Back in the ’90s, before the era of true 3D first-person shooters arrived with the release of Quake, the last of the great pseudo-3D engines – the Build engine by 3D Realms – was used to create some of the most memorable shooters out there, including Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior, and Redneck Rampage. There were some others too, but those are the big four everyone remembers.
The Build engine was similar to those of Doom and other games of the time, rendering a first-person viewpoint that gave the appearance of three-dimensions and allowed players to move through it seamlessly, but it was all based on 2D map information. Its main innovation was the ability to draw sloped surfaces, allowing level designers to include, for instance, ramps, angled architecture and organic-looking rocky cliffs. It also supported voxels, which allowed a primitive version of true 3D objects to be depicted in a pointillistic fashion.
If that was too technical, then the short version is that it gave developers a bit more detail to work with, allowing them to design levels that actually looked like recognisable real-world locales such as strip malls, bowling alleys, logging mills, and Asian temples. But the engine alone wasn’t what made Duke Nukem 3D and the other three so impressive – it was also the complex and intricate maps, wacky enemies, crazy weapons, over-the-top violence, and dodgy sense of humour that made them easily my favourite old school shooters.
So imagine my delight when I get wind of a new shooter in the spirit of those four being made with an upgraded version of the Build engine, that’s coming out soon. Well, the delight was snuffed a bit, because I first heard of this in February 2018 when I downloaded the early one-level demo that was released on Steam, and “soon” turned out to be last week. I was surprised by how excited I was for the game after I sampled the demo, and the wait was murder. Every once in a while, I’d fire it up and give it a go – and eventually the devs released another demo level for us to chew on in the meantime. It was only a short a while ago that the game actually got its official release date and the last little stretch dragged on forever. I played other other old school shooters to tide myself over, most notably Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, which was just released on Switch and is a superb port I’d highly recommend; and another modern-old-school shooter I found on Steam called Hedon, which was made by one guy using the GZDoom engine and which I’d also highly recommend if you were ever a fan of Hexen and its adventure lite elements.
But at last, Ion Fury is finally here. For anyone who doesn’t know, it actually used to be called Ion Maiden – but there was a bit of a kerfuffle with the suits in charge of the British metal band Iron Maiden over copyright infringement, and the small indie studio obviously didn’t have the corporate muscle to take on the music industry, so they had to change it. Thankfully that’s the only change and everything else is true to the developers’ vision.
Ion Fury is a first-person shooter using a version of the Build engine made to run on modern operating systems and output resolutions up to 4K. In the tradition of its heritage, it has an amusing premise, a badass protagonist, crazy weapons, wacky enemies, and a snarky sense of humour. It also has huge, complex interwoven levels brimming with secrets and easter eggs, and the occasional tough boss.
The game is set in a cyberpunk future Washington DC and casts players in the role of Shell “Bombshell” Harrison, a mouthy badass cop who works for the Global Defence Force. While she’s off duty one night enjoying a drink at her favourite establishment, a cyborg cult leader named Dr Janus Haskell rolls into town and unleashes his army of mutant cyborg freaks. Shelly’s R&R is cut short as she has to grab her 18-shot revolver and sort this mess out.
That right there, that’s the kind of premise I can totally get behind for a Build engine game. As you’d expect, Shelly is full of comments to make as she works her way through the game. She’s not as raunchy as Duke Nukem or Lo Wang, although she has her moments. Mostly she seems to be defiant and meme-y, and a lot of her quips are pop-culture or gaming-culture references – which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tastes. For instance, when killing her cyborg enemies, she’ll mutter the phrase “laputan machine” on rare occasions, and if you know which game that references, we can be bros, you and I.
The levels are littered with all kinds of anarchic humour and easter eggs too. There are posters and signs that glorify older 3D Realms and Apogee games, one of my favourites being a condom machine you can find in restrooms with the label “who wants some wang?”. In a perfect world, I’d have the developers come up with few more original jokes, which can then be referenced in future games, but it’s been so long since we’ve seen these older properties I kind of enjoy the nostalgic tongue-bath it gives them.
The classic style gameplay I wouldn’t have any other way. As with most other ’90s shooters, the game is divided up into levels, each with a name and a unique and memorable layout, and usually with a central feature or mild puzzle that makes every level unique. Unlike the others, however, Ion Fury delivers its levels in clusters of about three, only giving you a level complete screen once you’ve finished the bunch, listing what percentage of enemies you’ve killed and secrets you’ve found. Oh yeah, and the secrets are one of my favourite old-school inclusions. The rewards for finding them are typical for a 90’s shooter: rare ammo, health kits, funny messages from the developers, power-ups, and even earlier access to mid- and late-game weapons. Oh, and I found a suspiciously labelled button in an office complex level called “mystery button” – and I still have no idea what it did.
While you’re memorising the levels, you’ll probably come to know the enemy layout very well too, because the game is tough, and you’ll probably die more than a few times. The enemies hide like cockroaches and they can kill you very quickly if you’re not careful. There are basic hooded cyborg cultists, sniping cyborg crossbowmen, cyborg spider heads, cyborg flying heads, tough guys with armor and shotguns or grenades, weird cyborg quadrupedal nightmare creatures, and teleporting Terminator-like guys with no dicks (as Shelly loudly points out) to name but a few.
The weapon selection doesn’t seem to be the most out-there at first. Shelly starts out with a shock prod, which doubles as a puzzle-solving tool, and her 18-shot revolver called the Loverboy. The next weapon you’ll likely acquire is a shotgun, followed by either a crossbow or a machine gun. Sounds pretty humdrum actually, doesn’t it? Well, yes, but each weapon also has a secondary fire mode. The Loverboy’s one took me a while to figure out. When you hold down the secondary fire key, Shelly holds her left palm over the hammer of her revolver like a cowboy but doesn’t fire, and pressing the primary fire doesn’t do anything either. Turns out you’re supposed to sweep your cursor over enemies as quickly as possible to mark them, then release the key and Shelly will auto-aim and fire a flurry of shots into each target – it’s pretty awesome once you master it.
The shotgun secondary fire switches between shotgun shells and bouncing grenades – great for around-the-corner warfare; and the crossbow lets you queue up five bolts at once to fire in a spread, obviously meant for groups of enemies. My favourite is one of the later weapons, the Clusterpuck, of which the primary fire is just a powerful grenade toss, but the secondary fire is a cluster bomb, which makes it break into dozens of smaller explosives on impact, wiping out mobs of weaker enemies easily.
As I’ve come to realise is my usual approach, I tend to put my gripes near the end – and I don’t have many for this game, but there are a few mildly irritating things I’ve noticed. The first is the game’s reliance on the cheap spawn, if you know what I mean. When you find a key or press a critical button in one of the levels, you can be certain that new enemies will spawn to make you pay for it, even in areas you’ve already cleared. I know many ’90s and even many modern games use this trope – but Ion Fury does it every frickin’ time. Every time. Geez… give me a break, just once. Also, the game uses voxels to model some items like weapons, pickups, and even some background items like chairs, and the pixelated look of voxels blends into the Build engine beautifully without sticking out like putting an actual 3D model in there would. But then some minor items, like waste paper bins, are flat sprites, which is a pity. They’d look better as voxels.
And lastly, I bring this up in case any whiny millennials might need to know it – as I’ve seen a review or two of the demos by some of them – but yes, Ion Fury requires you to learn your own way around the levels. There is no objective maker, you’ve got to hunt for keys, find solutions to the mild puzzles, and basically play the game without it holding your hand and wiping your bottom. It does have autosave, so it’s not that scary, but the autosave points are quite far apart – so learn to quicksave if you really can’t stay alive.
If any of this sounds appealing, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s sheer pseudo-3D, pixelated joy with a hefty challenge if you play on any difficulty setting above normal and I’m having an absolute blast with it. The game goads you into returning to past levels to hunt for missed secrets, and you can be sure I’ll do just that.
Ion Fury is a love letter to '90s shooter fans and honours the legacy of its predecessors nicely with its familiar gameplay and humour. The only mild drawback is just that, and a bit less retro reverence and a mild splash of innovation would have given it a more unique identity.
It looks great with its few modern tweaks, but still looks faithful to its '90s self
The levels are huge, intricate, riddled with secret passages and puzzles
The enemies do a good job of being distinct, and every enemy type – or combination of types – presents a unique threat and requires a different approach to beat
Not every background item is rendered in voxels, and the ones that use sprites instead look quite flat, which is a pity
Knowing that every important milestone you reach in a level will always result in a fresh spawn of enemies does get a bit mentally draining sometimes