Making one of Atomic Heart’s quirkiest side characters the star of its first dose of DLC is a clever touch. Few moments in the main game were more memorable than those spent with NORA, the sex-mad Soviet AI running riot within the lewd and lustful upgrade machines dotted throughout Facility 3826. Annihilation Instinct’s story picks up after the weaker of the main game’s two anticlimactic endings and pits us against NORA, who’s gone completely rogue. Unfortunately, unlike the main campaign itself, the gauntlet you run in Annihilation Instinct is a largely linear and fairly forgettable few hours, with a stripped-back suite of weapons and power-ups giving it less of an opportunity to distinguish itself.
The added context Annihilation Instinct eventually provides about why NORA has consistently had the hots for our main man P-3 in the first place feels inessential, but it fits firmly within the fiction. What’s less elegant is the fact that, since Atomic Heart has two entirely different endings, Annihilation Instinct can only pick up from one of them and – at least for a while – it didn’t seem entirely clear which one that was. If you’ve only finished Atomic Heart once (and battled all the way to Sechenov’s office in the process) you’re probably going to be thoroughly confused at the outset.
It also creates a weird kink in the storytelling where we know more about certain characters than P-3 does himself in this timeline, thanks to a pivotal encounter that appears now to have never occurred. I will admit, there were also times where Annihilation Instinct leans a bit too heavily into its techno-babble, to the point where I found myself simply nodding along politely. It’s a little like trying to explain nuclear fission to your dog.
All of this takes place in Mendeleev Complex, an entirely new location which is under the iron grip of the naughty NORA, and once again there’s admittedly little to fault in Annihilation Instinct’s visual design. It features a terrific set of environments that are easily on-par with the atompunk-inspired labs and facilities of the original, and the retro-futuristic aircraft hangar is particularly strong – even though it’s not actually somewhere you need to linger long. However, while it includes some open space above ground, Annihilation Instinct otherwise funnels us through a linear set of encounters that don’t give us a great deal of scope to explore its interesting world.
The new robot types are well designed – not surprising, following the strength of the enemy designs in Atomic Heart – but there are only two of them. The new humanoid robots – which are characterised by a more crash test dummy appearance than the sleek, moustachioed attack bots we were carving up back in February – creepily tiptoe towards us like deadly dolls. They also toss their limbs like boomerangs, which is a neat idea cheapened by the fact that this attack could be effective through walls.
The others are BEA-Ds, which are basically inflatable gym ball-sized bots that can combine to form more powerful foes. There are two scripted boss fights against a few-dozen BEA-Ds that have formed what essentially looks like a giant, weaponised Mr. DNA from Jurassic Park. It is, however, just the same boss fight twice, so the second time around it’s a lukewarm and repetitive way to close out the chapter.
The sparse new enemy types would be less of a downer if there were a lot of new ways to dispose of them and their older counterparts, but disappointingly, there aren’t actually many weapons available in Annihilation Instinct. Only two are new – there’s a melee weapon that’s part halberd and part gardening tool, and a jerry-rigged light machine gun that doesn’t quite have the stopping power I’d expect from something so large and menacing. These can be upgraded, although I don’t know that it’s worth schlepping back and forth across the Mendeleev Complex to do so. A hugely explosive power-up disguised as a chocolate bar makes an appearance too, but I ransacked a lot of rooms and only ever came across a couple of them. It’s a grand effect – and crucial in a late, unfair encounter that pins P-3 in a small room to fend off a ridiculous wave of robots – but it’s a rare sight.
I did get a lot of use out of the new ability to slow down time within a bubble around me, but most of the other powers from Atomic Heart (like ice and telekinesis) are absent in this DLC for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Combined with the fact the only original weapons that reappear are a pistol, a shotgun, and a club, there are times when Annihilation Instinct feels more like a demo that gives you a taste of the main campaign than post-release DLC that adds on new stuff.