DUSK & Ion Fury — How I Remember It

So, I recently blasted through Ion Fury (3D Realms) and Dusk (New Blood Interactive), both far cries from my recent puzzle-adventure and chill-unpacking games. But playing through both of them, it felt like I’d played them before. Not in a derivative sense, nor a “clearly inspired by” sense. It was a feeling of nostalgia that is technically impossible, but hear me out. I remember my more formative days of computer gaming: Ultimate Doom on the basement computer, discovering freeware (or just illicit downloads) of the classic Duke Nukem 3D, and playing through the both of them. Ion Fury and Dusk brought me back to those formative days, simply for what they elicited in my lizard gamer brain. Despite the objective differences, this is how I remember those days, and those games.

Play — How are they as games?

Doom and Duke Nukem were both of the 90s era of first-person shooter (FPS) games, while Dusk and Ion Fury are part of the inspired “Boomer Shooter” genre, taking heavy inspiration from the myriad FPS titles of the 90s. I’ve described both to people as the following: “Minimal plot! Maximum gun! Abundance of blood! Fast movement! No cover! EXPLOSIONS. Sometimes horror! Mostly murder!” In a time of regenerating health and cover systems, it’s not for everyone, but you can’t fault the simplicity of it all: move, point, shoot, survive, progress.

With the new-to-me Dusk and Ion Fury, I got back into quicksaving real fast; checkpoints were few and far between, and I’m nowhere near as good as I used to be. But even with that ability, the thrill and rush of trying to clear out an encounter with as much health as possible just can’t be matched. Gritted teeth, shallow breathing, full concentration levels of flow and tension. It’s one thing to press through encounter to encounter in a modern campaign, knowing you can just try again at the start of the encounter, but another entirely to realize you haven’t saved in a minute, and you’re about two wayward bullets from a Game Over.

But the controls are as smooth as ever. In worlds without cover, movement is the only means to survival. Whether on a controller or a mouse & keyboard, the characters all move, by default, as quickly as they can. Protagonists in motion are wont to stay in motion. And even as protagonists reach for the sound barrier, their aim is as true as it can be, whether from auto-aim functions or smooth aiming controls.

Those aiming functions come in handy, given the aforementioned “maximum gun” being used. Every weapon has a classic “oomph” to it, from trusty first sidearms to more…explosive options. They’re big and loud, be it through speakers or headphones. Every shot or shell has weight. Whether it goes wide and misses or finds its mark, every pull of the trigger has heft behind it, and leaves an impact wherever it may land. I say this as someone not keen on real-world firearms: the guns in these games just feel good.

Lastly, there’s an unmistakable intentionality in each of the level designs. They zig-zag in and around each other, they have a mapped out sense of flow and progression, the items are spaced out by design, their enemy placement is deliberate. Everything about these games is deliberate, meticulously planned, and executed in one, singular way, like an artist’s intentional brushstrokes. I appreciate the science behind procedurally-generated levels, that element of infinite replayability, but my heart is with intentional design. I want each square inch of the map to be lovingly crafted with the express purpose of killing me dead, because that means the designers care.

The specific games weren’t mentioned, because in my experience, these factors are universal. Comparing Doom to Dusk to Ion Fury would be redundant; they all feel good, they all play good, and they are either evocative of or set the standard for the shooters I remember. Playing the newer titles was like opening a time capsule I didn’t realize I’d sealed: a welcome return.

Personality — How are they as experiences?

The shooters of old were defined by their personality: the quick, out-of-the-gate tempo of E1M1 in Doom. The explosive intro and quipping of Duke Nukem in his 3D outing. The vibes of the experience. The setting. The plot, loose and ignored as it often was. The gameplay challenged us, but the personality of the games immersed us.

Ion Fury takes place in the kind-of-distant future of Neo D.C., a city under permanent martial law, as a cybernetic cult rises up to wreak havoc on the streets and everywhere in-between. That believable-future, coupled with slightly more extreme cyber-elements, all built in the same engine as some of its 90s predecessors, was jarringly nostalgic. The polygonal map layouts, the sprite-based movement of the enemies, those all make it feel like old times, but the aesthetic is where it retreads my memories.

Weapon design, world appearance, and an oversimple plot had all the makings of the older times. “Cybercrime is at an all-time high, we’re in permanent martial law, and they just spilled your drink. Here’s your eighteen-barrel six-shooter, Corporal,” has a lot of the same vibes as “Welcome back to Earth. Aliens have invaded and shot down your spaceship. The cops have been mutated into pigs. Get out there and save the world.”

But Dusk takes the opposite narrative approach: nebulous uncertainty. There’s no indication of where players are, where they’re starting, or where they’ve come from. You just start the game and go. Plots are for instruction manuals and nerds, you know why you’re here. Will you pick up more and more between episodes, and ominous level clues and story beats? Maybe, if you care.

But that “gameplay first, story later” vibe is what hooked a great many players, myself included, way back when. The shifting aesthetics from episode-to-episode, from unnerving farmland to creeping industrial and beyond, is enough to make everything feel fresh, but still intentional. Kicking off Dust has all the trappings of walking into the Hangar in Doom: uncertainty. Continuing makes it feel like you’re only getting breadcrumbs to far larger plot machinations, but you’re only there to do one thing: survive. Simplicity and uncertainty is the driver for Dusk, as it was for Doom, and it works as beautifully now as it did then.

The characters aren’t quite blank slates, and in some cases, their seeming lack of personality serves as their personality. Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison in Ion Fury is unnervingly similar to Duke Nukem…no, not in terms of misogyny and objectification, but in voice clips. Are they the most creative elements in modern literature? No, ninety percent of what’s said are popular quotes and jargon, but it’s all about vibes! Valerie Arem’s delivery lends so much character to Bombshell’s adventure, toeing the line between exasperated, amused, and righteously furious. It’s reminiscient of, and stands so far apart from, Jon St. John’s performance as Duke Nukem. When we so rarely see the characters we control, sometimes those quips are our only insight into them.

But there lies the divide with Dusk: there’s no from-character voice, only inner thoughts. Such poignant lines as “No going back now,” and “I hate rats,” to “Unworthy, indeed” are delivered as simple red text over the screen; rare enough to mean something, and still giving the tiniest glimpse into the mysterious character. Duskdude, as they’ve been referred to, is an easy stand-in for Doomguy (from Doom): mysterious, largely quiet, and not very fleshed out as a person. While we get inner-thoughts from Duskdude, we get to see Doomguy’s facial reactions to different things in their adventure. Neither are a deep dive into the character, but separately, they each serve as their own glimpse: different, but nonetheless effective in their simplicity.

The games’ personalities shine in their music, just as their forerunners’ did. The bombastic, explosive synths of Ion Fury drip with that same feeling of excitement storming through the streets of alien-infested Los Angeles, before drawing back to more unsettling venues. Dusk moves back and forth, like the world’s best metronome, between unfettered creepiness and unabashed hype, reminding me of Doom’s progression from creepy hallways to enemy-filled arenas.

Taking all of that into consideration, distilling it down, those are the vibes of either game. Ion Fury is bombastic, explosive, loud, fast, and crushing: it’s you against the world, and it’s going to be a hell of a fight. Dusk is unnerving, tense, downright terrifying in parts, encourages both precision and speed, and is also overwhelming; it’s constant forward momentum, no matter what horrors stand in your way. Those are the vibes that I remember, and that’s what these games elicited in me: something timeless, and so deeply rooted in personal experience.

Persistence — How do they stand?

“Persistence” is a strange element to quantify or explain. How do these games carry on, how do they carry the legacy they draw from, and how do they create their own?

Ion Fury, from the word “go,” has always hit as a true spiritual successor to the likes of Duke Nukem and the formative 90s shooter. Its aesthetic, design, combat elements, movement dynamics, everything screams “I’m you, but trying to be better.” It is still largely a 90s-style shooter, but there are bits and pieces plucked from modern shooters: headshot mechanics, improved physics, destructible environments, and checkpoints are baked into the experience, helping to bridge the gap between what is and what was. It shows that games can evolve, but they need not be running on the fanciest hardware or need to overclock your PC. I was initially floored when I saw the download file for Ion Fury was under 100 megabytes, and continued to be floored by how much they jammed into that file size. This is a spiritual successor that pays direct homage to where it came from, while paving the way for what could be next.

Dusk persists differently. There are similarities to its inspirations, but it still stands apart. It has similar vibes from its closest source material, namely Doom, but it plays just differently enough. Dusk has all the trappings of if Doom’s 2016 reboot was more rooted in the past, instead of trying to move into the future. It has all the best vibes of where it came from, but in a new, different model. I can’t help but compare Dusk to the original Doom, even when I step on a floorpad that launches me tens, if not hundreds, of feet into the air. Verticality, different (more terrifying) enemy design, pockets of excitement that can be punctuated with different music, crouching, these are all things that Doom was incapable of at the time, but still feel like part of that experience. Dusk is the same, but different, building a similar foundation as the old games, but constructing an entirely new experience around it.

But above all, even with their similarities, their differences, improvements, and (few) shortcomings, I still appreciate Ion Fury and Dusk most for how they reminded me of what I loved back in my earlier games. As much as I love big, blockbuster adventures, narratively-enriching stories, and chill puzzles, I have a soft spot for where I started. Doomguy and Duke were there near the start, and it’s been a while since they’ve had proper company.

All screenshots courtesy of games’ respective Steam pages.

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Mike Shepard

Mike Shepard

Just an amateur reminding himself of what he loves. Looking to write about all the things and experiences that make the end of the world worth living in.