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2nd of February 2024

Ion Fury: Aftershock

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Dr. Heskel is out and Shelly is back on duty (even if her superiors would have none of it). Ion Fury's Aftershock DLC took a bit longer than expected, but it's finally here. The DLC is largely a work of the same group of developers as the base game but with the addition of Luciano "Gambini" Gallo, the greatest of my disciples and co-author of Duke Nukem Forever 2013, the most renowed of all Duke3D mods.

Aftershock consists of five new chapters. The first one, Rock Bottom, treats you to the familiar futuristic cityscapes from the base game - but with everything tuned up. These are the most visually "busy" of the bunch, being colorful and littered with epic sights and lights, taking Shelly from a high-rise night club to a construction site, then to a shopping center. This chapter is great advertising for the modern capabilities (such as sloped sprites) of the EDuke32 engine and will have your head spinning as you marvel at the gigantic cityscape opening up before you.
 In the second chapter, Ride It Like You Stole It, Shelly gets on a "rotorcycle". The vehicle's controls feel smooth and responsive. You can even get off any time you want; there's never really any reason to do so, but it's a nice option to have nevertheless. The chapter is all about racing ahead along a linear "track" as if in a racing game. You can try to push for a record time to get an achievement while taking out enemies with the vehicle's powerful weaponry. There are a few trickier sections involving jumping that may require a few attempts, but then again this was never meant to be a mere joyride.
 The third chapter, Suburbia Under Siege, plays more like the vehicle maps in Half-Life 2 where you occasionally get off your vehicle to clear and open up the route ahead. There's a good balance here between action on foot and driving around (you can save a lot of ammo by resorting to the rotorcycle's weapons as often as possible), and map design is gorgeous throughout with its network of canals, tunnels and bridges.
 Shelly then finds herself outside the metropolitan area in Appalachian Assault. Here you'll come across a church (with catacombs), a lumber mill and a small town. The change of scenery is welcome, as sensory overload started to seep in by the end of the city chapters. The small town and the church look real nice with their beautiful exteriors set against atmospheric Appalachian backgrounds, and the lumber company building gave a few Redneck Rampage vibes (of the good kind). I also enjoyed the traversal between the court house and the police station, utilizing underground tunnels, vents and even rooftops to navigate the two buildings.
 In the last chapter, Hell Hath No Fury, Shelly finally enters Heskel's volcano hideout. Here Gambini is firing on all cylinders, having long ago become one of the masters of the rusty and realistic industrial look, perfecting it in his Southernmost Combine Half-Life 2 mod and now bringing it back to EDuke32. The place is beating with heavy industrial machinery (no doubt inspired by something in Gambini's surroundings in the Buenos Aires region) with large pipes and lava leading every which way. The chapter also does a great job utilizing the game's color palette for some powerful lighting effects.

Naturally the maps are all of outstanding quality (the catacombs were kinda annoying from a gameplay perspective though), with new textures and sprites to give the game its distinct visual style. The maps feature plenty of neat cinematic effects (such as the wrecking ball at the construction site in the second map) and references to popular culture (especially the '80s and '90s), not to mention plenty of easter eggs for the secret hunters out there. But what really caught my attention and deserve a special mention are the skyboxes. These were impressive already in the base game, but here they are even more so. They range from the epic futuristic skylines of the first chapters to atmospheric Appalachian forests with distant lights and radio towers. The best is saved for last, with Heskel's volcano being truly a sight to behold, towering prominently over the last two chapters.

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Naturally maps aren't the only new thing in town. Your always reliable shotgun gets a new firing mode - explosive pellets. These are super fun to use, being useful against pretty much everything but the smallest critter enemies, but they're balanced out by the fact that the pellets always seem to be in short supply. The grenade launcher gets a new gas grenade firing mode. The gas may feel a bit tricky at first especially in close quarters, but there are many spots where it's actually a very useful and cheap way to deal with enemies; just wait for your enemies to cluster together in a narrow corridor or a small room, make sure there's enough space between you and them and fire away. Shelly loses her rotorcycle at the end of the third chapter but manages to salvage its weaponry, the Homewrecker. This cannon is great for taking out hordes thanks to its lock-on feature, but its single-shot mode is powerful too and works best against the strongest enemies. Obviously it comes with limited ammo, so don't waste it on critters and regular joes.
New enemies are mostly variations of old ones, but there are a few new ones like the GDF trooper. These come in two forms: The regular trooper is fast and deadly especially when they show up in groups. The heavy variant is slow but has a powerful minigun, so better get out of the way when it starts firing.

Like the base game, Aftershock is plenty of fun to play with visceral combat and satisfying weapons. But beware; your enemies often hit hard. Even many common enemies can drain a significant chunk of your health with a single hit, so remain mobile. The compensating factor is that your arsenal is powerful too, you just need to make the most of it and keep switching those guns, as the game is rightly never generous with any particular ammo and encourages you to pick the right gun for a given situation. There are some good new powerups too, but I wish what they ALL do were explained in the F1 menu or something so that it doesn't become a matter of finding out via trial and error.
There are a few new static screens that move the "story" along. Their art is a perfect fit for the game's sleek retro/comic book visuals, and personally I like the way Shelly is drawn quite a lot. (She of course also gets a bunch of new oneliners to comment on pressing matters.) There's naturally new music too, ranging from hard dance beats to quieter atmospheric tones, combining retro and modern while throwing in a recognizable homage here and there.

My complaints concerning Aftershock are mostly the same that I had of the base game. There are too many critter enemies that are mostly just annoying, visibility issues (the black shroud) often prevent you from seeing enemies who have no trouble seeing you, the flying torsos with deadly rockets are often found in the worst possible places, items sometimes get lost in the background in the early maps and jumping could use a bit more punch. Space to move around is occasionally an issue during combat, especially when combined with questionable enemy placement (like enemies with grenade launchers in tight spaces). The first level is also noticeably stingy with health and ammo.

Aftershock also comes with a new "Arrange" mode that mirrors the original maps and spices up their gameplay with new gimmicks and increased challenge. The mode probably provides plenty of replay value to the base campaign, but I took only a quick peek at it, instead prioritizing playing Aftershock twice over replaying the base game for the third time. But the mode will be there when I one day end up revisiting the base campaign.

Conclusion: Aftershock is everything a "Build-engine" fan could ask for from a "mission pack", providing around 4 hours worth of new maps with plenty of "Build porn" set against amazing backdrops. It's fun to play but also tough (and not always for the right reasons), so make sure to familiarize yourself with every tool in Shelly's arsenal before you head out to hunt for Dr. Heskel's head one last time.

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