I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Edit: This review was written before it was publicly known that at least a few of the developers behind the game are intensely transphobic and otherwise offensive. VGCC does not condone such disgusting rhetoric. The review will stay up, but for now, we morally cannot condone purchasing the game if money goes to the pocket of such scumbags.
When Bombshell was released as a spiritual successor to Duke Nukem, critics and fans alike were left wanting. Instead of a return to form in the gameplay department, fans of the classic Build Engine FPS Duke Nukem 3D were instead subjected to a disappointing top-down shooter with lacking level design. 3D Realms, Bombshell’s developers, also announced a side-game: a brand-new FPS in the style of Duke using the actual Build Engine. Ion Fury is that game, and instead of being a strange supplement to a bad game, it steals the show and shines as a wonderful new entry in the Build Engine pantheon.
Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, both Bombshell and Ion Fury’s star, is a Global Defense Force Colonel and wise-cracking badass. Shelly’s goal is to stop the evil Dr. Heskel from, well, being evil. Thin storylines are par for the course in this genre, but hey, it’s more than “aliens shot down my ride” this time. It’s pretty easy to compare Shelly to Duke Nukem, as she quips just like him and their games both run on eDuke, an updated version of Build for Duke Nukem games specifically.
Shelly isn’t as dad-jokey as her predecessor, for better and for worse. Probably the worst line she drops is a reference to The Offspring song “Come Out and Play”, but nothing comes close to Duke’s cheesy one-liners. Other parts of her personality shine through and make her more human than Duke, however, such as her penchant for soda, which heals her a small amount with each sip. She’s not just a simple action movie pastiche, she’s a fun character that has legs beyond her quips.
Ion Fury’s maps flow. Many modern FPS games hold your hand and actively point you where you need to go, but Fury’s strength is that there’s no need for that. Once you start moving, guns blazing and enemies dropping, there’s often a sense of unbridled movement and smart pathmaking that makes exploring every nook and cranny in each map a blast. There’s no need for arrows pointing you where to go, as experiencing the levels will wordlessly guide you towards your next destination.
There are a few hiccups here and there, where a button will unlock a door that isn’t exactly obvious, leading to moments where I ran around aimlessly trying to find the level’s exit, walking by the door multiple times. These instances are few and far between, though, and almost any other time it feels natural to just move in Ion Fury. Levels are laid out in such a way that you’re constantly running into new firefights or puzzles, and there are dozens of secrets strewn throughout the world. They’re a real challenge, too, I found under ten in my playthrough, but that was without any real, focused searching.
Similarly, Ion Fury’s weapons stand out. I’ll admit, its shotgun isn’t my favorite. It’s missing that punch Duke 3D or Doom’s shotguns have, but it’s still a fine tool in a well-rounded arsenal. Our heroine uses a standard arsenal of weapons, including a grenade launcher, SMGs, chaingun, and mines. She also uses bowling bombs that can be rolled explode on contact after homing, or lit bombs that explode on a timer. My personal favorite gun is the crossbow, which acts almost like a sniper rifle without any zoom. If you point it at a far-away enemy, it shoots them in the head automatically—and I respect that.
FPS games demand something to shoot at, so enemy variety is key, lest you get bored mowing down similar mooks. Starting off with cloaked robots that sometimes use spread-guns, Ion Fury eases the player into new, interesting foe types, such as leaping behemoths and flying rocket-launching skulls. Each encounter has impeccable pacing, as the level layout perfectly compliments enemy placement so you both never feel overwhelmed or without a target to kill. When a new foe is introduced, they’re usually by themselves, and are then integrated into the mobs you meet as you progress, ramping difficulty without overwhelming and allowing each new foe a chance to shine.
Ion Fury’s weakest point, however, is its boss fights. All of them are completely braindead bullet sponges that are easily defeated by strafing and unloading all your ammo into them. A large hovercraft is an outlier, however for far more negative reasons, as since it’s up in the air, weapons that fire in an arc cannot hit its weak point on its back. Explosives and grenades that make short work of other bosses just miss entirely, and while the chaingun helps some, once you run out of ammo you’re stuck taking pot shots at the ship, whittling its health away. It’s not fun in the slightest, nor is it hard, just bland and frustrating. I spent over twenty minutes dodging its missiles and shaving off 1% of its health bar at a time, feeling like I was shooting the ship with a squirt gun.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Ion Fury is how good it looks. 3D Realms killed it visually, with high quality, colorful textures that look great, even though it’s using outdated technology. Character sprites are expressive and lively, Shelly’s animations are slick, and the maps have fun details strewn about that make the world feel lived in, even with Build’s limitations. Ion Fury is living proof that art made with real limitations will always look and feel better than emulation of those limits.
Ion Fury has a lot of history backing it up, but it delivers on its pedigree. Its strengths lie in its foundation, building on Build to produce a worthwhile experience that emulates how it felt to play something like Blood back in the 90’s. Its successes and problems all stem from its ancestors, but Ion Fury’s family tree is full of absolute classics, and Shelly should be discussed in the same breath as Duke Nukem, Blood, and hell, even Doom.