An old-school that's learned new tricks
It’s obvious to look at this and call it a nostalgia-soaked throwback like Dusk, Amid Evil, and any other of these new-old-school shooters. Of course, when you’ve got a game made on a 24-year-old engine, you’re probably at least half right. But Ion Fury is no old maiden.
Ion takes the old-school idea and expands it into something that feels modern, but not “modern.” The maps are dense with loops, alternate paths, and far more secrets than any other shooter I can think of. The combat is immediate, yet still frantic – most enemies can be killed in one headshot, but a level can be packed so full that you spend most of your time diving and weaving around their bullets and grenades until you get that one split-second chance to take them down. The unwieldly inventory of the Build days is streamlined into temporary pickups in the levels when they’re needed, with the player just carrying portable medkits and temporary radars to at least somewhat ease the pain of walking into a shotgunner around a corner.
Yet the weapons are surprisingly grounded compared to the days of BFGs; the most exotic it gets here is a laser crossbow and homing grenades. The enemies fit the typical shooter archetypes – cannon fodder, shotgunner, sniper, melee, and a wildcard – but it can be hard to tell one robe-wearing robot-voiced masked man from another. For many people looking for the days of a wide bestiary of unique monsters and a wide arsenal of unique guns to kill them with, Ion Fury can seem oddly reserved.
But when combined with the, well, furious pace of the gunplay and the deathmatch-style flow of the level design, Ion Fury feels less like Duke Nukem for 2019 and more like FEAR for 1997. It’s a deeply unique feeling that no other old school shooter has (or new-old-school shooter, for that matter), and it makes it one of the most refreshing takes on a genre I love to death.
Video games have almost always been envious of movies, and one of the biggest drivers of technology and design in the industry has been attempting to emulate the immersion of cinema. But there's always a tension between the free interactivity of games and the structured guidance of narrative. In the end, Half-Life won the day for narrative, and we see its cinematic immersion all across today's shooters.
Ion Fury, then, is a look into a world of if the other side had the upper hand. Sure, the Build engine isn't Goldsrc, but the sheer beauty and astounding detail in every aspect of the gigantic environments implies a possible timeline where all that modern processing power didn't go toward what new thing shooters could become, but rather a deepening of what shooters already were.