Twin-stick shooter Ion Assault will be a victim of choice, specifically the publisher’s choice to bring it out during gaming’s busiest season. It’ll also be hurt by the developer’s choice to build a game within an already over-saturated genre, particularly on Xbox Live Arcade. Sadly, the fact that it’s a reasonable video game with a fairly engrossing play mechanic is unlikely to be of much consequence.
In Ion Assault’s favour, it does have a unique shtick, which is something that so many games of its ilk lack. Instead of using traditional lasers to destroy enemies, Ion Assault’s ships use an impressive, flowing particle system. The game’s Geometry Wars-like box arena has pools of these energy particles lying around its sides and corners. Players can hold LT to collect these energy pieces into the pool held in front of their ship, and then release the trigger to unleash a destructive particle beam.
This effect is both mechanically and visually impressive, as there’s clearly plenty of physics in Ion Assault: particles rebound at speed off the arena’s edges to create glowing swirls of dust, and your ship chaotically bumps off rocks like an attention-deficit squirrel. This unique form of combat does present a new challenge that piques interest immediately.
Unfortunately, the controls are less impressive than the physics. Rather than simply aiming the right stick to fire the beam in an intended direction, the stick controls an aiming line for the players’ ship. This line remains set even when the player lets go of the right stick (think of it like a rotational Resident Evil-esque laser sight). It’s an unnecessary, sluggish limitation seemingly implemented to emphasize the particle mechanics’ individuality, given how traditional twin-stick controls would be much simpler. After repeated playthroughs, the controls will eventually feel less ungainly but never natural, as holding and releasing a trigger button for 30 minutes is pretty uncomfortable in itself.
Beyond its interesting controls and impressive physics, Ion Assault is frustratingly deficient in personality. The presentation is neat and colorful enough, and individual ships and rocks are quite detailed, but it begins to feel bland after a few stages. There isn’t the intensity in sound, visuals and gameplay found in the genre’s modern-day standout titles like Geometry Wars or Super Stardust HD. The music is rather subdued, stages are only defined by their palette and names, and enemies are all too similar to one another, with some extravagant end bosses as noteworthy exceptions. Despite dynamic difficulty that alters enemy AI and helps keep things interesting, there’s never that feeling of being overwhelmed by swarms of enemies, that feeling that defines the best arcade titles and fuels the player’s desire to have another go.
Thankfully, the core physics keeps things fun, as do some cool power-ups. The torus is an extraordinary joy, creating a giant swirl of plasma that quickly destroys whatever is within its reach, while the black hole-like plasma grenades help produce some great scoring runs. Of course, there are also leaderboards to poke players into pressing the start button again and again. All in all, Ion Assault’s short (60-90 minutes) single player campaign is enjoyable, if not about to set the world on fire.
Sadly–at the time of this review going up–no one is playing Ion Assault online. This is a shame, because there are some interesting variations in the versus mode and competent local co-op for those who like to assault ions with friends. But it’s more so a shame because it’s evidence of how Ion Assault is faring, with a leaderboard player count that isn’t likely to threaten the five figure mark when all’s said and done. Clearly, Ion Assault’s development team is talented, because it managed to teach an old dog a new trick. Regrettably, no one’s really interested in this old dog right now, because too many people have been trying to teach it new tricks. Unless, that is, the game’s name is Geometry Wars or Super Stardust HD, both of which are spectacularly stupid names for a dog.