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I think Early Access titles can be risky business. As a consumer, investing in an early access title means three things – 1) I’m investing money in an unfinished game. 2) I’m assuming or trusting the developer will actually finish the game. And 3) I hope the finished product will be worth the money. Many early access titles or Kickstarter campaigns allow you to pay less than what the game will go for when it finally does release. Sometimes developers offer different tiers to invest in that provide unique content or special rewards. Some developers may promise more content if they can raise a specific amount of money. Being developed by Voidpoint and published by 3D Realms, Ion Maiden entered early access on Steam in February, 2018. If you purchase the game now, you’ll have access to the Preview Campaign v1.0. Ion Maiden is a title aiming for that old-school shooter feel, which seems to be a common thing with shooters these days, but what makes Ion Maiden unique is that it’s actually being developed using the Build Engine which powered games like Duke Nukem 3D, the original Shadow Warrior, and Blood. Actually, I read that it’s built on EDuke32, specifically, which is a fork of the Build Engine designed to support modern operating systems. The fact that this is running on the Build Engine and being published by 3D Realms makes me feel confident it will turn out alright. Considering Ion Maiden is an early access title, this review will only cover how it is in its current state.
There really isn’t much of a story and if it’s planned to be anything like the classic Build Engine games from way back when, I don’t expect much in terms of a narrative. I expect more of a backstory as to what’s going on and so far that’s exactly what’s on offer here. If you click the Help button on the main menu or read the game’s description on the Steam page, you’ll know everything there is to know as of right now. You play as a woman named Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, a bomb disposal expert for the Global Defense Force. She’s on a mission to stop the transhumanist cult mastermind Dr. Jadus Heskel who has unleased a cybernetic army on Neo DC. So far the story sounds like it’s going to follow the typical mold of many classic nineties shooters. You play as a badass protagonist and have to blow away tons of bad guys because they’re evil. The only real voice acting comes from Shelly who shouts one-liners every now and again, several of which reference pop culture. It’s cheesy, humorous, and exactly what I was hoping for.
The preview campaign grants you access to the Columbia in Crisis game mode which contains one Zone consisting of multiple maps or areas. The maps are broken up by very brief load times and you can also quicksave at any time during gameplay. I guess you could say the Zone is like a level. However, if this is any indication as to how future Zones will be, then I predict they will be rather large. The only downside here is you can only play through the one Zone and you can easily beat it in under an hour. With that said, I completed it multiple times. Before jumping into the campaign, you can select from one of three difficulty modes – Blood and Gore which is the easiest, Wanton Carnage, and Ultra Viscera which is the hardest. After beating the campaign for the first time, you unlock an extra game mode called Bombardier Trial which allows you to go through the Zone again with infinite Bowling Bombs and only twenty five health. What’s on offer is very bare bones but still fun and the gameplay will feel very familiar if you’ve played almost any other Build Engine game.
The gameplay is simple. Shoot all of the bad guys and try not to die. You can run, crouch, swim, jump, and interact with things in the environments like switches, buttons, terminals, and stuff like that. The Build Engine was known for it’s level of interactivity and that aspect has been carried over into Ion Maiden. You only have access to six weapons – the Electrifryer, Loverboy, SMG-9000, Disperser, Bowling Bombs, and the Chaingun. The Electrifryer is a melee weapon, like an electric baton of sorts, that electrocutes enemies with each strike. The Loverboy is a pistol, the SMG-9000 is a submachine gun, the Disperser is a shotgun, and the Bowling Bombs are little bombs you can throw that home in on nearby targets. You can pick up any bombs you’ve thrown that haven’t exploded. The Chaingun is a heavy automatic weapon and I only acquired it after defeating the boss and, unfortunately, that’s right where the campaign ends. I’m not sure if the Chaingun is in a secret area but if so, I never found it. I do wish there was more weapons in general and maybe even alternate firing modes for some of them. I can’t wait to see how the arsenal is expanded but the weapons on display here all feel satisfying to use so that’s a good start.
The Zone here is pretty diverse in its locations while remaining consistent in its theme. You first start blowing away baddies on the streets before moving into an office building. Next you’ll move through a basement-like area and subway station before taking on the final boss known as Warmech. Like many shooters from the nineties, the areas, themselves, are intricate with plenty of secrets to find, vents to crawl through, doors to open, buttons to press, and a few keycards to find which grant you access to new areas. The secret areas are probably what give the Preview Campaign the most replay value right now because there is a lot and it’s possible to miss several on your first run through the Zone. Secret areas usually reward you with weapons, ammo, health, and/or armor so the Zone is worth exploring. You can backtrack through areas which will become a thing if you get lost but the actual level design does feel coherent and when you do finally figure out how to proceed, it’s usually because you missed a something small like a button not in plain sight or something like that. As you progress forward, you’ll sometimes be greeted by scripted explosions that usually grant you access to new or even previous areas so if you feel like backtracking, you may not have to trek a long distance. Now I think most of the enemies are supposed to be cyborgs of some sort, you’ll have to deal with a few turrets, and even little spider things. Most of the enemies are easy enough to take down and I would say the challenge comes from dealing with many at once as well as the hitscan enemy types. Some of the tougher enemies seem carry Dispersers but they, too, are pretty easy to kill. Ammo is not hard to come by and as long as you’re accurate and explore a little, you shouldn’t have to scrounge for ammunition. Plus, enemies drop ammo when killed. Scattered throughout the environments are health kits, stimpacks, armor pickups, even portable med kits that can be stored in your inventory for use later.
Visually, Ion Maiden looks like it was made in the nineties but there are some things that give it a more modern feel as well. For one thing, you can play this in widescreen, although you do have the option to play in the 4:3 aspect ratio if you desire. In addition to the zone being fairly large, the urban backgrounds look great, there’s plenty of color, I love the subtle smoke effects when something blows up, the environments are extremely well detailed, and the weapon models and reload animations look cool. Vehicles and partially destroyed buildings and structures populate the environments, some areas are on fire, little objects like bottles, mops, cups, and other things are littered all over the the place, posters can be seen on walls, and all of these details do a good job at bringing the areas to life. There’s a decent amount of little effects that enhance the overall combat like blood that splatters as you pummel enemies with gunfire, explosions turn enemies into gibs that can be kicked around as you run over them, and shooting surfaces like glass and walls will result in debris falling to the ground. As for the audio, the sound effects are good. Weapons have a punch to them, explosions sound satisfying, and enemies scream and groan as you blow them away. The soundtrack seems to only consist of only a few songs so far but what I heard sounds pretty good. It’s a bunch of catchy electronic-sounding tracks that just sound very eighties. On the performance side, the game ran fine without any real bugs. I did limit the frame rate to sixty but sometimes the frame rate was a bit choppy, more so in the outdoor environments.
I would say I had fun with Ion Maiden and I am look forward to seeing how it develops. I particularly enjoyed how the weapons feel and I can honestly say this does feel like an actual old-school shooter. Ion Maiden does have it’s own unique aesthetic and atmosphere, giving off this whole “eighties depiction of the future” vibe which I absolutely love. After I beat it twice I messed around with the cheat menu, mainly to give myself all of the weapons and that was pretty cool. You can actually find cheats in the environments if you look hard enough, I know I saw at least one. But you can also find them online. The combat, overall, feels good in its current state and I’m really hoping for some more over-the-top satisfying weapons in the future. I also hope to see more destructible environments, more item pickups, and a larger variety of enemies in the full release which I think is not unreasonable to expect. I have no idea if this preview campaign is an actual Zone to be featured in the final release or just a prototype of some sort but so far the developers are on the right track. The level design is fantastic and the size of the Zone is impressive. I’m hoping to see more Zones like this with the same amount of care put into the details and design. I also like the idea of multiple game modes and unlockable content in general. The Bombardier Trial mode is cool and is basically an explosion-fest but the idea that there could be other modes like this leaves me with a positive feeling. I also wouldn’t object to mod support in the final product.
Ultimately, I would say Ion Maiden is off to a great start but, obviously, it needs more. There’s not a lot of content here so I don’t know if I could recommend it, especially for eighteen dollars which is what it’s going for right now on Steam. The secret areas and difficulty modes add the only real forms of replay value but if you manage to one hundred percent complete the Zone, you’ve basically seen everything there is to see right now. It shouldn’t take you that long to get through it either and with that said, I do wish the developers kind of waited until another Zone or more content was ready before releasing this to the public. This is a very small preview, a taste if you will, of what I’m assuming is a larger campaign. From what I’ve played, I am confident this will turn out to be something great but I would say wait for an update or even the full release unless this looks super interesting to you. I can say that the gameplay is definitely fun and I’m craving for more.