Wot I Think: Ion Maiden

Ion Maiden Preview Campaign is, without question, brilliant. A mad-speed Build engine project that feels like it was made by present-day time travellers who went back to 1996 to make a game. It’s stupid and crass and loud and gory and everything else you could hope for. And this is just the two-mission mini campaign while they finish the full game.

Quite why any game would still want to associate itself with the wretchedly dreadful Bombshell, I’m not sure, but Ion Maiden is framed as a prequel to that pile of toss. This means it shares the same protagonist, one Shelley Harrison, and the setting of an invasion of sorts in Washington DC, although almost nothing else, thank goodness.

Instead this is gloriously evocative of that mid-90s post-Doom II era of FPS games, where movement was idiotically fast, enemies were idiots, and secrets were hiding behind every other wall. The Build engine has been updated in many ways, but remains very true to its original look and feel. It runs at modern resolutions, the HUD is crisp and clear, but the world itself is clunky and boxy in all the right ways. It can now better recognise pushing around the 2.5D objects, there are physics, and some objects are even rendered in what I’m going to christen “2.8D”, jumping between four or so different renditions of the sprite as you walk around them. And while Duke3D was the game that mastered verticality (after Dark Forces introduced it), there’s a very modern understanding of mouse-led FPS thinking.

It’s a game about screaming around at outrageous speeds, hammering the Use button on any object or wall that looks out of place just in case, and of course spreading enemy gibs about the walls and floor. It feels so fluid, so natural, and such a blessed respite from the bum-following misery-trudge that is so much of modern first-person shooting. It’s ludicrous in every way, enemies aiming with ridiculous skill, and you tasked to work out how to deal with that.

The biggest and best lesson it takes from Duke3D, beyond just the concept itself, is the destructible scenery. Duke blew our minds in 1996 by having levels that could change their layout via the destruction you wrought, and it’s damned revealing how fresh and original the same feels today in our current swamp of unchangeable fixed-state open worlds. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, apart from, er, literally I suppose, but it’s just so odd that scripted actions seeing the level collapse about you again feels so innovative. That and shooting fire hydrants sometimes blasts holes in the walls leading to secret areas. That’s always cool.

Secrets are another aspect of those Olden Days that have been splendidly embellished upon here. There are a ridiculous number of them, such that when I finished the first of the two chapters in this preview, it told me I had 19 left. Nineteen. And I’d been looking for them, and finding loads! (I only had four left in the second.) The secrets in question aren’t just there to provide extra armour, ammo and health, but also add a significant extra purpose in playing. Find a bit of scenery that looks like you can just about jump onto it, then see a beam you might be able to land on, then climb up some more, here, there, and into that hole, and here’s a stash! It makes the world much more interesting to pick at, rather than just being a corridor to run down. Seeing a locked off area becomes a mission, and even if all you get is an extra medpack, the sense of achievement when you find the entrance hidden in the toilet cubicle, then the secret switch on that dark wall, makes it all worthwhile.

It also adds an incentive to replay levels and try to find the ones you missed. I still have 16 to find in the first area, and good gravy, I’ve searched. I really want to keep plugging away at it.

It’s not completely free of the sorts of puerile asides that have always festered in 3D Realms’ games, and for some that will be a comfort, for others it’ll draw out another eyeroll. The issue has never been they’re a bit rude or whatever, but that they’re just not very funny, and this is no exception. Signs mocking MTV and McDonald’s feel like they too were transported from 1996, while posters advertising suicide assistance feel pointlessly crass without any attached gag. Although I’ll concede I’m immature enough to have enjoyed a giant “WASHINGTONS 4 SKINS” sporting banner. And saying all that, it’s hard to imagine how it would feel like a proper Build engine game if it didn’t have some crappy unfunny crass jokes in it.

Fortunately Harrison is by orders of magnitude a better player character than her crushingly embarrassing outing in Bombshell. While her barks aren’t brilliant, and repeat too often, I still enjoyed “Clean up on aisle your ass” the first time I heard it. “I spray, you pay,” she utters as machine gun bullets fly. Thank God, in the two large levels available at this point at least, there are no gut-churning, groin-grinding attempts at faux-feminism this time out. She’s just a bad-ass protagonist, without making a fuss about it, which is ideal.

More significant issues are present. The most annoying, that should be an easy fix, is Harrison’s bizarre inconsistency when looking for secrets. Sometimes she’ll say, “There’s nothing here,” more often say nothing at all, and most confusing, frequently make a noise like she’s hurt. What you want, of course, is one simple innocuous noise that means “nope”, so you can slide down a wall hammering E without listening to what sounds like a broken sound effects CD.

Then there’s all sorts of clipping issues (I never got stuck, but I looked through a lot of walls) where the levels need a few more rounds of tidying, and I’ve had it freeze up, which would have been fine if it hadn’t, for some reason, lost my quicksave data. But, you might say, this is early access! Well yes and no, because the sale page clearly states, “The Preview Campaign is a fully finalized and polished product, which you can all play right now.” Aaaaand, no, it’s not polished.

Which brings us to the final similarity, and indeed dissimilarity, between this and the games of the Apogee/3D Realms heyday: releasing a sizeable portion of the game, ending in a message encouraging you to buy the full game. The concept seems almost impossibly alien in these days when even a demo is a rare gem for a new game release, but in the early to mid ’90s, it was perfectly common for games to release up to one third of themselves as “shareware”. Completely free, intended to be copied, shared, and played. A huge chunk of Duke Nukem 3D was free! The first third of Doom was free! And Ion Maiden mimics this model right up to including the screen at the end thanking you for playing the preview, and encouraging you to buy the full game! It just forgets the free part.

I’d not have even thought about it if they’d not put the card in, of course, and I obviously don’t begrudge their selling this splendid section presumably to bring in some cash for finishing the full game. It just seems odd to be reminded that this isn’t shareware in such a glaring way!

Of course, for the £14 here you’re getting the full game when it’s eventually finished. And this, they say, isn’t even part of that full game, which will be its own self-contained campaign. That’s still six months away, with this out there as a taster for what’s to come. And if it can match it, then goodness me it’ll be a pleasure to have.

This isn’t about nostalgia – that’s really important to make clear. I mean, yes, I can’t untangle myself from that entirely, but I’d contend that so much has changed in the realms of FPS gaming in the twenty-something years since that those core ideas are now maverick and refreshing. That the game boasts in its own sales pitch that it contains “no procedural generation” is very telling. Obviously the Serious Sam games’ occasional appearances have kept this spirit alive, but in their own distinct broad territory. FPS hasn’t felt like Ion Maiden for a ridiculously long time, and it’s absolutely glorious to have it back. I cannot wait to see the full campaign later this year.

Ion Maiden is out now in early access on Windows and Linux, for £14/$18/18€, via Steam and 3D Realms.


  1. R. Totale says:

    But is it as good as Judas Piest?

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Man, the old build engine screens just got me going, I’ll tell you.

    But really? $18 for a build engine game? What would have affectionately been called a Duke3D mod back in the day?

    But hey, it does look neat, and worth wishlisting at least.

    • Lord_Mordja says:

      I’ve seen this sentiment come up here and there (GiantBomb, for example, and I think someone also said it when they looked at Dusk) and it’s honestly mystifying to me. People pay $20 for throwback, pixel indie games all the time, so why should a retro-looking shooter be any different? That said, I will admit I haven’t bought Ion Maiden yet, but that’s just because I’d rather wait until it’s finished and play the whole thing in one go.

      • Ghostwise says:

        And of course, hundreds of billions of people pay $60 for Call of Duty and the like. For Freedom.

      • c-Row says:

        One might argue that a Build engine game is built on an already present foundation, whereas the pixel indie games have been created from the ground up, though it would be up to debate where that line has to be drawn these days with development tools like UE and Unity.

        • Sunjammer says:

          I’m not really sure anyone would argue this, given how hard adapting Build and making content for it actually is.

        • GepardenK says:

          So? All Unreal Engine games and the latest battlefield/cod/far-cry/assasins-creed etc are also buildt on an already present Foundation, yet People still pay 60$ for them.

  3. Michael Fogg says:

    I’m such a Build-engine nerd that this made me subscribe for Early Access, something I ordinarily never do. Worth it so far. Level design is just masterful. I spent a stupid amount of time trying to get behind a bulletproof glass labeled ‘Secure Area’ with some goodies inside, and felt like a genius when I found a way(after an embarrasingly long itme). There is potential here to be like DN3D, only better.

  4. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    Honestly, I’m happy as a clam with the “dated”, “unfunny” jokes. It feels like every other game these days is trying too hard to be “serious” or “thought-provoking” and failing at either. The suicide-assistance billboard brought me back to Deus Ex, which had a similar advertisement.

    Otherwise, it’s just all around good to see developers remembering what made FPS so addictive and alluring in the 90s.

  5. Banks says:

    Cool shit. Will buy at release.

    Dusk seems fantastic too.

  6. gabrielonuris says:

    Seriously, I don’t pre order, and I don’t buy into the early access trend either, but I had to take the plunge here. Bought it saturday evening and played it the rest of the weekend, as if I was 12 again playing Duke 3D on my Pentium 200.

    I still can’t believe a game like this was made in 2018. And no, the other so called “old school” shooters are just impostors for me, like the Ion Maiden trailer says. Dusk actually looks cool, but the rest? Devil Daggers, Immortal Redneck, Strafe, HellScreen, Amid Evil… Well, I’ll give a chance to Amid Evil because of the Heretic references. Probably.

    • Caiman says:

      Hey, you take back what you said about Devil Daggers, right now! That game is a masterpiece.

  7. Sunjammer says:

    My favorite FPS engine of yore by far, I’ve so many good memories of modding and making maps for Build games. I haven’t been able to pick this up yet, does anyone know if it ships with build.exe like games used to?

  8. Dominic Tarason says:

    From what I’ve played, I’m confident in saying that unless they screw the pooch in the final cut’s level design, this’ll be better than Duke 3D by a good measure.

    A large part of that is them knowing exactly what to cut and change. In the current build, no enemies have hitscan (instant-hit, randomly determined accuracy) weapons, instead favoring higher accuracy but very fast-but-still-dodgeable projectiles, meaning you’ll no longer find yourself magically sniped from across half the map by a pig-cop with a shotgun.

    They also cut the pointlessly fiddly (and sometimes game-breaking) inventory system, just leaving instant-use medpacks bound to a hotkey. They also improved on explosives by including possibly the best grenades ever: They roll, home in on targets and if they don’t kill anything they defuse so you can pick them up and use again.

    It’s the retro FPS I’m second-most excited for. The first is Overload, the Descent reboot by the original developers.

    • Caiman says:

      Yes, Overload is going to be glorious. I’ve been playing the betas for 18 months now and I still can’t get enough of it.

  9. Blake Casimir says:

    This game proves one thing:

    In all the time that games have improved and developed, particularly graphically, there is NOTHING more important than solid core mechanics (in this case already perfected by Doom in fricken 1993) and carefully designed hand-crafted worlds.

    This game has both.

    I’d rather play this over and over again than pretty much any GTA/open world collectathon, third person hack and slash, or whatever else is the popular thing on consoles.

    I truly hope that Ion Maiden opens the floodgates to more indie “retro style” FPS games that eschew fancy modern visuals in favor of imaginative world / story / character design, immersion, and solid gameplay. Because there are a huge amount of AAA games nowadays that have little or none of these things, but sure are pretty.

  10. Blake Casimir says:

    If it wasn’t obvious, I love this game, and can’t wait until its full release. In case Voidpoint are reading, though, I have some small suggestions:
    – The enemy tells / shouts are tremendously indistinct and get lost in the overall game audio
    – Weapons on the other hand sound great but could really do with some more visual beef when firing
    – Does having autoaim disabled actually work? Sometimes it felt like it didn’t.
    – Throwing bombs need a wider AOE. There were many occasions where two or more enemies pretty close to each other felt like they both should have been utterly destroyed by a bomb hitting one of them. But one or more survived.
    – Give Shelly more shouts!

  11. Mungrul says:

    Shame it’s only on Steam.
    Trying to wean myself off of it in favour of GOG or other DRM free platforms. So maybe not an immediate purchase.

    • Quickly says:

      It is actually on GOG, but only for owners of deluxe versions of Bombshell [1], which sucks. Which given that this standalone version’s levels won’t be included in the full game means Steam is the only place to currently purchase it in its standalone form.

      [1] link to gog.com

      • mike69 says:

        Are we all reading different articles? There’s a clear link to buy it directly from 3DRealms, right next to the link to buy it from Steam.

        • Mungrul says:

          Sorry, yeah I did see it’s also available direct from 3D Realms (and DRM free too), but I like to try and keep my digital storefronts to a minimum.

  12. frymaster says:

    So I was beyond cynical about this when I first heard about it. Now… less so.

    Might have to pick this up

  13. shoptroll says:

    Very cautiously optimistic about this. I never really got into Build engine games (beyond the Shadow Warrior shareware episode that shipped on a PC Gamer cover disc) but this looks like a great way to complete the classic FPS circle that was started 7 years ago with Bulletstorm, Hard Reset, and Serious Sam BFE

  14. cafeoh says:

    I can not recommend this game.

    I’m experiencing input lag (whatever I do with the settings) and a lot of players seem to experience stutter (everybody I know that owns the game does). The reason I love those classic games is because of how tight they feel. DUSK felt amazing in that regard, but this feels sluggish. I’m sensitive to input lag and the like (although I know a lot of people don’t even notice it), but I think it’s unacceptable for a game like this. Early access or not, I’d expect the engine to be mostly completely ironed out when released in EA, but it isn’t, far from it. Many people seem to echo how this game is visibly made with the intent of having solid mechanics, and not to just be nostalgia fuel, but to me this demonstrates quite the opposite, and nostalgia for it’s own sake doesn’t interest me, I want a solid game that improve on the formula, the lo-fi graphics are the easy part.

    Beyond the input lag, the game also suffers a lot in terms of performances as reported by many users. Devs even stickied a thread on the steam discussion group detailing how to try and improve performances.

    Perhaps some of those bugs will be fixed one day, but I can’t for the life of me understand how a game with those roots could have such glaring issues.

    If you’re looking for a nice, clean, unburdened old school shooter experience and enjoy the look of DUSK, it seems to fit this review much better, and the devs work hard on actually expanding the old-school feel.

    • grve says:

      I was having the same issue and it really does ruin the experience. What worked for me was turning the game to full-screen window, but they definitely need to work on making things smoother.

    • John Walker says:

      Just to be clear, I had none of these issues when playing, so it’s definitely not ubiquitous.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      The core reason for any technical issues is that the game is, at the end of the day, still running on the age-old Build Engine. There’s an OpenGL hardware rendering layer now based on the old EDuke32 source-port, but it’s never been quite up to the same level as, say, GZDoom is for Doom, and is still shackled by some of the original software limitations.

      There’d be no technical problems if they’d managed to get hold of the Duke Anniversary engine used in Gearbox’s recent re-release of Duke 3D, but sadly there’s so much bad blood between the now-holders of the 3D Realms name and Gearbox that I doubt that’d ever happen. A pity.

      • Cederic says:

        While there may be understandable reasons for technical challenges it’s still a reason to avoid buying the game.

        Stuttering can take a game from ‘great’ to ‘I need to puke’ so unless it’s resolved a lot of people will throw their $18 in a different direction.

  15. Ragnar says:

    This reminded me that – for reasons I can’t remember, let alone explain – I purchased Doom, Doom II, Duke 3D, and Quake, and only ever played the free shareware portions of each. I’m just going to blame Tie Fighter and RPGs – so many Gold Boxes, so little time.

    • bill says:

      While I much prefer the shareware model over the Early Access model or the F2P-supported-by-whales model, it did somewhat encourage the free portion to be much better.

      Duke3D I played the shareware chapter for ages, loved it, then finally got the full game and the second chapter is very dull by comparison.. so I think I went back to the shareware section.

      Doom1 i knew all the shareware maps backwards, and it wasn’t until long later when I finally got the whole thing… but by that point I’d already played all of Doom2 (which I bought cold) and the rest of Doom 1 felt somewhat bland by comparison.

      Plus we tended to use the shareware maps for multiplayer because everyone knew them and everyone had it.

      Quake… well, you should just play all of Quake.

      • Marclev says:

        Yeah, it was basically a bait and switch.

        You’d play the shareware version for ages, then finally save up both enough money and enough motivation to go and buy the full game, only to find that the extra chapters were inferior (and in the case of Duke 3D, vastly so) to the part of the game that got you hooked on it.

        I guess the great thing was getting to play the shareware versions for free.

      • Orageon says:

        In all honesty, this happens even today. You will have this “first 10 mins of gameplay” thing showed at all the big conventions, that end up often getting more polish than the rest of the game. I have experienced that in number of games, even if yo uare not “playing” it like in shareware times of yore, you still ge tto see a discrepancy from the “commercial/promotional” bits and the rest.
        Also I personally, back then in Duke3D and others, didn’t really get turned off that much by the difference in the shareware part and the rest. The difference was not that huge in my opinion at all. On the opposite, I was happy to visit different locations and space.

  16. bill says:

    This game looks great and I really want to try ti… but they’ve been so successful in recreating the idea and style (and memories) of demos/shareware that I really can’t bring myself to stump up $14 for a demo… even if it does theoretically also include getting the full game at a later date.

    If they’d released it for $3 with an option to upgrade to the full game later for $11, I might have jumped onboard.
    (Though I have no idea if that’d work out better/worse for them financially)


  17. Mungrul says:

    Also, not to be a party pooper, but could the article’s headline be changed to be a bit more accurate?
    The implication is that this is a review of the full game, and even has the RPS seal of approval, but that’s quite little misleading given that this is a standalone preview and not the final game.

    • Marclev says:

      I agree. Unless I’m missing something, from the article this is basically an early access game, with the usual lack of guarantee that the rest of it will actually come out when they say it will.

      It sounds good, but I don’t want to buy 2 levels of a game at its full price and then not get to play anymore of it for potentially a long time, if ever.