[Review] ‘Ion Fury’ Fails as a Parody, But Excels as a Shooter

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The shooting is good in Ion Fury.

More specifically, the pistol is good. That’s right: the weapon you ignore the second you get anything else is really, really good. So good, in fact, that I used it extensively throughout the game and leaned on it heavily in the final boss fight.

The developers at Voidpoint transformed the humble pistol from a packet of ramen noodles (undesirable, but will eat in a pinch) into a jumbo bag of Totino’s Pizza Rolls (an essential staple of every diet, will eat three meals a day) with the addition of a simple alternate fire mode. 

That isn’t unique to the pistol; most of the weapons in this retro shooter have two distinct modes. The shotgun becomes a grenade launcher. You can throw Bowling Bombs unlit for explosions on impact or you can light the fuse for a timed combustion. The Ion Bow, which ordinarily stuns and damages enemies, fires a wide shot in alt-fire and becomes an uncontrollable plasma machine gun when you hold the right mouse button.

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But, the pistol’s alternate fire option allows you to paint targets on multiple enemies — think Arthur Morgan’s Deadeye ability in Red Dead Redemption 2 — locking on, and firing on all of them at once. It’s a supremely useful addition that makes the pistol a surprisingly essential weapon. It’s the best tool for crowd control when a horde of low-level enemies are on your heels and it’s fantastic for taking out bouncy anklebiter spiders that are nigh impossible to get a bead on otherwise. 

Now, obviously, a good pistol does not a good game make. But, Ion Fury’s excellent pistol is one important piece of why this game’s arsenal works so well. It signals that each weapon is useful; an important tool to be used in the proper context. The Clusterpuck cannot say to the Penetrator, “I have no need of you!” It’s your responsibility to figure out how each weapon fits into this arsenal like a novice chess player learning to move the Knight in an L.

As you wield this arsenal, you take on the role of Shelley “Bombshell” Harrison, the fascist leader — the “Story So Far” primer included in the game’s menu says that Shelley’s job is to bring justice to any criminals who dare defy “permanent martial law” — of Neo D.C.’s Domestic Task Force. Some of these criminals, led by the evil scientist Heskel, interrupt Shelley’s “attempt to get sloshed after another horrible day in urban hell,” and Shelley sets out to kill the mad doctor and finish her drink.

What ensues is ‘90s as hell, in ways both good and bad. If you haven’t followed Ion Fury during its early access phase, here’s a quick primer: Developed by Voidpoint, Ion Fury is one of two throwback shooters (the other being Wrath: Aeon of Ruin) being published by 3D Realms, the creators of Duke Nukem 3D. It wears it’s inspiration proudly, but with cleaner, more colorful graphics than the Build engine could manage back in the day.

Ion Fury also took inspiration from another, less welcome, source. Originally titled Ion Maiden, the game was the subject of a lawsuit by the rock band Iron Maiden. 3D Realms changed the name last month, avoiding a potential $2 million payout and landing on a slightly less kickass title.

It was easy to root for Ion Fury during that controversy. It was a frivolous lawsuit and Iron Maiden (and/or their lawyers) should be mocked relentlessly for forcing a cool retro shooter to change its name (in spite of the fact that no living person could possibly confuse the two). It has been less easy to root for Ion Fury during its latest controversy. A ResetEra user discovered and published screenshots of sexist, ableist and transphobic language from a pair of developers in the Ion Fury Discord server. Voidpoint initially stated that the statements hadn’t been properly contextualized, but on Monday, 3D Realms and Voidpoint issued a full-throated apology.

“Members of Voidpoint’s Ion Fury team have made sexist and transphobic comments, and included homophobic language in Ion Fury. We recognize these statements are insensitive, unacceptable, and counterproductive to causes of equality. We unequivocally apologize both for these comments and language as well as for any pain they have caused the gaming community, particularly women and members of the LGBTQ community. We take full responsibility for any damage that has been done to the relationships we’ve worked so hard to build.”

The mention of “homophobic language in Ion Fury” is a reference to a lotion bottle bearing the label, “OGAY,” (haha, like Olay, so funny!) and a secret room with a message containing a homophobic slur. 

“Moving forward, Voidpoint will institute a zero-tolerance policy for this type of language and all employees and contractors will undergo mandatory sensitivity training. As part of our efforts to contribute to the work that must be done to further support these communities, we are donating $10,000 from Ion Fury’s release day proceeds to The Trevor Project. We are also patching Ion Fury ASAP to remove all unacceptable language.”

That’s a good apology. Time will tell if anything changes for the bad actors at Voidpoint, but an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a promise to make real, concrete changes is a good place to start. However, the broader problem is Voidpoint’s decision to uncritically accept the milieu that produced Duke Nukem in the first place. While most games that take inspiration from problematic source material attempt to emulate the good and ignore the bad (see: Cuphead and Call of Cthulhu ignoring the racism of Fleischer and Lovecraft, respectively), Ion Fury is attempting to capture the look and attitude of Duke Nukem 3D

In doing so, Voidpoint has found an approach that mostly works. The retro art and soundtrack are both excellent. Shelley’s one-liners are crass, but never harmful. The environmental design borrows heavily from Duke Nukem 3D’s approach to building representational spaces. A city block, a subway system, a laboratory; Ion Fury models convincing versions of these real places and then adapts their architecture to accommodate the lock-and-keycard structure that ‘90s shooters used to gate progress. These levels are sprawling, vibrant and packed with a variety of enemies that will challenge you to use every weapon in your arsenal. Just like you need a blue keycard to open a blue door, you’ll need the Ion Bow to take out the skinless muscle men that warp around levels like miniature flying Titans. Everything in its place.

So, mechanically, Ion Fury is a success. It’s fast (though not as fast as last year’s DUSK) and fluid and the levels are fun to explore. But, it goes awry in its attempt to parody the shooters of the era. While the writing is clearly tongue-in-cheek — “permanent martial law” should be a clue — it isn’t clear what Ion Fury is satirizing. “Great job! … but real players aim for 100% (are you a real player?)” the game asks, if you finish a level without collecting all the secrets. Nothing in the game comments on or satirizes this ‘90s git gud, gatekeeping attitude. Developer Terminix’s comments in the Discord server that “SJWs” “are fucking nuts” seems to indicate that some at Voidpoint share the attitude that games aren’t for everybody, and that those seeking to make games more accessible for marginalized people are ruining the industry.

Ion Fury is a good game that fumbles its opportunity to update the attitude of ‘90s shooters. And, in some ways, Voidpoint — inside and outside the game — contributes to the toxicity it appears to be trying to satirize.

Ion Fury review code for PC provided by the publisher.

Ion Fury is out now on PC. PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch version later in 2019

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