Computing

Atomic Heart: Restoring My Faith in PC Ports

I had extremely low expectations for Atomic Heart. While I was confident that I would enjoy the game, I’ve been disappointed by numerous half-baked, stuttering, and buggy PC ports in recent years. It’s hard to put too much faith in an ambitious AAA title with next-generation technology from a developer without much experience. It sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But Atomic Heart not only exceeded my expectations, it completely blew them away. While it may not be a flawless game, it serves as a near-perfect tech demo. The game boasts some of the most stunning visuals available in PC gaming right now, and despite that, it runs smoothly on a variety of hardware.

Ditching Ray Tracing

Atomic Heart has been a key focus of Nvidia’s ray tracing showcases since the introduction of the first RTX generation in 2018. It may surprise you to learn that Atomic Heart doesn’t support ray tracing on PC or consoles at launch.

Developer Mundfish has promised to introduce ray tracing in a future patch, but I believe that Atomic Heart is better off without it. It’s no secret that ray tracing significantly impacts performance. With games like Portal RTX showcasing features such as RTX Direct Illumination, even high-end systems can appear underwhelming.

While Nvidia would undoubtedly appreciate another ray tracing showcase to join the ranks of Cyberpunk 2077 and Warhammer 40,000 Darktide, Atomic Heart doesn’t actually need ray tracing. The game already utilizes traditional rasterized techniques that deliver fantastic lighting and shadows. Not to mention, this approach saves a significant amount of computational power.

A robot's face pulls apart as it screams in Atomic Heart.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Although Atomic Heart has ditched ray tracing, it hasn’t abandoned RTX entirely. Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS), including Frame Generation for RTX 40-series GPUs, is available in the game. DLSS works exceptionally well in Atomic Heart. While it may not be as fast as Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales, artifacts are few and far between and difficult to notice.

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And it’s not just Nvidia users who can benefit. Atomic Heart also supports AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) 2, allowing you to boost performance regardless of whether you have an RTX GPU or not.

It’s worth noting the controversy surrounding Atomic Heart’s promise of ray tracing for years through Nvidia showcases, only to withdraw it right before the game’s release. In my opinion, given the game’s stellar performance and visuals without ray tracing, it was the right decision. Still, it’s hard to ignore the bait-and-switch situation.

Stutter-Free Experience

Player character electrocuting AI robots in Atomic Heart.
Mundfish

The most surprising aspect of Atomic Heart is its seamless performance on PC. I’ve grown accustomed to new PC releases exhibiting some degree of stuttering, but Atomic Heart has proven to be an exception. Even Returnal, which I consider one of the more stable PC releases in recent years, occasionally experienced brief freezes and crashed multiple times during testing. The bar is set quite low.

In my 15 hours of gameplay, I encountered a single hiccup when loading into a new area, with no crashes or significant frame rate drops. What’s even more impressive is that Atomic Heart utilizes the notorious Unreal Engine, infamous for stuttering in games like Gotham Knights.

Atomic Heart achieves such smooth performance by compiling shaders on your graphics card before launching the game. Shader compilation is often the culprit behind stuttering in games like Elden Ring. By loading the shaders onto your GPU beforehand, Atomic Heart avoids any performance hitches while in-game.

Thanks to its exceptional optimization, features like DLSS and FSR feel more like performance enhancements rather than crutches. This optimization also allows for greater flexibility in adjusting settings. Alongside the standard suite of anti-aliasing and quality options, Atomic Heart includes sliders for animation quality, which alleviate stress on other system components.

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Between precompiled shaders, dense graphics settings, and numerous upscaling options, Atomic Heart surpasses any other AAA PC game I’ve played in the last three years, if not longer.

With an RTX 4090, I consistently achieved frame rates between 120 and 165 fps at the highest Atomic preset on my Alienware 34 QD-OLED monitor. Even without DLSS, I locked in at 165 fps. Similarly, with an RTX 3070 at 1440p and DLSS set to Balanced, I maintained well above 100 fps.

Great Performance on the Steam Deck

Emulator collection on Steam Deck.
Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Although Atomic Heart has yet to receive official Steam Deck verification, it currently holds a “Playable” status. I anticipate it will soon obtain the coveted green checkmark, as the game runs excellently on Valve’s handheld device.

Playing at the native resolution with the Low graphics preset, I consistently achieved a locked 60 fps in linear areas, with frame rates ranging between 50 and 60 fps in semi-open sections. While it’s possible to activate FSR, either within the game or through the Steam Deck itself, I found it unnecessary. Furthermore, there is a noticeable drop in image quality due to the limited resolution for AMD’s upscaling algorithm.

Yet again, the precompiled shaders greatly contribute to the overall experience. Shader compilation takes a bit longer on the Steam Deck compared to PC, approximately five minutes, but I strongly recommend allowing your device to complete this process before launching the game.

PC releases have been disappointingly lackluster in recent years, with many experiencing stuttering and performance drops regardless of hardware. Atomic Heart is a refreshing exception, offering a smooth and enjoyable experience even without ray tracing available at launch.

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Editors’ Recommendations

  • Despite mixed reviews, the RTX 4060 is making waves for Nvidia
  • Nvidia’s AI-driven game characters are becoming problematic
  • Modders have revolutionized GPU overclocking
  • Why I choose to disable Nvidia’s game-changing tech in most games
  • I’m constructing a new PC — here’s how I selected its components

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