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Review: Ion Fury

16 May 2020

3D Realms is a company I’ve not had much personal experience with, but like most, I do know them for the Duke Nukem franchise. After hitting it big with some 2D platformers and the renowned Duke Nukem 3D, it’s been somewhat of a rough ride for the Duke ever since, with Duke Nukem Forever being infamously stuck for a decade in development hell, and eventually releasing to a lukewarm reception after being simply unable to live up to its hype.

Fast forward to 2020, and 3D Realms is back with a new retro-styled shooter, Ion Storm, which hearkens back to the days of MS-DOS FPS games. Whilst featuring a new female protagonist, Corporal Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, the game seeks to bring back that classic feel of the days of Duke Nukem, Doom, and Quake.

Ion Fury was developed by Voidpoint and published by 3D Realms, and released on May 14, 2020 for Nintendo Switch, which was played for this review. The game also released on Steam on August 15, 2019.

Story? We Don’t Need No Story

Like many of its predecessors from the era Ion Storm is based upon, you load up the game, hit New Game, pick your difficulty (ranging from “First Blood” to “Maximum Fury”) and that’s it, you’re playing the game. What little story there is is described in the “READ ME” option on the main menu (Something that was also found in other games of the era, like Doom).

Essentially, it takes place “in the near future,” and speaks of an organization of “augmented criminals” who dare to violate the permanent martial law in Neo D.C. You’re in a bar trying to get drunk, when an explosion causes your drink to end up on the ground. That’s where the game begins – time to get back to putting the bad guys in their place.

In summary, it’s a simple excuse plot that sets the stage and nothing more. That’s fine for games like this and, to be fair, none of the classic shooters from the period the game emulates ever had much of a story either. All you need is a reason to get out there and blow the bad guys up. While it would be nice if there was a little more to it, it’s not important to the game play and thus gets a pass.

Guns and Glory

Ion Fury is a classic old-school FPS in its purest form. Run around and shoot everything that moves, sometimes solve some simple puzzles or platforming, and find your way to the next level. For those who haven’t played those games, unlike the cover-based duck-and-recover style common today, games like this one are aggressive. You keep moving and when your health is low, you have to find items to recover; there’s no health regeneration here.

These games were usually played on keyboard and mouse, but this is the Switch, so we have traditional gamepad controls, with the option to use motion aiming/looking. I used the motion controls and it worked quite well. Definitely not something you had back in the day, but it got the job done and mostly felt good, although the aim controls seem to be based on holding the controller vertically in front of you, which feels a bit awkward (if you hold the controller more horizontally, it becomes difficult to turn). The other minor control issue I had is you can only invert the axes for the motion controls, not for the sticks.

Like any of the classic FPS titles, Shelly gets access to an array of guns and weapons which you will find scattered about the levels, including a revolver (with an alternate fire that lets you home in on multiple targets on-screen, like McCree’s ultimate ability in Overwatch), as well as an odd shotgun/grenade launcher hybrid, single or dual Uzi-like machine guns, a chain gun, bowling ball grenades that roll on the ground and explode on enemy contact, and a strange melee weapon that shocks enemies like a cattle prod and can also be used to activate some machines. Each one is fun and satisfying to use, but if you stick to the main path, you’ll be begging for ammo and powerups the whole way. The levels have a somewhat non-linear structure and there are tons of secret areas with health and pickups.

Because the levels are so sprawling as a result, it sometimes borders on being one of those “Where The Heck Do I Go” kind of games. Also, watch where you step. If you fall off a cliff, the game will go to slow-mo, with an on-screen prompt that says “You’re about to die… Press X to scream” – and then you’ll see a “YOU DIED” screen seemingly ripped straight out of Resident Evil.

I found the game to be somewhat of a challenge on the easiest difficulty. It seems like the game EXPECTS you to uncover as many of the secret areas as possible to stay alive and be equipped to fight the enemies. Secret areas are fine as nice bonuses for the curious explorer, but the game really gets carried away with this, and many levels have a dozen secret areas or more. When you near the exit of a level, it will tell you how many secret areas you’ve missed, almost compelling you to go back and look for them. You do have an automap to help you see where you’ve been and where you haven’t, but it’s almost invisible on-screen when you turn it on. There are also radar pick-ups that reveal nearby items and enemies but they are pretty rare. The game also makes a lot of use of the Z axis, something less typical of the earlier PC shooters, and the 2D auto-map doesn’t help much in this area, which is one last thing I wasn’t super fond of

It probably sounds like I’m being harsh on the game, but its predecessors were quite challenging as well and also had their hangups. The gameplay is still a blast and, besides the main campaign, there are some additional game modes like an invasion-style survival mode where you use a chain gun with infinite ammo and have to survive as long as you can. This was also a lot of fun and adds some replayability to the game. People who remember Duke 3D and other such games from back in the day will feel right at home here with the classic gameplay style and unforgiving difficulty.

Phat Pixels, Phat Beats

Visually, the game looks like it came straight out of the early 90s, like those other games I keep mentioning. The simple shapes and pixel-y textures will take you back and do so in a pretty good way, although admittedly I feel like it isn’t quite as effective in 3D as retro styled games based on the 2D 8-bit era.

Despite the simple graphics, the game is still more advanced the ones on which it is based, being fully 3D with catwalks and walkways and tunnels above and below each other, something the first FPS games were not capable of doing. Even the menus for the game are designed just like those of the past, so it feels almost like a straight up time-warp. It feels very authentic, even though this is a new game.

The audio fares similarly, with a well done synth/electronic soundtrack that suits the sci-fi environment of the game. It doesn’t scream classic or iconic quite the same as some of the soundtrack of Doom (Especially the SNES version, which had the best music of any of the ports) but it still sounds good and sets a good mood for the game.

The sound effects are also appropriate to the time and well done. The voiceovers on the other hand, while they are high quality, can get repetitive, cliche, and/or annoying at various times. Shelly tries to have the same kind of attitude and humor as Duke Nukem, and I don’t think she quite succeeds as her one-liners tend to fall flat more often than not. If it gets tiresome you can enable the “Silent Protagonist” mode and her quips will go away. But the real problem is the enemies which, whenever nearby, will constantly say things like “Move out” and “Over here” and it gets annoying pretty quick.

Retro Retrospective

Ion Fury is pretty tricky for me to score. It has a lot of very strong points and a wide array of little things holding it back. It definitely succeeds on its mission to bring us a fun game which shows a new generation what shooters were like back in the day. However it carries over some of the flaws of the generation as well, and has some distinct ones of its own, particularly the borderline-useless automap (Doom‘s worked so much better), and the control issues (although you can get used to them and tinkering with the settings will fix most of it). Again, they’re all little things, but you will notice them.

After the relative failure that was Duke Nukem Forever, it is great to see a game which rekindles that old classic Duke feel with a new (if not overly similar) IP. It has a number of stumbles, but if you want to take a 25-year blast-to-the-past, Ion Fury doesn’t surpass the FPS games of the age, but it does stand well against them, making it a good choice both for veterans of the age and for those new to the classic shooter style.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by 3D Realms for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.