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'80s Popcorn Love: An Ion Fury Review

This is my review for Ion Fury (2019). It focuses on the game's best components: gameplay and level design. The game's negatives mostly revolve around its "neutral" politics, which are largely relegated to the dubious in-game Read Me. Because the Read Me feels so disjointed from the main game, I have chosen to analyze it in a separate critique that views Ion Fury through a feminist-Gothic lens. You can read that here.

Introduction

Ion Fury is a Build engine game developed by Voidpoint and produced by 3DRealms, the makers of the original Duke Nukem 3D. Like Duke NukemIon Fury is 2.5D, with a 3D environment, 2D, sprites (re: enemies and items), and some 3D objects made of something called voxels. Cool. The game's heroine, Shelly "Bombshell" Harrison, must use a unique combination of strategy (re: exploration, platforming and resource management) and battle tactics to survive Ion Fury's maze-like levels.

In their review, IGN wrote, "although it’s a frenetic, fun, occasionally frustrating yet inarguably authentic throwback to Duke Nukem 3D, it ultimately hails to the king without making a strong enough effort to dethrone him." IGN is stupid; Ion Fury is the best Build engine game by far—better than Duke by a mile, and even better, gameplay-wise, than my personal favorite, Blood

Ion Fury's gameplay is better than Blood, and the gameplay in Blood is already mostly excellent. However, I'm a Gothicist and still prefer Monolith's textual emphasis on horror films. Horror media can perpetuate superstition and xenophobia; but more often than not, it gives those oppressed by the state a voice. Action movies can empower the weak (re: the Western hero teaching the town to combat the dastardly Railroad's army of mercenaries); they can also voice the concerns of those already privileged by the state (re: Nixon's "silent majority"). 

To its credit, Ion Fury avoids straight up propaganda. It's a story without overt politics, choosing to advertise its more dubious ideas through '80s popcorn junk: Kicking ass is cool; so is consuming media about kicking ass. And for the most part I can't disagree. The game knows its stuff, offering a dearth of secrets and movie quotes. It's largely in good fun, the sexist and racist elements from older Build games largely removed from the game at large. Crisis averted!

That being said, if you're going to quote bad guys from Die Hard, please quote Hans Gruber, not the annoying lackey who says "Oh, my god, the quarterback is toast!" In a movie with so many memorable lines, why would anyone want to quote that guy?

This review is divided into two main parts: game design, and aesthetics.

Game Design

Resource Management

For me, Ion Fury kicks absolute ass for its lightning quick gameplay and consequential game design. A game like Doom Eternal gives the player way too many resources without having to explore*; conversely, a game like Ion Fury rewards exploration through maze-like levels. Inside them, the explorer is rewarded with armor vests and special power-ups they can't acquire from enemies: double damage and blast accelerator. The latter allows the player to blow enemies up with infinite grenades. These have no splash damage, are free, and grant the player stackable armor shards from gibbed foes. 

*This concept is explored in greater detail in my longread, "Spectating FPS Speedruns."

But why are armor shards important during big firefights? Instead of making the player feel inadequate by forcing them to fight bullet sponges, Ion Fury overwhelms the player Butch Cassidy-style by having bad guys surround the player from high and low, in front and behind. Getting nickel-and-dimed is a very real danger. Moments like these prioritize movement, but also any ability to heal the player can come up with. 

Hitscanners can whittle you down if you're not careful. Equally perilous are those those little spider bastards (which ignore armor and hit fairly hard for their size). To this, it pays to respect enemies that can kill you whether you're armored or not. Certain enemies, though especially "melee" types, ignore armor and prioritize health. So do environmental hazards like acid. Having enough health and armor is good, but dying while still having 100+ armor is something I wish could happen in other games; otherwise, armor is just a second health bar. Here, it's not, and I love that.

Bullet-type enemies, like hitscanners, tend to prioritize armor (re: Cultists), but they do low-damage compared to the game's projectile and rush-down enemies. You can rush them if you're armored; to maintain your armor mid-fight, you can "farm" armor shards with power-ups. Unlike Doom Eternal, which forces players to constantly gather unlimited armor shards inside basic arenas, Ion Fury's shard farming costs rare ammo (re: explosives, chaingun rounds) or power-ups. This forces the player to strategize outside combat, and use tactics inside combat to manage their limited resources.

I love how Ion Fury allows the player to "exchange" ammo for armor, and that ammo is not perpetual. Gibbed shards are yellow and regular, non-dropped shards are blue. However, turning off auto-aim and aiming for the head seems to increase the odds of critical damage, causing bodies to explode. So marksmanship is a factor. The player can also scavenge, finding small, edible health sources: soda cans, Chinese takeout, pizza, and hot dogs. Certain snacks heal more than others, and hidden "party platters" can heal your character quite a bit. This gives players a venue to heal instead of searching for secrets that are admittedly pretty hard to uncover without a guide.

Last but not least, the player can manage resources simply by choosing when to walk on armor. You can't pick up light armor if you have more than 50 armor, but you wouldn't want to pick up medium armor (100 armor) if you already have 99 armor. Having 99 armor might be a good time to use explosives, because you can still collect the shards (even at 200 armor). This includes the best source of shards, the blast accelerator (which uses costs no ammo, thus giving you free shards)... provided you know where these rare pick-ups are hidden!

Level Design, Secrets, Tutorials

Simply put, the level design in Ion Fury is legendary. There's a greater variety of secrets, and more vertical hero motion than any other Build game. Whereas Duke Nukem needs a jet pack to reach higher areas, the Jump Boots in Ion Fury are almost an afterthought. The player can jump off map geometry of varying heights, but also moveable in-game objects like mops, garbage cans, and cardboard boxes; for a leg-up, the player can even jump on enemies heads! You could do this in Blood, but only in Ion Fury are there secrets that intentionally capitalize on this function. Sweet.

I love icon-laden, monster-packed mazes in Metroidvania. Ion Fury has these too. Sure, there's combat rooms where the gunfights are expected to occur. The paths between them are numerous and diverse: You can walk through the front door, take the vent like John McClane, or hop across skyscraper windowsills like a suicidal frog. Some routes are more dangerous and hidden, but give you items; some routes are more direct, getting you to the action faster but with less ammo. It's fun to have options, and navigating levels while deciding what works best is a huge part of the game's MO. 

Across the campaign, there's lots to discover and learn. Even so, the combat is easy to pick up, but satisfying to master. For my first playthrough, I played Ion Fury on the hardest difficulty setting, Maximum Fury. Because I didn't know where all the secrets were, I found myself running out of ammo and scavenging a lot. Conversely the speedrunner FitterSpace knows where all the secrets are. He can play faster (re: with explosives) because he has access to more armor vests, ammo, and power-ups. With these in hand, he can bowling bomb and grenade launch his way to victory. 

This might seem like a cheat. It's not, because FitterSpace is playing the game the way it's meant to be. These aren't glitches or hacks. Not only is watching his 100% Maximum Fury run fun; it can teach you how to play the game better—useful when there's no tutorials but lots of innate abilities to figuratively pick up. Some of these tricks are tied to the levels: platformer-inspired sequence breaks, but also destructible walls, interactable objects (re: switches, grates, pianos) and improvised platforms. 

My favorite games—Metroidvania and Build-era FPS—don't have tutorials. True to form, neither does Ion Fury. Most of this stuff, the player has to figure out on their own. To be fair, there is the Read Me tutorial screen, but the tips are pretty vague (re: "Don't get WASTED by enemies!"). Is not having a comprehensive, in-game tutorial a valid complaint? Perhaps, if the secrets feel too cryptic to discover intuitively. 

Then again, needlessly jamming an in-game tutorial into Ion Fury would ruin the experience of finding this shit out for ourselves. If this takes more than one playthrough or referencing a strategy guide, then so what? I don't mind learning games without tutorials, including referring to external sources.

Anyone remember instruction booklets and strategy guides? Perhaps not. I played through Mario 64, Myst and Ocarina of Time with strategy guides and still had a good time. Thanks to guides, I can now do more with Ion Fury than ever before; some of the secrets are too well-hidden for anyone to find. This being said, I didn't use a guide the first time around. Even though I uncovered a fraction of the total secrets, I still had a good time. I didn't need secrets to beat the game, though part of me wanted to discover them all; the legitimate challenge of secret-hunting was usually swapped for the game's straightforward combat.  

To its credit, Ion Fury remains studiously engaging across multiple playthroughs. By comparison, the secrets in Doom Eternal are idiot-proof. Secrets are color-coded and marked on your world map for easy reference. There's barely anything to solve, and what's there to discover is always found the first time around. Ion Fury and Doom Eternal show that making secrets easy enough to find without a guide is different than making a map that people have to spend time learning outside of the game.

Secrets-wise, Ion Fury shies away from hand-holding, and that's why I like it. It feels like some I have to solve that actually requires effort. Meanwhile, its mandatory puzzles are far simpler and shorter than something like Half-life 1. Shelly controls like a dream, too, so there's not much to criticize in this department. However, this floating barrel puzzle in "Knee Deep" kind of sucks. It takes way too long to do, and requires interacting with barrels—voxels that can get stuck on the wall, and generally don't behave very well. This being said, that's the only frustrating puzzle I noticed across twenty-nine levels. 

Guns

Unlike Doom Eternal, which plays a Bioshock-style infomercial every time the player picks up a new weapon, the guns in Ion Fury do not talk to you. This way it's entirely possible to play through the entire game without knowing about a particular weapon function. For example, the bowling bombs have four functions(!): They can be thrown in a straight line by quickly clicking the left mouse button; by holding the left button, the bomb will lock-on to an enemy and home in on them; the right click is a timed explosion useful for clearing walls (and the final boss).

The fourth feature is the blast accelerator. In my playthrough, I only found one: at the personal bowling alley at "Heskel's House of Horrors." However, there's quite a few hidden in other levels. If you know where these accelerators are, you can radically change how those areas are played. What's nice is how the game makes it optional—not placing power-ups directly in front of you, arcade-style, like Doom Eternal. There's more to master in terms of the levels themselves, making future playthroughs visually distinct from past ones.

The weapon designs aren't my favorite; the weapon functions are incredible. The shotgun is also a grenade launcher (complete with a separate hotkey and ammo type for both functions). The pistol can be aimed manually, but also has a deadeye function separate from the game's auto-aim feature (which you can enable/disable in the options menu); functionally it holds eighteen rounds and fires three at a time, but the ammo counter only registers as one ammo used. Basically it's a pistol with spread, making center-of-mass attacks viable.

Remember what I said about bullet-sponges? Depending on what gun you use, these sponges become a lot less tanky. Explosives are a great option, doing more damage per strike than any bullet. However, some bullet-based guns have a higher DPS (damage per second), making them ideal against tougher enemies. The penetrator (twin Uzis, like Shadow Warrior) shreds airborne enemies and grounded bruisers (re: Wendigos, Brutes) with semi-rare incendiary rounds. Same idea with the chaingun, except it works better on bruisers; it kills fodder in one shot, but sucks against smaller flying enemies. 

Then there's the Ion Bow, the "best" weapon in the game; "best" because it hits the hardest, but has the rarest ammo, so you won't want to use it on fodder enemies, which are everywhere. Basically you can fire single bolts with the left mouse button; with the right button, you can charge it like a shotgun, increasing the bolts fires until it overcharges, causing the bow to spit out bolt waves. The damage these waves do is multiplied and spread out over one giant cone, but is difficult to aim. However, when pressed into the face of some of the larger bosses, the overcharge kills them in a single pass. This makes saving ammo for the Ion Bow important if you don't want to waste ammo and health trying to kill the boss version of the War Mech with weaker weapons.

I didn't know about the overcharge, nor the charge function for the bowling bombs. Apparently you can "charge" them by holding down left click, making the bombs home-in while also boosting their intensity. At the very least, it'd let my bombs "hop" over the stone steps when dueling the War Mech. Many of them got stuck on the steps, or missed when I lobbed them directly at him. It eventually worked... after about twenty deaths. That's my partly fault for starting out on Maximum Fury. But I assumed there was a weapon other than the Ion Bow that'd do the trick and really there isn't.

Sometimes these lessons are hard. Other times, the discoveries are fun. Take the Clusterpuck, a type of grenade. I never used these until I discovered their alt-fire kills Brutes in two shots. This includes the boss versions. You gotta throw the puck right under their treads, but in close quarters it makes a glorious mess. It even works better than the Ion Bow under the right circumstances, and doesn't use nearly as much ammo! 

Aesthetics

Like many Gothic tales, Ion Fury is a simulacrum—a love letter to a time that never was. Does it look and sound the part? Technically the approach feels authentic; made with the Build engine, the total file size is 93 MB and there's nothing in the game that couldn't have been done 23 years ago. 

To quote the game itself, its sound design is "Not great, not terrible." The explosions look different than the tell-tale mushroom clouds from Duke Nukem or Blood. Those explosions, and the sound effects that accompanied them, had a ton of heft. Here, they're not bad by any means. There's just less oomph overall (especially because they don't damage the player, which feels strange). It kind of reminds me how the original sound effects in The Terminator (1984) were swapped with the modernized sound effects in later editions. Why change them?

The guns, however, don't pack as much wallop, audio-wise (especially compared to their Blood counterparts). Even so, they don't sound wimpy. The lack of an "open mic" section during the Tech-Noir bit feels like a missed opportunity. Luckily the level tracks themselves are real bangers... except when the diegetic music butts in. Simply put, it's cacophonous. This being said, I don't remember any individual sound effect standing out as good or bad. Except for the underwater sound effects. Those sound fabulous, and I would deliberately dive into water just to hear the difference. 

The monsters are generally pretty decent. Sure, some are take it or leave it—like the little spider enemies or the drones—but the Wendigos are actually really cool; they look awesome, and they're legitimately dangerous (they're fast, they hit hard, and their attacks bypass armor). The Skinjobs aren't terrible, appearance-wise, but really shine through their attack patterns (which admittedly render them invisible half the time). It doesn't matter what Deacons look like because you'll be hiding from their long-distance volleys, or shooting at them from around corners to stay alive. 

In fact, Deacons are most recognized by their sounds. When you hear them, it's time to change your strategy or die. Pretty cool idea, especially in close quarters where you can't dodge their salvos. Did I mention their rockets home in? They're not exactly the Revenant missiles from Doom II, but are still plenty dangerous. And sometimes Deacons drop in by blasting holes through walls; or they lie quietly in wait, forcing the player to quickly kill them or die trying. To be honest, it's slightly cheap, but nothing quicksave can't solve. Can you beat the game without the F6 and F9 keys? Sure. I just wouldn't try it the first time around!   

The shotgunners, aka Liberators, are either brown or blue. The brown ones fire buckshot, and are only mildly dangerous except when point-blank; the blue ones, on the other hands, are extremely dangerous mid- to close range thanks to their grenades. The grenades aren't terribly hard to dodge once you get the timing down. I do wish the grenade guys looked a little different from their shotgun counterparts, but having to trust my ears and reflexes ("It's all in the reflexes!") is actually kind of fun. 

The levels themselves are largely cool shades of red and blue, with interspersed with yellow and green spotlights that turn enemies different colors. A nice touch, considering it occasionally and very deliberately obscures which kinds of Cultists and Liberators you're battling. True green is saved for the "outdoorsy" levels (and grenade launcher ammo). There's a couple forested areas scattered through the game—not too many, though; Ion Fury is cyberpunk, not Planet Earth. There's a fair amount of rust and grime in the urban environments, but things don't get too brown until the sewer sections (an FPS staple for some reason). Still, these are navigable, and the zombies, aka mutants, are quite at home in the sludge.

In Ion Fury a visual change often signals a gameplay change. For example, I spent much of the game using my stun baton to kill the spiders. Once in the sewers, the baton would electrocute me when standing in sludge. This required new tactics. Likewise, I generally saved the Uzis for Deacons, Skinjobs or Wendigos up to this point; but the flaming bullets work well on the zombies (or at the very least makes them scream). Here, you want to use explosives, if only because gibbed zombies drop a ton of shards. Luckily I'd saved up a bunch of grenades, bombs and pucks. It's reasons like these why the sewers sections, as brown and ugly as they were, still felt memorable to me. I never got lost, and enjoyed myself from beginning to end. 

Really the only gameplay aspect that frustrated me were the bosses. The best ones were the Butch Cassidy showdowns with a ton of minions (re: the secret level "Grand Slam" is especially populous); the worst ones were the "boss mobs" types. Later encounters tone down how strong the War Mechs are. The initial encounter felt "buffed." Every time I tried to hide, my cover got blown up. This was cool for a second, but it also made me cower a lot more than I would have otherwise. After the novelty wore off, I realized I could simply duckwalk around the indestructible pillar in the middle. Regular weapons just don't work that well; the Ion Bow feels like a silver bullet, giving the whole ordeal a trial-and-error feel.

Similarly the fodder spawned by the flying boss, Revenant 8991-PX, had me conserving ammo until I realized the chaingun ammo pile on the roof could never run out. In other words, the "boss mobs" feel a little gimmicky. But it does allow you to absolutely wreck these bastards once you know what they're about! When Revenant 8991-PX appears, you can break the window and kill it with a single overcharge from the Ion Bow. It's not something you'd ever guess. Nor is the dastardly piano secret (even though there's a clue in the level before). Obscure, but fun to know once you've looked it up! 

The Verdict

So far gone are the sexist elements, I only learned about them after playing through the entire campaign. Ion Fury doesn't take itself too seriously and it gets straight to the point. It could use some cross-episode cutscenes like Blood, or maybe an awesome opening cutscene like the one from Oni, but omitting those isn't a huge loss. The Easter eggs are copious and varied (surprised there isn't Lethal Weapon reference, though). The music is stellar and the guns hit hard (even if they don't always sound like it); the gore is impressive, but not excessive. The difficulty is perfectly balanced—its learning curve allowing gameplay to evolve over multiple playthroughs, while still being tremendously fun the first time around.

Simply put, Ion Fury is the best Build game since Blood. I only say "your mileage may vary" if you prefer hard-as-fuck horror FPS over pretty-hard-but-really-fast cyberpunk FPS (with dubious in-game politics). 

Buy it. Play it. Ion Fury rocks. Just don't purchase it thinking permanent martial law is something worth fighting for. 

***

My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. My blog is about horror, but also sex, metal and videogames.

Check out my interview series: From Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q&A seriesHell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?Mandy (2018): ReviewGothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

Follow me on Twitter! Watch my Gothic podcast! Purchase a commission through my art website! Or support me on Patreon or Ko-Fi!


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