At first glance Ion Assault looks a bit like another top down shooter such as Super StarDust or Geometry Wars but on closer inspection it reveals something that's quite a bit different. Sure you have the perspective that Asteroids introduced decades ago but the folks at Coreplay have changed the style of the game a bit. Instead of having one weapon and an unlimited amount of ammo you to fire at the on screen debris, you collect ion particles which are scattered around the board and then unleash them at targets on screen. The more particles you collect the more powerful the shot fired.
We aren't talking about one or two particles though as the board is littered with thousands of tiny particles which adds to the visual splendor of the game. The particles can not only be used for attack but can also be used to form a shield around the ship. It's an interesting paradigm as you're constantly forced to decide between offense and defense depending where you are on the board.
Progressing through the game's twenty levels requires you to destroy a collection of objects on screen while avoiding said objects and the enemies that spawn periodically. As you progress through the game you'll be forced to take out more enemies and more space garbage to proceed to the next level. Each of the four levels of the game is end-capped by a fairly spectacular boss fight.
The game also provides a few power-ups and time limited abilities to help you out. My personal favorite was the gravity well which allows you to nearly triple the amount of particles you can suck in at one time. You only have this for a short amount of time but you usually don't need a lot once you get it. In addition to the gravity well there's a power-up that allows you to slow everything down on the screen. For the offensive minded, there's a vortex grenade lets you suck everything into one place and enemy seeking drones which can help get you out of a tight spots.
Also adding to the strategy of the game is that you can use the sides of the board to bounce particles back onto enemies and I found that a fairly strong strategy was to get things into a corner so you could ensure a solid hit. The other thing I learned quickly is that you want to avoid the temptation to fly around the screen sucking in all the ions as it slows you down (it's a much bigger difference than the same effect in Geometry Wars). Instead you try to move towards where the particles are, hoover them up, and then go about your blasting.
The controls are a bit interesting as you use the left trigger to pull in particles and then let it go to fire them. The right trigger is responsible for firing the power-up weapons while the left bumper toggles between the different power-ups you have on your ship. Personally I would have reversed the controls and had the right trigger serving as the particle vacuum control but I got used to it after a while. The left thumbstick moves you around the board while the right thumbstick controls where you are pointing. Unlike other modern top down shooters this controls the direction you are looking and not the direction of fire. This also took some getting used to but does allow for some fancy maneuvers once you get used to the system.
The game features a multiplayer component which I didn't get to try out but looks like it could be fun as you and a friend have to battle it out for the constrained amount of ions on screen.
The gameplay is a bit slower than some of the other top down shooters in the market which isn't a bad thing. It still generates a lot of stress and requires a bit of thinking. There were portions of the game that felt a little too easy (I'm not that good of a player). That said I had a lot of fun with the game and the fluid dynamics and graphics are probably some of the best of any non-Unreal 3 powered game on Xbox Live. It's also probably the one game that will red ring a lot of original Xbox 360's as the game is processing a huge amount of data.
These impressions are based on about four hours of gameplay with me getting through the first half of the game. The code I played was described as near final and I only ran into a few small glitches which seem to back this claim up. I think a lot of people are going to dig this game when it comes out. No word on when the game will be released but expect a full review when the game ships.
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