At first glance, Ion Assault certainly appears like your average twin-stick space shooter. Pilot a lone ship in an enclosed arena. Check. Dodge enemy vessels while destroying asteroids. Check. Collect power-ups while going for a new high-score. Check. Everything you’d expect from an arcade shooter is here, except for one small omission; your ship doesn’t have any guns.
Ion Assault is immediately separated from its twin-stick cousins thanks to the unique manner in which you engage enemies and space rocks. Stages are populated with a film of ion that coats the majority of the level like a cloud. The only manner in which your ship can attack (other than power-ups) is by absorbing the surrounding ion and then releasing it in a single energy blast. Ion isn’t evenly distributed and as you suck and shoot you’ll create heavy pockets of ion in places as well as areas completely devoid of it. Since the ion is essentially your ammunition you’ll have to remain on the move to not only avoid attacks and collisions but stay in close proximity to the ion scattered throughout the stage.
Another major difference in Ion Assault is the nature of its twin-stick controls. Most shooters simply use the right stick to aim and fire simultaneously but since there isn’t an actual fire button this isn’t the case. Instead, the right stick will only rotate your ship left or right by holding the corresponding direction. If you’re approaching Ion Assault with a traditional twin-stick background then the controls can certainly be quite jarring at first, but if you give them a chance you’ll start to understand their purpose. Given your need to collect ammunition constantly and that you move rather slowly while holding an ion charge, Ion Assault often plays at a less breakneck pace compared to other titles. Early game asteroid destruction can even be quite methodical and not having the ability to rotate your ship more freely requires you to plan further in advance rather than just react and shoot.
Once you’re accustomed to Ion Assault’s controls you’ll have four sectors to blast through which are further divided into five sub-levels and a boss encounter. Since each sector is divided you have the ability to continue from the beginning of the sub-level that you died on. This may or may not be a good feature depending on your patience and skill level; on one hand it’s great for arcade shooting beginners since they’ll never have to replay a large chunk of the game but for vets of the genre it’ll make their journey through Ion Assault’s campaign a brisk one.
After you’re through with the single player there’s still a fair bit of Ion Assault left to explore. The entire campaign can be played in two player co-op locally, which can be a lot of fun and extremely demanding on your eyes. Even playing alone it can often be very difficult to tell what is what on screen when it’s full of various particle effects, explosions, enemies and asteroids. Compound that with a second player and a further zoomed out view of the action and you’ll certainly have your fare share of ‘what just hit me’ moments.
If the overload of co-op is getting to you, Ion Assault also packs an interesting versus mode for up to four players locally or online. Versus works in a fundamentally different manner than the core experience as there is no ion to be absorbed. Players have a rechargeable meter that allows them a single prolonged burst that works much like a stronger ion burst would. Using this burst and the ability to drop waypoints for drones, each player tries to destroy one another’s base and get the highest score. While the multiplayer concept is interesting, it fails to translate Ion Assault’s original take on twin-stick shooting into an engaging or relevant multiplayer experience. The other major problem is there seems to be no one at all on Xbox Live playing so you’ll be likely stuck to local versus assuming you’ve got the friends.
Ion Assault will probably be overlooked among the better known, flashier shooters out there, but if you’re a fan of the genre you owe it a spin. Its unique controls and charged shot mechanic might be an acquired taste but it’s always good to try something different once in a while. Although it isn’t without its flaws, Ion Assault is one twin-stick shooter worth getting sucked into.