Geometry Wars was arguably Xbox Live Arcade's first real hit. Something about the game filled a niche that few modern games did, bringing an arcade-style experience to the Xbox 360 while maintaining its own unique and interesting gameplay. Since then, XBLA has found itself home to everything from puzzles games and rail shooters to full-length RPGs and action games, but many gamers still have a hankering for the fun pick-up-and-play arcade action that was present in Geometry Wars. Ion Assault is looking to fill that niche by giving us a game that, while clearly inspired by Geometry Wars, is quite unique on its own.
Ion Assault's basic controls are really not too different from your usual overhead-view space shooter. The left analog stick controls your ship's movement, while the right turns it and changes its direction. The big gimmick in Ion Assault is how your ship's weapon functions. Every stage in the game is covered by a thick cloud of ion particles that don't interfere with your ship in any way, but form a strange psychedelic backdrop for the stage. You can convert these ion particles into weapon energy by using your ship's mass reactor. Holding down the left trigger causes your ship to begin sucking in the nearby ion particles, and releasing it causes the ion particles to be converted into a blast of energy. The power of your weapon's blast is directly connected to how many particles you suck in before you fire. Drain the area of ion particles, and you'll launch a devastating burst, while a quick tap will only result in a light shot. You have to balance this out with the fact that ion particles are drained from the surrounding area by your mass reactor. If you launch a powerful attack, you'll find that it's a lot harder to power up your weapon in the same general area. You have to keep moving and stay near swarms of particles if you want your ship's weapons to be at their most effective.
Your primary goal in Ion Assault is to destroy the asteroids that are littering the stage. Asteroids are large and durable and can sustain multiple shots from weaker weapons, so you have to make sure to charge your weapon appropriately in order to crush them. However, winning the stage is not the same as winning the stage well. Each time you destroy an asteroid, it will drop a score orb, which you should collect to increase your score. Collecting multiple score orbs in a row will multiply the effect, so in order to get a high score, you'll have to destroy asteroids quickly and efficiently or else you'll find yourself finishing the stage with an abysmal score.
The other major way to increase your score is by destroying multiple asteroids with one high-powered shot. Eliminating multiple asteroids causes them to drop score orbs that are worth more than usual. Thus, the best way to earn a high score is to destroy multiple asteroids as quickly as possible. This may sound easy, but since the ion particles get drained from a specific area very quickly, you have to make each shot count. There are also enemies who float around the stage and try to hinder your progress. Some fly around and try to ram you, while others will launch blasts of their own and try to destroy your ship. Like the asteroids, you are rewarded for destroying these enemies with score orbs. They're also completely optional so you don't have to kill a single foe to finish most stages, although if you're looking for a good score, you really should be taking out anything that blocks your path.
For the most part, you've only got yourself and your ship to rely on, but there are some power-ups that you can find to make the game easier. These power-ups come in two forms: passive and active. Passive power-ups give a temporary boost to your ship's abilities. The Gravity Boost, for example, increases the power of your mass reactor so that it'll suck in more particles than usual, and it allows you to create powerful attacks much faster. A Power Shield makes it easier to collect score orbs and also gives you a temporary defense against enemy attacks. Finally, the Chrono Stasis ability slows down everything on the map, making it much easier to dodge enemies and blast asteroids. You can collect active abilities and activate them at will, and although they have limited uses, their effects can be utterly devastating. For example, in the realm of weapon upgrades, the Plasma Torus causes all the particles that your mass reactor collects to turn into a whirling blade of plasma energy that surrounds your ship so that you can do ridiculous damage to anything by simply flying close to it. The Vortex Grenades form a vortex of ion particles wherever they are shot, resulting in a deadly Plasma Storm. Ion Seekers are tiny drones that will launch forth and collect ion particles for you, while also firing their own blasts at enemy units. These active abilities are the key to getting a high score in Ion Assault, but you have to be careful to save them for exactly the right moment, or you'll have a hard time destroying clustered asteroids fast enough to get a high score.
Ion Assault allows players to take on the main campaign in a co-op style so that two players can work together to try to earn the highest possible score. It also offers a competitive multiplayer mode, which is quite different from the main game. Versus mode is built around the idea that each player has a base and a ship. Their ship is armed with a particle cannon, which fires powerful bursts of energy but can only do so in short bursts without overheating. Players have dogfights against one another, blasting each other as effectively as possible.
Winning isn't quite as simple as shooting your opponent, though. As you fight, your bases build up squadrons, which are groups of autonomous fighters. When you press either of the bumpers, these fighters will launch an attack on the nearest enemy base. This is the only way to harm an enemy's defenses, but these fighters are defenseless until they reach the base so your fighter has to protect them from enemy assaults while they're moving toward enemy territory. Players are awarded points for successfully safeguarding their squadrons until they reach the enemy base. It requires a very different sort of play style from the main game, and since it can be played both on- and offline, it should make a very interesting party game.Ion Assault is an interesting take on the Geometry Wars formula. Most games of this type ask you to fire as often as possible, while Ion Assault is focused on making sure that every single shot counts. The end result is still very similar: It's a game about dodging enemies, earning high scores and watching pretty psychedelic fireworks go off with every blast of energy. The multiplayer mode adds an interesting variation on the gameplay and encourages players to put some tactical thought into combat, instead of just holding down the firing button and watching things explode. All in all, Ion Assault is shaping up to be an interesting addition to Xbox Live Arcade's action-arcade lineup, and it should do a lot to help satisfy gamers who are looking for more Geometry Wars-style gameplay.
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