Critic Reviews add missing review
Average score: 81% (based on 51 ratings)
Average score: 4.0 out of 5 (based on 17 ratings with 1 reviews)
If you are here reading this review, you've probably already bought and played through Ion Fury. Surely I'm not the only one that comes here to guiltily seek out positive reviews for niche games that I like that validate my warm feelings towards them? If I'm right in saying that, odds are good that you're reading this as a 30-something male that grew up with Coke VS Pepsi, Sega VS Nintendo, Metallica vs Megadeth, Schwarzenegger vs Stallone, VHS vs Betamax, Clinton vs the Republicans.
This also meant Duke Nukem VS Quake. While Quake's tech may be more enduring in how both its code and concepts ended up being passed down to future generations of games right up to now, Duke Nukem 3D also had a good run of spiritual and technological progeny that popped up around the same time. Anyone who played and enjoyed Duke is also likely to have enjoyed Blood and Shadow Warrior, too.
Packed to the back gills with 90s gaming and pop culture references and developed by longtime mainstays in the Duke 3D fan community, if you are the kind of person that I described above, Ion Fury is a game that was made by people like you, for people like you and perhaps not really anyone else. The little details in Ion Fury that had me grinning from ear to ear may fly over the head of one born ten years before or after me. But if you get it, you will love it. I enjoyed this game for the gift it is, and playing it made me feel a strange sense of camaraderie with its developers, like I was in the company of people that understand me, despite having never met me.
Ion Fury sets out to be, as Frederik Schreiber describes it, like a long lost Build Engine game that got completed in 1998 but stored away instead of being released, and just been unearthed and shared with the world in the present day. Indeed, Ion Fury is a game that can run comfortably on hardware from the early 2000s, and its performance ceiling on modern day computers may be a little lower that you may expect, since it is built on technology that doesn't know how to leverage multiple CPU cores or modern day graphics API functions. The game takes up only 100 MB of hard drive space, or to put that into perspective, about 0.1% of the disk space required for the latest Call of Duty game. Don't get me wrong, here - the game still will run on most machines without dropping a frame and its minimum requirements are extremely low.
While there are plenty of retro and throwback shooters that emulate older tech while taking advantage of the luxury features of modern day engines such as Unreal and Unity, Ion Fury is as legit as they come, and it fundamentally changes the way that the game has been built. The limitations of the Build engine inform the game's design constraints. It's almost a boomer shooter by necessity. And I'll be damned if it's not the best experience I've had with a first person shooter in years.
When I was young, about twenty years ago now, I tried to make a total conversion of Duke Nukem 3D. I was attempting my own art, own scripting, own story, own level design. I was stealing assets from other games left and right, but even so, I got to know the highs and lows of working with the Build editor. I remember drawing sectors by hand, joining nodes, getting hall of mirror effects, messing with masks and weird parallax textures to try and make mirrors, carving sectors into pieces to draw lights and shadows, lining sector effector sprites up to make water, aligning and shading every single texture by hand, faking diagonal shadows by building two separate sectors and collapsing them into each other, pulling my hair out when I couldn't get a slope to incline in the right direction, and accidentally moving the player start location out into the void so I'd kill myself every time I booted the map. Building levels in the Build engine is almost a completely manual process.
Walking through the maps in Ion Fury is like looking at an ornate church ceiling mural, or a ship in a bottle. To build maps, in this engine, with this level of visual fidelity, is a staggering feat of human ingenuity and dedication to craft. Building maps like this is like building a house using 16th century tools and materials when down the road there's a business selling kit homes. Voidpoint did not have to make it this hard for themselves. But they did, and the result is something that could not exist if they had done things the easier way. The maps in Ion Fury exhibit qualities that could only come from a very, very small subset of individuals remaining on this planet, employing an obsolete, almost dead set of skills, and being at the absolute top of their game. There were plenty of moments, especially in the game's urban environments, where I just stopped for a few moments and thought, "No way."
The maps flow incredibly well too. Compare to a game like Redneck Rampage, as an example of how this can go wrong. The levels are huge, open and sprawling - so much so, in fact, that they run up against the internal constraints of the Build engine and are split up into separate maps that you can move freely between a la Half-Life - but, unlike in RR, I also never got lost, because they're well landmarked, and the next place you need to go is intuitive, without the game ever having to resort to railroading tactics like locking doors behind you or implementing invisible walls. This is near-perfect retro FPS level design.
The other staples of Build Engine games - highly destructible and interactive environments, secrets, Easter eggs and surprises all return in fine form in Ion Fury, and they are as enjoyable as ever. In particular, the interactive elements are something that I have come to appreciate more in recent years. While it may sound perfunctory to have toilets you can flush, food you can eat, and drinks machines you can operate, these touches lend a sense of verisimilitude to the environments and actively increase your immersion in the world.
Of course, since Ion Fury is very much a straightforward shooter, all of the above would be undone if the combat weren't extremely well pulled-off.
In the FPS space we have plenty of examples of how solid core mechanics can stand up even decades after release, like Doom and Quake and yes, Duke 3D, and we can see examples where if it's not just perfect, it can age poorly, like with Redneck Rampage or Rise of the Triad.
Luckily, I think Ion Fury's combat and weapon balance generally plays like a refined take on the Duke 3D boilerplate. It holds its own comfortably against Shadow Warrior and Blood, though it's closer to the former in my eyes, mostly because of the highly-lethal combat and low number of hits required to dispatch most enemies, while Blood's enemies can feel a little more spongey sometimes. Core movement also feels very Duke-like.
Shelley, your player character, moves fast, shoots fast, talks fast and also dies fast if you stand out in the open soaking up bullets. Even basic mobs can take you out with less than a second of sustained gunfire, but if you develop a consistent set of strategies for tackling encounters, you can avoid most damage even on the highest difficulty setting. While higher difficulties are less forgiving of mistakes, I found almost every single mistake I made to be avoidable. It's extremely rare in Ion Fury to feel like you have ever gotten killed as a result of randomness or unfairness on the game's part, and that's the earmark of a truly well-balanced shooter.
Enemies with hitscan weapons telegraph their attacks with a gun-cocking sound cue so that if you're quick enough and didn't run out into the open, you've always got a chance to duck back behind cover, including enemies that pack the powerful ion bow, which can potentially one-hit you on higher skill levels. The annoying little heads on spider legs seem like a bother at first until you realise you can swiftly dispatch them with your electric baton. Flying enemies move erratically and can be very hard to hit, until you discover the lock-on ability of your starting gun, the 'Loverboy', a three-barrelled revolver. All of this is coupled with movement and input that's been significantly tightened up compared to other Build engine games. Latency is reduced to almost zero, and Shelley can stop on a dime.
Ion Fury's weapon set is a grower, not a shower. You start to realise there is true thought put into getting them balanced well. Each new gun you pick up is not progressively better than the last, but another tool in your toolbelt that opens up new strategic possibilities for firefights.
The Loverboy, with its lock on function, is highly useful for enemies that move quickly from side-to-side. The 'Disperser' (shotgun) is the dependable short-mid range workhorse, as is its grenade launcher mode and the chain gun which round out the most conventional elements of your arsenal. Interestingly, the game features no functional equivalent of a rocket launcher, but in no situation did I ever find myself pining for one.
The 'Penetrator' (submachinegun), rather than bullets, fires incendiary flechettes that set enemies on fire. It can also be dual-wielded, which is good for close range, while holding just one is better for medium range. With a few sweeps of this gun, you can set mobs alight and let them burn to death while you take cover, which is useful in situations when you need to be economical with your ammo use.
Other weapons show similar examples of situations where they come into their own. The ion bow, when you're not using it to decapitate bad guys with its precise primary firing mode, has an absolutely ludicrous secondary overcharge mechanic that can even tear boss enemies to shreds, as long as you are nimble on your feet and good with your timing. The chaingun can stun-lock enemies if you concentrate your fire on them, making it perfect for situations where you're squaring off against a single, powerful opponent.
The 'bowling bomb' has a similar strategic role to Duke's pipe bombs but it has a better solution for the fact that you are almost never playing on the defensive. The bomb rolls around on the floor and can home in in your foes around corners, useful for some pre-emptive room clearing before you go sticking your neck out.
All of this is going on to a great cyberpunk soundtrack composed of tracker music, which enhances the game's legit retro feel, without being too lo-fi like a midi soundtrack would have been. While the tracker and demo scene was very active in the 90s, especially on the Amiga, there actually weren't many PC games that used tracker music, with a few notable exceptions like Epic Games' titles at the time. The sound is unmistakable and lends an exotic quality to the game's soundscape.
Before moving to criticisms, let me preface that these are nitpicks. If you're looking for a recommendation, well the conclusion is at the bottom so I don't know what you are doing here, but it should also be pretty obvious that nothing contained in here is going to be anything close to a dealbreaker.
Probably the biggest criticism that I can offer is that while Ion Fury certainly invites comparisons to Duke Nukem 3D, and even compares favourably to it in many ways, it's also very much living in that game's shadow. Often it may feel like you are playing a very high-quality total conversion of it, even.
Shelley in particular is not a compelling character, compared to someone like Caleb, Lo Wang or Duke. I'm not saying that those guys themselves are much more than walking pastiches to their creators' influences, but at least when they stole lines, those lines made sense in the context they used them in. Ion Fury's lines for Shelley pack a miss for every hit.
Shelley will occasionally drop bangers like "You gotta keep 'em separated!" as a killing taunt. What does that even mean to her? That's not an insult, you're just quoting Offspring lyrics! Oh, now she's calling me a "laputan machine". Yes, I played Deus Ex too, but it's not like JC Denton used it as a roast in that game, either. It was plot relevant in that game. Here, it's just random.
This isn't to rag on the game's voice acting, the lines are well delivered, both for Shelley and Heskell, the game's antagonist. But the lines themselves can get a bit cringe.
"Despite all your rage," Heskell, the poor man's Dr. Proton says, "you're still just a rat in a cage! I will enjoy your demise!" Get it? You heard that Smashing Pumpkins song in your heyday, didn't you? REMEMBER THAT ONE? HUH? REMEMBER THAT ONE????
I did mention earlier how well-rounded and useful Fury's selection of guns is. The only weapon that seems a bit misplaced in the game is the 'Clusterpuck', a bomb that can be thrown to explode on impact or placed as a mine, and both modes can be used as a singular explosive or a cluster grenade. While it is certainly powerful, you don't come across it often and its utility as a defensive weapon seems like it would be better suited for deathmatch... which the game doesn't have. In single player, the enemies are too dumb for it to be worth the effort of trying to flank them or lay traps for them. You are better off just shooting them in the face like usual.
And while I'm talking about the guns again, I'll say they maybe sound a bit muted. They don't sound like Doom 3's pop guns, but they don't feel terribly dangerous.
This actually seems to be a trend that I've noticed in modern games. As a mixing engineer for projects of my own, I understand that the likely reason for this is so that the guns occupy a separate place in the frequency range from the other sounds coming out of the game. This is done so that the guns can remain loud while eliminating the risk of your firearm drowning out important gameplay audio cues, like the tell-tale 'ker-chunk' of an enemy preparing to fire at you that I mentioned earlier. I noticed this in Doom Eternal, too, where all the guns in that game make noises that sound like they have had all the mids scooped out, so all they do is thump, hiss and click. While I can respect the rationale for the decision (if I've guessed it correctly), I honestly would just prefer a return to the big, crunchy booms of yore, even if it might mean I take a few more bullets in the ribs as a result.
While I'm here, I'd also like to say I think I'm done with zombies. The fast hyperactive ones, the slow shambling ones, the spontaneously combustible ones full of gas, the ones with guns, the ones that call themselves something else but are most certainly still zombies through and through... across 25 years of blowing up zombies in games, I've had my fill. The appearance of the first zombie in Ion Fury (popping their heads up out of water in an obvious allusion to E1M3 of Quake, where they made their first appearance in that game) seems to mark where the game drops out of high gear and more into a steady cruise. In a sewer level too, no less.
It's not that the level of quality drops from this point, and it's not even like sewer levels have to be inherently drab and uninteresting (Sin from 1998 is proof that you can make a sewer level fun and visually engaging), but from there on, Ion Fury returns to well-trodden ground. The game rounds out with underground installations and secret bunkers that hold no more real surprises, and the final level is a bit of a disappointment, even if it does appropriately test your skills without doing something stupid like suddenly forcing you into a deadly game of one-handed billiards when you've spent all the time before that getting good at shooting people. I'm just saying that when you hit the sewers, the best part of the game is behind you and the maps just aren't quite as engaging towards the end, even if they are still very well built and tick all the conventional boxes for what constitutes good design. The ending is also more-or-less what I expected: an afterthought.
The Bottom Line
I expected a lot of this game and my expectations were exceeded. Ion Fury stands shoulder to shoulder with its Build Engine brethren of the 90s, and would be regarded as a cult classic had it come out alongside them.
It's not ambitious shooter but a love letter to a certain kind of shooter fan. You well know if that is a group you fit in with, and if so, I'm sure you've already bought Ion Fury, given it at least a couple of runs, and just came here to read reviews that echo your own thoughts. On the merits of what it sets out to do, it's pretty hard to fault. Speedrunners and completionists will also find much of value in this title.
Ion Fury has three obvious design goals - feel like an authentic 90s shooter, have excellent core mechanics and excellent level design - and it pretty much nails all three gloriously. It's not a game that should be criticised for its lack of ambition. To do so would be like saying we didn't need The Razor's Edge because we already have Back in Black. Sometimes it is just good to revel in the familiar, especially when it's done this well. If you grew up on boomer shooters, Ion Fury is like an ice cold stubbie of your favourite lager, served with a slice of your nan's old home-baked apple pie. Some things just don't get old.
Linux · by Ian McLean (21) · 2021
Contributors to this Entry
Critic reviews added by lights out party, firefang9212, Plok, Rellni944, ryanbus84, Tim Janssen, Patrick Bregger, Leo Faria, ALEX ST-AMOUR, POMAH, jaXen, Utritum, Victor Vance, MrMamen, Jupiter Hadley.