Our old mate Duke Nukem may have become a parody of himself in this day and age, but during his prime there was no one to claim his throne as the king of FPS. Duke Nukem 3D was a really, really big deal, which is now something most gamers will probably scratch their head over. Believe it or not, long before the likes of Halo: Combat Evolved or Half Life it was developer and publisher 3D Realms and their flagship title Duke Nukem 3D, powered by the then cutting-edge Build Engine, that set the bar for 3D gaming for a very long time. Over 20 years after the aging engine had retired, it returns once more, but this time getting an extra Xbox One X Enhanced boost to deliver a game that is both a homage and an inspirational way forward for the FPS. This game is Ion Fury.
Ion Fury has a very simple setup for its story and premise where the Bombshell hero, Shelly Harrison, is a one-woman army against an evil mad scientist warlord and his freakish cybernetic army of fiends. It’s a simple and familiar good versus evil affair for sure, but it takes place in a rich and detailed cyberpunk game world that is brimming with artistic attention to detail, where all the little pieces come together to make the game world feel much larger than what it is. The art and presentation meld nicely with the game design to create a sprawling, neon-kissed cyberpunk landscape for players to explore.
Ion Fury does indeed have a deliberate retro look to it, using a mix of 2D and 3D effects where most of the character models are 2D sprites while the environments are fully 3D. That being said, the effects and models are all polished up and come together to make this a rather handsome-looking game even from a graphical standpoint. The particle and lighting effects in particular bolster the graphical quality.
As a FPS title Ion Fury feels very familiar to anyone who’s ever played Duke Nukem 3D or similar shooters from that golden era (Shadow Warrior, Blood, and the overlooked Exhumed, just to name-drop a few), except this time the Build Engine is running on maximum overdrive and with Xbox One X enhancements to boot. For the most part, the performance is blistering fast and the core gameplay mechanics feel incredibly fluid, and yet despite this brilliance the frame rate seems to jitter in places. These minor frame rate drops aren’t intrusive by any stretch nor are they a real problem, but all things considered these issues, however minor, shouldn’t exist at all.
Nitpicking aside, there is a lot to love about the core shooting action which feels great and is immensely rewarding to master. Granted, it will be initially jarring for those who grew up on Halo, Call of Duty, or even the modern interpretations of Doom and Wolfenstein, and playing Ion Fury will probably make you appreciate how modern FPS games have spoilt us rotten with their lenient crosshairs and generous hitboxes. In this 3D Realm FPS revival, aiming needs to be very, very precise where careless shots will miss completely if not aimed properly. This can feel like a breath of fresh air, and as you get used to aiming and shooting properly the experience becomes all the more satisfying.
Combat with enemies can become an intense affair, where the smaller foes can become an absolute pest due to the aforementioned aiming precision. Movement and aiming are smooth but they can feel a tad touchy, especially during more busy encounters; fortunately you can adjust the sensitivity of your Xbox One controller to your liking. Now, a handy tip with most enemy encounters is to keep strafing sideways and circle your foe where possible, because unlike in most modern shooters these cybernetic baddies won’t just sit still and invite a bullet from you, they’re in it to win it just as much as you are.
Thankfully, to deal with these mechanised creatures our Bombshell hero has a wealth of inventive and creative weapons at her disposal, and she can carry as many of them as she pleases (no inventory restrictions here). These weapons are quite literally a triple barrel revolver of fun, with some weapons having a dual-wielding option to up the ante. The weapons in Ion Fury harken back to the day when weapons and their mechanics were more about maximising entertainment rather than complying with some precise competitive multiplayer standard. With colourful names given to cool twists of familiar weapons, a big part of the game’s enjoyment is discovering a brand new toy to play with.
Ion Fury has something most modern FPS games simply don’t have a semblance of anymore: actual level design. With the typical modern shooter, you get fancy superficial set pieces in an otherwise shallow and linear bullet spraying affair, but in Ion Fury you get to dive into levels and areas that are carefully and methodically designed piece by piece to create an ingeniously interconnected whole. Featuring massive zones comprising of several interconnected levels, just bringing up the map menu alone will make you appreciate the authentic nature of the game design – something sorely lacking in other games in the genre today.
As you traverse these levels there are puzzles to be solved, platforming situations to navigate in the midst of shooting, and a ton of secrets to discover. The style and pacing of the shooting action doesn’t let up either, as it plays off the level design where in some instances you are in closed-quarters encounters and others in an absolute battlefield massacre. The enemy variety keeps you guessing at every moment, each cybernetic freak more vicious than the last. Things get interesting later on, when there are occasions where you get to operate heavy machinery. The gameplay variety keeps throwing new things at you, and with the campaign being of such substantial length, Ion Fury is a FPS adventure like no other in the genre right now. By the time you reach the end you most certainly would have earned your keep.
Ion Fury on Xbox One is more than just a retro-styled homage to a bygone era of the FPS genre, it in fact belongs in the gaming landscape of 2020 just as much as the next Halo or Call of Duty. Hardly a mere throwback, it is a reminder and wake-up call for the genre, especially when it comes to authentic and engaging level design. Ion Fury isn’t just what a FPS used to be, it’s what a FPS still ought to be.
Hail to the Queen, baby.