From the creators of Duke Nukem 3D comes a retro shooter that looks and plays like it’s 1996, but is that really such a good idea?
Creating new games in a retro style is by new means a new concept. It’s almost become one of the clichés of indie gaming, along with roguelikes and Metroidvanias, but one most people are happy to embrace given the quality of titles such as the recent Blazing Chrome, which was heavily inspired by Contra III (aka Super Probotector). Retro style 2D platformers are commonplace but back in the 90s only four short years separated Contra III from Duke Nukem 3D and yet making a new game in the latter’s style somehow seems a much stranger thing to want to do. But we’re glad they did it anyway.
The they in question is none other than 3D Realms, the original creators of Duke Nukem 3D who, despite all their best efforts, are still going today. But while faux retro games often expand past the limitations of the era they’re paying homage to (Blazing Chrome would never look that good if it actually was a SNES game) Ion Fury has been made using the same Build engine as the original Duke Nukem 3D, by a team of ex-modders called Voidpoint.
In every respect this looks, plays, and sounds like a first person shooter made in the mid-90s. And in a sense that’s all you need to know about it. If you remember such things from the first time round you’ll find this a jarring but enjoyable hit of nostalgia, but if you don’t then you might begin to wonder how the genre ever got to where it is today…
When first person shooters first came into existence, they were almost all extremely fast-paced games with little to no tactical nuance. Duke Nukem 3D added much larger and more interactive maps but they were still basically shooting galleries, with no real puzzles or other gameplay elements. Things started to change when consoles became powerful enough to run them, with 1997’s GoldenEye 007 introducing the idea of slower-paced, more realistic gameplay – a year before Half-Life changed things forever on PC.
But it’s the point before that sea change that Ion Fury is nostalgic for, and so the game casts you as bomb disposal expert Shelly ‘Bombshell’ Harrison who takes on an army of cybernetically-enhanced soldiers for what can only be described as reasons. The script is as dated as the gameplay, with Bombshell spouting movie quotes and crass insults just like a female Duke Nukem. It would’ve been nice if the script showed a little more self-awareness, but like the rest of the game it has a ruthless sense of historical authenticity.
Despite what the name implies, Duke Nukem wasn’t fully 3D and while you could look up and down (which you couldn’t do in Doom) it wasn’t until The Terminator: Future Shock in 1995 (Quake was a full year later) that games started to use 3D polygons for both enemies and the environment. Which means that Ion Fury’s bad guys are all just 2D sprites. They’re still a wonderfully weird collection of humanoids, cyborg insects, and stompy robots though and despite the technical limitations the backdrops can look surprisingly complex in terms of detail and lighting.
The 2.5D presentation is hardly the only thing likely to upset modern sensibilities though, as the game’s also extremely difficult. Not just because there’s no recharging health or cover system but just generally really hard, in a way that Duke Nukem 3D never was. There’s also often no indication of where you should be going or what you should be doing, leading to the frequent experience of wandering around an empty level – because you’ve killed all the enemies – looking for some tiny detail in the background that you’ve missed and which is the only way to proceed.
The only nod to modernity is automatic checkpoints, although that’s an option that’s turned off by default and it’s obvious the game wants you to play the old-fashioned way – by jabbing the quicksave button every time you make even the smallest advance.
If this is all beginning to sound offputtingly perverse then you’re not far wrong. Ion Fury is definitely an acquired taste but what saves it is the guns, which are hugely entertaining to use even though they’re also just 2D sprites wobbling about in the middle of the screen.
As we discussed with the makers of Borderlands 3 recently, weapons in modern shooters tend to be boringly realistic but even though Ion Fury’s aren’t as out-there as Duke Nukem 3D its range of pistols, chainguns, and a beautifully destructive shotgun-cum-grenade launcher are a joy to use. They also represent the only real nuance in the game, as most are particularly well suited to one enemy over another or have alternative fire modes with very different capabilities.
It’s easy to argue that Ion Fury would have been more interesting if it tried to evolve the genre, as it was then, forward in some way; perhaps take the approach of what if graphics technology had plateaued but game design had still evolved along a path similar to now. Most indie retro games already do that to at least some degree, but Ion Fury is adamant that everything has to be exactly how it was in 1996.
If that’s its goal though it’s achieved it almost flawlessly. We doubt even 90s gamers will come away thinking that things used to be better back in their day but it is fascinating to see how much has, and hasn’t, changed and how what was once the state-of-the-art in video games is now nothing but a retro novelty.
In Short: For better and worse, a near perfect replication of mid-90s first person shooters, that makes you wistful for the old days… and secretly glad things have moved on in the meantime.
Pros: Expert use of the decades-old Build engine results in some excellently designed levels and surprisingly complex visuals. Great weapons and fun enemy designs.
Cons: Old school shooters were rarely this difficulty in terms of the combat or working out where you had to go next. Crass dialogue is never as funny as it thinks it is. Zero new ideas.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: 3D Realms
Release Date: 15th August 2019 (consoles TBC)
Age Rating: N/A
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