Ion Fury, from developer Voidpoint, has quite the interesting story. Running on a modified version of the Build Engine -- most famously used for Duke Nukem 3D -- Ion Fury is the first commercial release made with Build in 21 years. So it's with some degree of trepidation that we wade into a shooter running on 20-year-old tech. But is there any reason to actually be concerned? The best way to summarise is with a paradoxical comment: No, but also yes.
Anyone who grew up playing retro shooters such as DOOM will immediately feel at home. The assets have a charming simplicity to them, everything is vibrantly coloured, and the tone of the game feels a little naughty. Sexual innuendos abound, roving gangs wait to slaughter you the second you step into their alley, and 80s references are everywhere.
You play as Shelley “Bombshell” Harrison, a bomb disposal expert. Not that it really matters; Shelley’s character mostly exists so there’s someone staring back at you anytime you run past a mirror. She, of course, has to stop the bad guy and will say many goofy one-liners along the way, most of which aren’t exactly funny. But when viewed as a whole, the collection of dumb statements actually gets progressively funnier when you sit back and think “games actually used to be written like this”. It helps the “narrative” and dialogue take on a charming quality that would otherwise not exist if Ion Fury were aiming for a more contemporary design philosophy.
The first thing you notice is just how varied the world is. The breadth of colours and changes in lighting are stunning, and it becomes evident from the very first level that Voidpoint is squeezing every ounce of power out of this engine. The levels are sprawling, labyrinthine terrors that while overwhelming at first, become second nature to navigate very quickly. And the variety of locales you have to drag Shelley through is truly impressive. Starting amid neon-plastered cyberpunk skyscrapers, it quickly spreads out to darker, grungy subterranean troughs before suddenly and spectacularly dumping you into a hospital that appears to be a part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to location transitions, but there doesn’t really need to be. One chapter of the game sees you spend most of its runtime clearing out a skyscraper floor by floor, while soon after, you find yourself on a runaway train that crashes into a sewage system. And before you can even bat an eye, you’ll be clearing out an entire baseball stadium of enemies.
If you get the mega secret for the level, that is. If there’s another thing old shooters are remembered for, it’s the way they handled secrets. Ion Fury is no exception to this rule, and in fact, might set the new bar for just how many secrets you can jam into a game. Each chapter (of which there are 6) has anywhere from 20 to nearly 50 secrets apiece. And then, each chapter also has a “mega secret”, a multi-step process that unlocks either a very powerful item or a lovingly rendered homage to something the dev team likes. Many of the normal secrets fall under the classic “interact with this wall that is a slightly different colour” conceit, but many of them cleverly use their environments to inform you of the specific spot you should be looking to find that extra explosive. While the mega secrets are probably best found using a walkthrough, many of the regular secrets are easy to find as long as you do your due diligence, and they're almost always worth it.
Health, armour, and ammo aren’t hard to come by, but there will be nary a second when you don’t need it. The combat, while not terribly challenging, still requires vigilance. Using a combination of projectile and hit scan based aiming, the game does a good job of helping you out with aim assist that feels like older shooters, back when aiming wasn’t a feature. If there’s an enemy in the vicinity of your reticule, there’s a good chance you’ll hit them. But more precision does offer better rewards, as headshots will not only decapitate enemies but spout health pickups into the sky in a fountain of blood.
Many of the weapons offer a fun time as well. You have your standard weapons like a shotgun and a pistol, but the most unique is probably the “bowling bomb”, a super ball that you can lob or roll like a bowling ball. Should you hit a large pocket of enemies with one of these, you can hear a foley of a bowling ball striking some pins, followed up by Shelley saying something witty. This weapon probably best personifies how much fun the devs seem to have had making the game, and this love extends to the experience itself. There were very few instances we were not having an absolute corker of a time. One of those instances was the first proper boss in the game, in which a lazy circle arena was made before just plopping the boss in. The rest of the bosses, though much easier than this first one, are far more enjoyable and have more interesting settings. The other problems come from the game’s one true downfall: technical performance.
Across the 15 or so hours spent with the game, we encountered our share of frame dips. That on its own isn’t a big deal and honestly happens infrequently enough that it can be almost entirely ignored. What cannot be ignored, though, is just how volatile the game’s stability is. Across our playthrough, the game hard crashed no less than 20 times, and at the time of writing, we straight up can't finish the game, because a bug in one of the levels crashed the game the second we try to get past a hallway. Unfortunately, the hallway is the only way ahead too. After being in contact with the developer, we've received confirmation that the issue is being looked into and should hopefully have been fixed in an upcoming patch by the time you read this.
Ion Fury is a shooter that phenomenally emulates what made the early FPS so wonderful. A timeless gameplay loop that effortlessly coaxes fun out of a formula so old it stretches decades into gaming’s past, the game is an incredible amount of fun. The technical problems we encountered muddy the waters, but even with those present (and a fix incoming for that game-breaking bug) we enjoyed our time with the game enough that we still recommend that anyone interested in playing it, do so.