loved Obsidian’s take on Bethesda’s formula, they didn’t exactly prove to be a Fallout 2 substitute for me. The same can be said for Underrail, Wasteland 2 and Age of Decadence. They’re all their own things. Call me a Nostalgia-stricken purist but it is what it is. So it’s no wonder that I’ve been on the lookout for a game to scratch this particular itch for quite some time. It’s how I came to notice ATOM, a crowdfunded indie RPG ‘heavily inspired’ by the classic Fallouts. 50 hours it took me to answer these two not-so-simple questions; does ATOM delivers on the promises made and is it a good RPG? Let’s find out.
ATOM RPG is a post-apocalyptic indie game, inspired by classic CRPGs: Fallout, Wasteland, System Shock, Deus Ex and Baldur’s Gate for Microsoft Windows. Developed and published by Atom Team, the game was released into Steam Early Access towards the end of last year and was released out of Early Access on December 19, 2018.
Narrative & Setting
ATOM is set in early 2000s Russia, devastated by a nuclear holocaust that took place a little over two decades ago. The scars left behind by the war still remains in the heart and bodies of the waste dwellers. You play as an agent of ATOM, a secret organization aiming to restore the motherland to its former glory. You are sent forth into the Wasteland to find a lost ATOM expedition team on the search for a mysterious pre-war bunker. The story begins with the player character getting robbed of all their possessions by a group of bandits while on the road. From here on out, the player is handed complete reins of the character. How you survive the wasteland is up to you.
While the story of ATOM isn’t going to bring home any awards, it’s a semi-decent plot shrouded in mystery and intrigue. It does falter into the clichéd territory towards the end and the final boss fight is underwhelming at the best. But the game flourishes in its depiction of a fallen communist regime through solid writing, coated with Soviet culture and an array of interesting and wacky characters. I was surprised to see how good the writing was despite it being a translation. Sure, there are some errors and typos in the spellings and grammatical errors but that doesn’t pull you away from the experience much unlike let’s say….Planet Alcatraz? There is a lot of charm to the writing and characters. If you’re familiar with Russian literature and politics from the 1900s, boy oh boy, you’re in for a treat!
Even though Atom takes a more grounded approach to its harsh post-war setting, there are enough mythical, black humour and paranormal elements to make the setting feel unique. Things like the neo-socialist party believing Vladimir Lenin to be an otherworldly mutant hunter, paranormal entities, doomsday cults and old-world superstitions manages to give the setting of ATOM just the right bit of flavour to make it stand out. Each location you visit and the characters you interact with has their own stories or their own version of stories to tell. There are tonnes of lines of texts detailing the character backstories, lore, philosophies, wasteland stories and of course; spicy rumours. Thus it is worth talking to each and every character you meet, be it a common thug or a wasteland capitalist.
Before playing ATOM, I never thought I’d find see RPG that rivals Fallout 2 in terms of pop-cultural references. ATOM is choke full of easter eggs, pop-cultural references, parodies and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. From Lord of the Rings to Mad Max to Witcher to cryptocurrencies, if you can imagine it, chances are ATOM references it in one way or another. This also means that the people who found Fallout 2 to be bloated with pop-cultural references will feel the same about ATOM.
Gameplay & Mechanics
ATOM has accomplished what it set out to do, i.e be a spiritual successor to Fallout. Truth be told, it feels like a quasi-sequel more than anything. The setting and technology may have changed but it is Fallout at heart with a touch of STALKER. Therefore, excuse me for the repeated Fallout comparisons for the remainder of this review.
Anyone familiar with Fallout, Arcanum or Wasteland 2 will feel right at home in ATOM. However this time around, the game is fully 3D with a zoomable and rotatable camera. But if you’re like me, you’re likely to go into settings, set the camera distance to maximum for the classic isometric viewpoint. After a brief intro, the player character is free to explore the wasteland at their own pace and play out their post-nuclear fantasy. Like any other RPG, the general gameplay consists of travelling, discovering settlements, NPC interaction, combat and questing. There is the main story to follow but there are plenty of distractions along the way.
Character Progression & RPG Mechanics
The first thing that pops into your mind when hovering over the character sheet in ATOM is, once again, how similar it is to Fallout 2. The attributes and stats system is heavily inspired by GURPS and SPECIAL with some slight name changes. There are 7 attributes (capping at 11) namely Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, Intelligence, Attention, Personality and Luck, affecting stats such as melee damage, carry weight, HP, ranged chance to hit, amount of skill points, awareness, charisma and critical chance. Moreover, there are 16 skills (capping at 200) including the likes of unarmed, melee, 3 different types of ranged, speechcraft, barter, lockpicking, technology, first aid etc. You are also allowed to take two traits having positive as well as negative effects at the start of the game. Each time you level up by means of questing and combat, you are granted X amounts of skill points (based on Intelligence) and perk points which can be used to acquire perks.
ATOM tries its best to be as balanced as it can when it comes to Attributes and Skills. But as you can imagine, some are more important than others and a small number of them end up being ‘dumb’ stats. This holds true for Luck (no surprises there), Gambling, Tinkering (only affects the success rate of rolls and not the quality of the crafted item), Throwing Weapons and Stealth, while skills like Lockpicking, Survival, and Technology are not worth increasing above the value of 100. I’m not saying these are not viable, just that they are severely underused when compared to the likes of Barter and Speechcraft. That being said, I absolutely love the fact that diplomatic skills got some love in ATOM as Speechcraft and Barter is used a lot (and I mean a LOT) and can make your time in the Russian wasteland a lot easier.
The perks in ATOM are pretty disappointing. Rather than opening up new or alternative mechanics, most of the times, they just offer an incremental increase in your skills or deduction of penalties. Other than the balance issues inferred above, the RPG systems work rather well. At no point in the game are you forced to grind for XP or farm for gear. The gradual character progression is very similar to Fallout 1/2. There are several beef gates around the map but people with at least basic knowledge of RPGs knows how to get around these. There is no level cap but I was able to finish my first playthrough at level 18, clocking just around 50 hours with only a handful of things left to do. There is an achievement for getting to level 30 in a harder difficulty, but as far as the content goes, there is no real reason to aim for that right now.
ATOM once again looks up to Fallout when it comes to the combat. The combat is turn-based where you have a number of action points per turn to move, attack, use items etc. The combat is very simple and basic, lacking any of the advanced combat options found in the likes of X-COM or Mutant: Year Zero. There is no cover system per se, but you will be able to hide behind objects such as rocks or boulders (same applies to enemies). You are able to take aimed shots at the cost of more AP. As of now, the aimed shots isn’t working like its intended and will be addressed in the next patch. The weapons available in the game are based off on their 20th-century counterparts. Aside from an experimental rifle, you won’t find any futuristic items like laser or plasma weaponry.
Do note that you can only control your own character during combat, but commands such as ‘attack’, ‘defend’, ‘use melee’ or ‘run away’ can be given to the companions. Sadly, the companion AI during combat is not that great. The difficulty of ATOM can seem daunting at first. But a few levels under the belt and some semi-decent gear can turn your character from a freshwater fish to a hardened survivor. Still, you might run into a few unbalanced encounters here and there, the final outcome of which depends on your character build.
Locations and Quests
From the get-go, you are free to explore the Soviet wasteland at your own leisure. The main map of the game is populated with more than 25 locations of varying sizes. There are hamlets, cities, military bases, outposts, ruins, caverns and even a frigging circus run by mutants. It goes without saying you will also run into random encounters, some of which are outright creepy. There are two other maps. Other than a handful of quests and 2-3 locations, there is not a lot to see and do in these, as they are primarily used to advance the main story. I was kind of disappointed at first because the two other maps look really cool and it seems like wasted potential. I think they are probably reserved for future content. One other thing that bugged me was how slow the map travel by foot is. You can get a car mid-way through the game but that doesn’t excuse the snail’s speed at which you go from one corner of the map to another. Anyhow, in these locations you’ll run into people to meet, befriend or screw over (don’t feel bad you’ll get screwed over plenty). You have to give the team credit for their attention to detail. The thing that surprised me the most is that all the NPC models and portraits completely matches their description- to the colour of their clothes to the hair on their head. This was something that bugged me a lot in Wasteland 2. In it, the portraits and models of the NPCs hardly had anything to do with their descriptions. In ATOM, if you happen upon an NPC described as being ugly and disgusting, you darn bet he’ll be the ugliest son of a gun you’ll ever meet. I know this is a minor thing and not many people pay attention to it, but hey, credit where credit is due.
Side Quests in ATOM really takes the cake. Not only are there multiple ways to solve each quest, but some quests also may not be as straightforward as you think and can go in some bizarre directions. Some quests even have cleverly crafted puzzles and even require rational thinking. Quests can be solved diplomatically, by intimidation or by straight up brute force. A lot of quests also feature multiple diplomatic skill checks for your convenience. Above all, the side quests in ATOM doesn’t insult the intelligence of the player. There are no hand-holding in the form of quest markers or waypoints. There are also multiple factions to work for/against. However, don’t expect a New Vegas faction system.
I understand little boy ATOM looking up to papa Fallout for inspiration. But, was there any need to bring back the outdated UI? The inventory screen, for example, is a carbon copy of Fallout 2 and is still terrible as it was 20 years ago. The Journal suffers the fate of being as detailed as my high school answer papers. For some reason, you can’t view or change the controls in options and have to look it up on Google. There is no brightness slider or an option to increase font size without increasing the size of the entire UI. Since the developers are actively working on the game, perhaps they should have a look at these.
ATOM is made on a relatively low-budget. Thus, one should not expect mind-blowing visuals and graphical fidelity. That isn’t to say that ATOM looks bad. Quite the contrary. ATOM goes for a more grounded and realistic art style compared to its peers and looks good enough for what it is. The character models are very well rendered and environments have lots of detail to them. You will hardly notice the drawbacks of the engine thanks to the high camera angle. The colour palette, for the most part, is brown and grey but there are plenty of places in the maps with lush vegetation and colour.
The game was tested on the following specs:
- Intel Core i5 7500 3.40Ghz
- GTX 1070 8 GB
- 8×2 GB 2400Mhz DDR4 Ram
- Windows 10 Pro 64 Bit
Aside from one specific area in the game’s largest city, there was hardly any fps dips below triple digits throughout the game. There is one issue with Vsync that every time on starting the game, it would automatically turn itself on. I did run into several minute bugs like characters getting stuck in the midst of combat one time, a tooltip not disappearing from the screen and some journal entries not being updated/removed. Aside from these minor issues, ATOM is a smooth sailing ship.
As far as the music is concerned, ATOM does a decent job. The song played on the main menu itself is very catchy and the rest of the soundtracks contribute to boosting the atmosphere of the desolate and haunting Russian wasteland. Being a budget game, there is no voice acting but that has never turned me away. Weapon sounds are decent but the devs should think about adding more sound effects during combat, such as enemies screaming or groaning in pain.
Superficially, ATOM feels less like a spiritual successor and more like a quasi-sequel to Fallout with some strong STALKER vibes. Yet despite the strong similarities, ATOM manages to stand on its own feet thanks to the unique setting and the quirky Slavic charm. It’s a well-made game with tried and true RPG systems, but one that doesn’t necessarily fix the problems of its role model or revolutionize the systems. ATOM does what it promises to do extremely well. For $ 14.99 or ₹ 479, you just can’t go wrong with this one.