GAME: Ion Fury
PUBLISHER: 3D Realms
AVAILABLE ON: PC (Steam, GOG & Boxed)
Before I begin my review, I have to get a bit personal and talk a bit about myself and my life as a gamer. I was born in 1988 and some of my earliest memories come from gaming on PC. And the very first game I remember playing was Duke Nukem by Apogee Software. And those familiar with Apogee should also know that they eventually became 3D Realms and published titles such as Terminal Velocity, Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior. The last two games used a certain engine called BUILD, developed by Ken Silverman. This engine was also used to make games such as Redneck Rampage, Exumed/Powerslave, TekWar and not to mention the glorious tribute to horror films that is Blood.
Now the build engine didn’t really see much use after 1997. id Software’s Quake engine and Epic’s Unreal engine were both quickly blowing it out of the water and while it continued getting fan support and eventually got ported to Windows and becoming EDuke32, there hasn’t been a Build engine in 20 years…
So that should give an indication of why Ion Fury is so significant. This is a game released in 2019 using the BUILD engine. It is a game sharing so much of its DNA with these classic titles that it could almost be considered a child. Which brings me back to my personal story. These are the kind of games I grew up with being a PC gamer in the 90’s. And sure, some of them didn’t hold up as well today, especially Shadow Warrior with its somewhat problematic stereotyping and male-centric tone, but games like Blood are very much still fun playing today. So when I heard about Ion Fury, back when it was called Ion Maiden until the band Iron Maiden threatened to sue (that actually happened), I was absolutely thrilled.
Sure we’ve seen a resurgence of throwback shooters recently with games such as Dusk and Amid Evil (which you should check out my review of) getting attention for recreating the type of games we saw in the 90’s. But Ion Fury is special in the sense it doesn’t actually use a modern game engine to look old school. By using the BUILD engine, which at this point is old enough to drink hard liquor, the team at Voidpoint have been working with limitations that inherently gives the game a certain old school feel. And there is something unique about BUILD engine games that has been lost in the process of everything becoming true 3D. So let’s take a look at the greatest tribute to 90’s FPS gaming ever, ION FURY.
Ion Fury is actually a prequel of sorts to a previous 3D Realms game titled “Bombshell”. It features Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison who herself is based on a cut character from Duke Nukem Forever, who originally was going to be a sidekick of Duke. After 3D Realms lost the rights to the Duke Nukem franchise to Gearbox, they decided to give Bombshell her own game and further developed the character into a badass with a robot arm. Unfortunately, the game didn’t do so well thanks to a myriad of bugs and the game not being as good as people hoped (check out my review of it for more info on that). But already when Bombshell released, the Deluxe Edition gave people early access to an upcoming “BUILD engine prequel”, which is where development started.
Ion Fury follows Shelly’s exploits as a GDF police chief in Neo DC, tracking down the leader of a cybernetic cult that has risen on the streets, which are flooded with augmented punks that seem eager to die for their new leader. As it turns out, the leader is Professor Jadus Heskel, a scientist hellbent on world domination. It is up to Shelly to track him down and end his reign. Yeah the game is certainly not heavy on story, but much like its fathers, it doesn’t really need one. So let’s move on to talking about the gameplay.
Being a 90’s style FPS, Ion Fury plays deliciously old school. The focus is on collecting key cards, throwing switches, blowing shit up and generally causing mayhem. What sets it apart though is its structure. Unlike pretty much any BUILD engine shooter before it, it uses more of a hub structure similar to games like Quake 2 and Half-Life where the game is split into zones and each zone has multiple levels to go through. This makes each zone feel like one large level and helps make the game feel bigger in scope than most BUILD engine shooters. The weapon selection is pretty good too.
Your melee weapon is the Electrifier, a high powered stun baton that delivers enough juice to power a generator and killing enemies with repeated hits.
You have the Loverboy, a revolver that Shelly can either dumb fire or lock on to enemies and kill in rapid succession, Red Dead Revolver style.
The Disperser is a shotgun that doubles as a grenade launcher (although the grenade launcher is also a separate weapon somehow, it’s a bit confusing).
The Penetrator (snicker) is a SMG that fires incindiary flechettes. It can also be dualwielded by picking up another and is one of the weapons in the game with the highest damage output, especially damage over time with its added fire damage.
The Minigun is a powerful heavy weapon that can be picked up from a dead mech or found in levels as a pickup.
The Bowling Bombs are bowling ball sized bombs that seek out enemies (in theory, I found them often not really doing a good job at this) and blow them up into chunks. They can also be lit in your hand and thrown like regular grenades.
The Ion Bow is a powerful sniper weapon that can either fire single or multiple bolts. It deals incredible damage to enemies on headshots and can also stun them on body shots.
Clusterpucks (pffft) are mines that can either be attached to a surface and used as proximity mines or thrown at enemies or walls to explode on impact.
If I were to criticize anything about the game it would probably be the lack of any real power weapon. Having something akin to Duke’s Devastator or some kind of cyberpunk thing like having Shelly get her robot arm during the game would be awesome. The weapons as a whole feel kind of bland and like they’ve been done before.
However, that being said it does feel like focus was put on making sure that every weapon in the game feels not only useful but also as badass as possible. The Electrifier might be one of the most useful melee weapons I’ve ever seen in a game, trumping even the Katana from Shadow Warrior in how often I used it during the game, and its use for turning on generators in the game makes sure it also has an interactive function. Throughout the game I found myself stocked with plenty of ammunition and the game incentivizes using your entire arsenal for different situations and different enemies.
For instance, I found you can insta-kill the spider enemies using the Electrifier, and the Ion Bow’s incredible headshot damage made it l invaluable during the later parts of the game with the flying enemies that shoot rapid fire rockets at you. The grenade launcher also entirely owned the centipede enemy. Thus I found that overall the weapons have been integrated really well into the game and I feel everything syngergizes in a way that makes sense and makes you feel clever for using the right weapon for the right situation. I’m not sure whether a power weapon or exotic weapon would work or even add anything to that ecosystem of strategies. Ion Fury feels like it puts less focus on “let’s make the most OP weapon ever” and more focus on “let’s give the player an arsenal of OP weapons but also give the enemies weaknesses to certain weapons”.
Sure Doom has its BFG 9000 but it also has its fists and pistol that you pretty much never use. Duke Nukem has its Devastator but you almost never found ammo for it which forced you to not use it as much, and let’s be honest, very few players actually used the freezeray and shrinker/expander more than the shotgun and chaingun. What sets Ion Fury apart in that regard is definitely that each weapon feels really good. Blowing up enemies with bowling balls and grenades never gets old and even rewards you with armor shards, so the game as a whole has a very tactical vibe to it.
The game offers you healing items in the form of medpacks and armor in the form of 3 armor suits. Light (blue, 50 armor), medium (brown, 100 armor) and heavy (red, 200 armor) respectively. Though the cool thing about Ion Fury is that both health and armor can be overcharged. You can consume food and soft drinks you find in the levels to get your health temporarily above 100, and also use armor shards from exploded enemies or in the level to get your armor above your current armor’s maximum level.
The game is also really long, providing around 8-10 hours of gameplay if you stroll through it casually and a lot more if you plan to find all the secrets and easter eggs hidden in it. In fact, finding secrets and exploring the game is highly recommended if you want to survive on any difficulty higher than Normal. Usually stuff like the heavy armor and ammo are hidden in secret areas, so this is not the kind of game you want to rush through, or you’ll find yourself having to scrape by on very little ammunition. Despite its length though I never felt like the game was a chore to get through. Having played it almost continuously for the last few days, I always felt that itch to keep playing and once the game was over I couldn’t help but wish there was even more of it. The pacing is perfect, steadily amping up difficulty until the final battle.
Speaking of the final battle, without spoiling anything it does feel kind of disappointing. Just don’t expect anything too epic. But considering how much of a good time I had with everything leading up to it, and how in character it still feels, I can’t really say it didn’t feel good either.
My playthrough for this review was on the Wanton Destruction difficulty which is probably the most fair. The game also has two additional difficulties, being Ultra Viscera and Maximum Fury. Ultra Viscera is the hard difficulty, which the game only recommends for FPS veterans. And Maximum Fury is just insanity and something akin to the Nightmare difficulty from Doom. First Blood is the easiest difficulty and is a good option for those who just want to have fun and explore the game without suffering too many deaths.
The game does capture that visceral and explosive feeling that comes with a BUILD engine shooter though. It’s hard to put my finger on it but the weapons, the sprite work and everything works together to create a very unique style that you don’t see in games afterwards. It has this crunchy feel to it where your weapons feel like they can deal immense damage and everything feels very heightened and high octane like in old school action movies. The game quickly becomes a gore fest where you can kick enemy heads around, much like Blood, and it’s just immensely fun to play. To put it mildly, I had a very difficult time putting this game down and even writing this review I’m just itching to go back and play it all over again on Ultra Viscera difficulty.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
If you can’t tell by the screenshots, this is an absolutely gorgeous game. It has a really solid art direction that pushes the BUILD engine to its absolute limits. The amount of detail in the level design is immense and the colour palette is very pleasing to look at. Despite not having any kind of dynamic lighting or even lighting period, the mappers have used palette swaps and textures to create shadows and lighting that looks pretty much like something out of a modern game. I also didn’t encounter any performance issues on my playthrough aside from some slight framerate drops here, but compared to my initial experience with the game, it has been extremely optimized.
The amount of detail is insane too, especially in the gore effects. Enemy heads can be kicked around, blood can splatter onto surfaces, you can leave bloody foot prints and you can even squish enemies in doors like in Duke 3D. This attention to detail almost disappeared entirely when FPS games turned to full 3D engines, and it’s a delight to see it brought back on such a large scale. The game also utilizes voxels to give the game 3D objects for stuff like ammo, weapons, health and items. There are still a fair amount of objects that remain 2D sprites, such as chairs and barrels, but it is impressive to see nonetheless.
The music is also definitely worth mentioning. It was done by demoscene artist Jarkko Rotsten, and the entire soundtrack has been done as tracker music. If you don’t know what tracker music is, it’s essentially like MIDI files, except it uses samples that are included in the files themselves and thus have far more diversity in terms of what sounds can be used. They were famously used in games such as Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex to name a few. The soundtrack as a whole gave me some serious 90’s vibes and reminded me a lot of games such as SiN and Unreal. It’s all electronic techno goodness that fits perfectly with the game’s cyberpunk vibes.
The sound design is also top notch. All the weapon noises are perfect, the headshot sounds are crunchy and the gibbing noises are just perfectly wet sounding. Everything comes together to create an aural soundscape that feels right at home in a BUILD engine game with lots of nods to Quake, Duke Nukem and Blood to name a few. The voice acting is also fun, with Shelly providing one-liners that feel in line with the BUILD tradition of pop culture references. Jon St. Jon also does a great job portraying Heskel, with just enough of his humor injected into it to make him a bit fun to listen to as well. So yeah, I don’t think I have anything bad to say about the sound or voice acting.
All in all, I would consider Ion Fury the best BUILD engine game ever made, and honestly one of the best FPS’s I’ve played period. With its incredibly satisfying armory, enormous world, charming main character and kickass soundtrack I am seriously at a loss of finding anything bad to say about it. If anything lacks it would be some of the cringy and sexist parts from games like Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D, but I honestly do not miss that at all. It’s extremely addictive though and I had problems putting it down, but to me, that’s when you know you’re playing something truly special.
What is obvious to me is that Ion Fury is crafted with a ton of love and passion and you can tell when a game is made not because a company wants to make a profit, but when they want to make something that they think is fun. Because when a developer has fun making a game, that translates into the playing experience. It hails back to an era when games were honestly more fun because teams were smaller and game engines like the BUILD engine allowed for more fun details and fun gameplay.
If you for some reason haven’t played Ion Fury and ANY of this looks fun to you, I HIGHLY recommend picking the game up on Steam and DRM-free on GOG for the incredibly fair price of $24.99. You can even buy a physical big box edition for $60 that comes with a whole bunch of goodies if you are so inclined. So what are you waiting for? GET FURIOUS!
FINAL SCORE: 9/10