Some games just don’t need much of a story. Ion Assault, which was recently released for the Xbox Live Arcade, is one of those games. You are the sole survivor of an alien attack and have decided to take the fight back to the alien aggressors. How will you be doing this? By destroying asteroids, opening worm holes and defeating hordes of alien ships, of course!
What Ion Assault lacks in terms of story however, is more than made up in terms of the unique gameplay-features it offers to the age-old shoot-em-up genre. And while the game is not unique in every sense of the word, it does a good job of distinguishing itself amongst the many games of this genre that are available on Xbox Live Arcade.
In Ion Assault, you are given control over a small spacecraft. Paradoxically for a game in the shoot-em-up genre, this ship is not outfitted with any form of laser, plasma turrets of machine guns. Instead, you possess something called a ‘mass drive’ that allows you to collect ions from your surroundings. These ions, that appear like a stellar gas cloud, can then be launched at high speed from the front of your craft, dealing damage to all objects in their path. Once fired, the ions will cool down and flow back into the arena, where they can be collected once more.
The main objective in every arena of Ion Assault is to destroy each of the asteroids floating around the area. This can be done by firing ions at them for long enough until they are destroyed. When all of these asteroids have been destroyed, a wormhole will open up which will transport you to the next level. Though the destruction of navigational hazards such as asteroids may seem like a very noble thing to do for all spacefaring races, aliens apparently do not agree with that statement and will therefore do all within their power to stop you. Obviously, it is up to you to destroy them along with these asteroids.
Since the ammo for your only weapon has to be collected from the environment players are forced try and move to areas within the arena at which more ions have been accumulating over time. Ions that are being collected will first swirl around your ship for several seconds, effectively creating a shield that will damage objects close by. However, since there is a finite number of ions within each arena, charging your weapon to higher levels will also reduce your ability to find ions to keep an effective shield up. This tradeoff adds a new layer of gameplay to the genre, and also forces the player to plan ahead so that they do not run out of defensive options when surrounded by enemies. It is here, that Ion Assault separates itself from most other games in the genre.
While in most shoot-em-ups you are defeated by the sheer amount of enemies coming your way, in Ion Assault you are often overwhelmed because you’ve made a bad tactical decision. Rather than just moving around and firing at everything within range, Ion Assault will have you making the decisions about where to head for new ions, when to collect and when to fire, when to deploy one of your several powerups and whether to focus your attention on destroying the asteroids to finish the level faster or the enemies to avoid getting overwhelmed. In time, enemies will generally overrun you, yet your demise can be postponed significantly by thinking several steps ahead.
This tactical layer offers the gameplay a much greater longevity as experience and skill will result in less deaths and higher score multipliers. However, though the gameplay itself may have the potential to keep you occupied for longer periods of time, the content of the game falls a little short in that regard. The game has adaptive difficulty and 4 different regions with 5 levels and a boss each, yet it does not have any other gameplay modes to improve replayability.
As is common with games in this genre, the difficulty of the levels vary from simple tutorial levels to levels that would require inhuman coordination and control. However, the amount of levels in the game appears to be too small to facilitate a smooth difficulty curve that covers each gradient between the minimum and maximum difficulty levels. Players might find themselves running into challenges beyond their skill despite the adaptive difficulty level.
There is a local cooperative play option, which allows you to play the single player levels with friends. Lack of coordination between players might make it actually harder to play this mode, as there will now be multiple players collecting the same finite amount of ions.
Competitive multiplayer is a completely different story. This mode does not feature players collecting ions and the gameplay found in this mode much more reflects the game’s shoot-em-up roots. Each player is given a space station that will produce small craft. Every ship will also have a laser that can be used to damage other players or these smaller craft once they have been deployed by an opposing player. The objective here is to use the ships constructed at your base and lead them on an assault on the base of an opposing player. This mode definitely has the potential to be fun when more than 2 players are present but unfortunately, it seems nigh impossible to find enough players to start an online match using the matchmaking system. Local multiplayer with a couple of friends could be great fun, but that is entirely dependent on the players’ affinity for the genre.
The game has a very powerful graphics engine and there appears no slowdown despite the fact that every object on screen displaces ions and leaves trails. The ions themselves flow around the level like water and the degree to which all these objects interact with each other and influence each other’s trajectories is quite impressive. Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be extended to the soundtrack of the game. Though the main theme fits the game perfectly, the other music played during the actual gameplay feels somewhat bland.
Ion Assault has managed to give a surprisingly refreshing twist to the classic shoot-em-up genre and therefore manages to set itself apart from most of the games in this genre available on the XBLA. The visuals are stunning but the soundtrack and the actual style of the game fall short in giving the game a unique, memorable identity. Additionally, a lack of content and gameplay variations keep this game from becoming as fun to play as it could have been. A ‘survival / endurance’ mode or simply selectable difficulty levels, which are quite common for games in the genre, would have gone a long way in making up for these shortcomings.
I expect that Ion Assault would have done tremendously well in a classic arcade. Unfortunately, on Xbox Live Arcade it might be harder to convince the general public to part with 800 Microsoft points rather than just spare quarters. The game definitely has appeal to more than just the hardcore shoot-em-up fans and I would sincerely recommend players with a general interest in the genre to check it out. Ion Assault is probably as arcade as games will ever get. It succeeds in delivering explosive bursts of fun, but over a longer period of time there is little to keep you coming back. If you are a hardcore arcade gamer, this is definitely a purchase for you. For everybody else, I recommend you at least check out the trial version that is available for free on XBLA, as the game can definitely be a lot of fun. However, if the gameplay fails to resonate, your Microsoft points might be better spent on some of the other XBLA classics.