Last year’s Ion Fury, developed by Voidpoint and released by 3D Realms, marked a welcome return to the latter’s iconic style of 1990s era “3D” first-person shooters like Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior. This, of course, was made possible by Voidpoint’s use of the classic Build Engine, which was developed long before many of you reading this were even born. Originally a PC-only exclusive, it’s been ported to every major home console to help make the past come alive…again!
My colleague and retro-lover Cory Galliher gushed over the game’s original PC release last year, calling it “one of those rare games that really understands what made the classics of yesteryear so memorable.” Nearly everything in his review applies in this version, minus PC specific things like mouselook and a few technical issues I’ll get into below.
TLDR: if you want a near perfect version of Ion Fury on your current-gen game console – and can stomach a few glitches – here you go. You’ll get the entire single-player campaign, with all its sprawling levels and fluctuating difficulty spikes, challenging boss battles, save states, cheats, and more.
Ion Fury is, for the most part, a spiritual successor to 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D, only minus its sun-glassed muscular namesake but with nearly everything else intact. You’ll control corporal Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, star of 3D Realm’s own little-seen top-down shooter Bombshell, on a mission to defeat the crazed Doctor Jadus Heskel and his cyber army from destroying Neo D.C. by any means necessary. It’s a purely solo adventure with no multiplayer to speak of, so all hail the return of the single-player campaign!
Those “means” include tons of high-powered weaponry and tons of funny (and groan-inducing) one-liners from our intrepid heroine, often used in tandem in sprite-poppin’, head-splattering ways. You’ll guide Bombshell as she runs ‘n guns her way through loads of colorfully detailed levels collecting colorful keys, opening colorful doors, and eliminating the pancake-flat baddies with a respectful selection of weapons and bombs. Some weapons have secondary functions, though remember to hunt for precious ammo whenever you can (hint: dirty trash cans can be goldmines).
It’s incredibly violent and nasty in presentation, but violent and nasty with a knowing wink and twinkle in its pixelated eye. Scour the levels and you’ll find a hilarious backdrop the devs have populated with tons of references and nods to their favorite movies, You’ll find scads of funny callbacks to iconic action flicks and cult classics, all of which often welcome chuckles and that Captain America feeling of getting the reference.
Ion Fury looks glorious on a big screen, so much so that it almost felt like a new game to me. I’d only played on a (relatively) puny 24” 1440p gaming monitor so the size bump to a 55” 4K HDR display does wonders for these pixelated sprites. As beautiful a game this is technically, however, t’s a shame there wasn’t more thought or creativity put into the design of the enemies, a good number of whom are just palette swaps of the same sprites. You’ll long for the days of pig cops and mega monsters.
Even our heroine is just sort of… there. Yes, she spouts off endless filthy one-liners but it all feels so perfunctory. Duke Nukem may have been a shameless Swarzengger ripoff (by way of John Carpenter’s They Live) but at least he was a wink-wink ripoff.
One area that excels beyond all reason is the game’s thumping soundtrack, an appropriate mix of bassy techno and industrial throb from Finnish composer Jarkko Rotsten. It’s an impressive collection of delicious Euro trashy tracks that sound like a mashup of Trent Reznor (Quake) and Kenji Yamamoto (Metroid Prime, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze). It’s an awesome set worth a listen even if you’re not interested in the actual game.
Having quality versions of console games come to PC is so commonplace that it’s easy to forget how rare it still is to see conversions go the other way. Ion Fury is definitely a game built for the PC elite and the conversion to consoles isn’t without its issues. One big area is with the game’s controls.
No matter how much I tinkered with the settings I could never really “get” the controls to run as smoothly as I’d like. There’s a slight overcompensation to aiming, which never felt truly great, an issue made even worse given how small enemy hit-boxes can be. This is especially heinous when trying to shoot flying droids using anything but the stock revolver’s auto-target. I realize the game was designed for mouse and keyboard, but my playtime with the PC version was also using an Xbox One gamepad and the issue persisted there as well. Again, this type of calibration issue used to be more common back in the day, so it’s just weird seeing it pop up again.
The original PC version was so streamlined that it would run on just about any hardware that it could be installed on, and run well, so it’s odd to see the console version experience odd issues with performance. While my playtime was limited to the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game, I’m told each version has its own problems, mostly related to the stability of the otherwise silky smooth framerate.
Honestly, even with the occasional frame dips I never encountered any performance issues that ruined the experience. But there are glitches present on the consoles that did dampen the fun, the most offensive being a game-breaker that will be a deal-breaker for some. Your onscreen hand (and weapon) will occasionally disappear or bug out, meaning you can’t fire your weapon. At this point there’s no choice but to reload your most recent checkpoint and hope it doesn’t happen again (which it often does, and usually around the same area).
This particular glitch is rare but it still popped up at the most depressing times, like after surviving a nasty firefight or after successfully navigating through one level’s longer tunnels. Just be ready to repeat areas over again when it’s not your fault.
In a year that saw stunning and nearly-perfect ports of an outrageously detailed modern game like DOOM Eternal on both PC and every console itinerant (the unreleased Switch version notwithstanding) having such inconsistent ports of a game built on a 25-year-old engine running on powerful hardware like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is disappointing. I’m hoping these minor annoyances can be patched away as they really do sully an otherwise flawless conversion.
Games like Ion Fury continue to push forward the industry’s evolution from technological necessity to intentional aesthetic, an interesting transformation we’ve mostly seen in stylistic retro indie games and the occasional “throwback” title from big publishers. Using the Build Engine to power Ion Fury’s recognizable chunky pixel enemies and pseudo “3D” levels was a creative and technical stroke of genius, even when the aesthetic is let down slightly by bland design choices. Imagine a modern Hollywood blockbuster using Harryhausen style stop-motion creatures instead of photorealistic CGI. It would be chunky as hell, but it would also be kind of glorious. That’s what you get with Ion Fury, only in a game.