Developer Coreplay and publisher Black Inc. teamed up and recently released Ion Assault on Xbox Live Arcade. The Geometry Wars-meets-Asteroid inspired space arcade shooter combines some interesting gameplay features with a frantic and challenging campaign, as well as multiplayer modes. Is this one worth $10? If you're a fan of the genre, yes, but newcomers may want to try something a little easier first. Let's move in for a closer look...
The Assault Is On
Ion Assault weighs in at 160MB and packs with it four levels (sectors) with five stages and a boss battle each. In addition to this single player campaign, players can team up with a friend locally for co-operative play, challenge them, or take the fight online in a versus online mode. An online co-op mode is curiously missing, but the versus mode is fairly interesting and pits player against player in a tense yet basic base-defense/attack mode.
I spent most of my time with Ion Assault playing single player. Before getting started, I checked out the very nicely put together 'How To Play' tutorial in the Options. Here, game mechanics are detailed in sections with both text and accompanying video to explain the controls, powerups, or the general idea of what Ion Assault is all about. As you'll immediately discover, the point of Ion Assault is to clear each stage by destroying every asteroid that comes into the field of play. The field of play is roughly square shaped and seems comfortably large at first, but it gets crowded in a hurry as more enemies and asteroids fly and warp in to turn up the heat.
Each stage within a sector gets steadily more difficult in terms of the the quantity and type of enemy you will face. All told, there are thirty different enemies that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but all are out to get you in one form or another. Enemy ships warp in at different times and rates, depending on how fast you are destroying asteroids. The faster you destroy asteroids, the more enemies will warp in to stop you. I thought the game could have explained this fact better, or maybe I just somehow missed it. While playing, I referenced a fact sheet that informed me of this mechanic, which made the game significantly easier for me, although also much slower paced and not quite as fun. When you clear all the asteroids on a stage, a wormhole opens up in the middle of the playing field. You can either zip into it to start the next stage, or hang around and fight off any remaining enemies for additional points.
Points are earned by destroying asteroids and enemy ships. Many times, a stage starts with just the player and several asteroids floating about, just waiting to be blasted to bits. In the upper left hand corner, you can keep track of your score, which the game also does for you and automatically puts your score into the Live Leaderboards. The scores people have attained are truly astounding; I was able to briefly pop into the Top 500 during the course of this review, but that didn't last too long.
With the main point of the game being to destroy asteroids to earn points, now is as good a time as any to discuss how that is done. With most space-arcade shooters or SHMUPs in general that I've played, the player has an unlimited supply of ammo. With Ion Assault, an interesting mechanic is in place whereby players' ammo and fire power comes from the use of a particle reactor. Players pull in nearby particles by holding the Left Trigger. Doing so slows down your ship a bit and gives it a flimsy shield, but you can still move about fairly swiftly with the left analog stick. The right analog stick isn't used to fire, but it is used to aim. Aiming is done by lining up the laser that protrudes out from your ship. When your satisfied with the aim, simply release the Left Trigger to unleash the stored particles you have sucked in.
Destroying multiple objects -- be they asteroids or enemies -- with one shot gives you more points. Whenever you are not pulling in particles or shooting, tractor beams from your ship will grab any nearby points (these show up as little orbs where an object formerly was). The tractor beams have a good reach, but normally they can't gather up all of the available points unless you move about the playing field to snap them all up.
That said, the pace of the game gets very chaotic in a hurry, so making the most of a charged shot becomes more and more important. Whenever you hold down the Left Trigger, a small half-circle meter above your ship fills up to indicate how powerful of a shot you are prepared to emit (i.e., how many particles you've pulled in). Enemy ships and asteroids don't have health meters per se, but it doesn't take long to begin to understand how much firepower you need to destroy a particular enemy or asteroid. Just like the enemies, the asteroids come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the bigger ones take several full major hits to break up.
Pulling in particles for your shot forces you to continually move around the playing field, too. As your ship pulls in particles, the surrounding area becomes depleted of particles within just a few seconds, meaning that if you want to continue to charge up the shot, you have to maneuver to other areas on the screen. I thought this was a good and obvious design to keep the action balanced, otherwise a player would hunker down in a corner and blast away all day.
The ion blasts your ship emits are a little more than a fire and forget system. Players can use the walls of the playing field to get partial bounces and redirects, although not quite to the extent of Shatter (on the PSN), which is a significantly different game anyway. For the most part I stuck with straight-on shots. During play I would gather up what particles I either could or felt I needed for my next shot, while watching how the asteroids and/or enemies were moving so that I could aim accordingly to hit as many as possible with one shot. It's important to note that your ion blasts don't always go straight through an asteroid; depending on the size of the asteroid, your blast may get absorbed rather than shatter it, at least until you blast it enough to break it up.
Powerups, Difficulty, Presentation
What's a game like this without a few powerups? Power ups come in two forms in Ion Assault, Passive and Active. Passive powerups take effect immediately and are time based, while Active powerups can be stored for later use. You can carry your Active powerups in between stages, too, which is an important strategy. The Active powerups do not however carry over from one life to another (with each Continue yielding three lives, with a new life earned at every 100,000 points). There are six powerups in the game, all with cool names. I don't have all of the names in front of me at this moment, but the Passive ones include a Cryostasis ability whereby everything slows down for a few seconds. A temporary shield powerup is handy, as is the improved gravity engine which allows you to pull in roughly twice as many particles at once, quickly filling up your reactor's ability to fire.
Active powerups are more powerful. Players can capture more than one of these at a time and turn them on and off as needed, although they too don't last very long. Active powerups include Vortex Grenades, a Particle Torus, and Seeker Drones. All of these are extremely useful and fun to use. Vortex Grenades come in packs of three and players simply fly by an area they want to damage and tap the Right Trigger to drop a 'nade. What is basically a black hole appears and does major damage to any asteroid or enemy in the area. The Torus is kind of like an ion blast, except in a circular form around you, making your motions and appearance resemble that of a buzzsaw -- good stuff. Finally, the Seeker Drones, also coming with three per powerup pickup, are deployable assault drones that attack enemy ships and asteroids.
Powerups are essential to high scores and, more importantly, surviving. Players can get powerups by destroying certain asteroids that literally look they are covering up a powerup, or desroying an enemy ship that is carrying a powerup.
Even if trying to play at a very slow and deliberate (and not very fun) pace to reduce the influx of enemy ships, Ion Assault is still a challenging game, and for a few reasons. First, it's meant to be an arcade game, and arcade games are all about high scores, and challenging difficulty (quarter munching, if you will). While Ion Assault obviously doesn't take quarters, it still has that old school style of difficulty. Players are always outnumbered and it's up to reflexes and luck to survive. That's not a gripe as much as a fact, or warning if you aren't too fond of stiff difficulty.
Ion Assault is tough for two other reasons that aren't as much about the gameplay as they are with the design of the game itself. While pretty, the visuals often get far too cluttered and chaotic. At times, during the first sector even, there is simply so much going on on screen at once that it's easy to lose sight of your ship or your aiming laser. Players can actually choose from a few different solid colors to represent their ship, but I wasn't able to find a color that consistently kept me from getting overwhelmed by the colorful graphics. It's kind of odd to find issue with the graphics when they are this pretty, but too often in Ion Assault do the colorful visuals overpower the gameplay.
Secondly, having to swing around your aiming laser for the desired shot can add precious time to a very frantically paced game. Simply tapping Left Trigger amounts to nothing because the firepower behind rapid Left Trigger taps is negligible. So on the higher stages, when you've done all you can to stay alive to fill up your shot meter, having to grapple just a little bit with the aiming mechanic can make the experience less enjoyable.
Personally, I found Ion Assault to be very tough, but I did appreciate the ability to continue as many times on a stage or boss fight as I wanted to. If you choose not to continue, you have to restart the entire sector. I've not been able to complete the single player campaign at this point, and as much as I'm struggling I doubt I will alone, so thank goodness for local co-op play.
To the summary...