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Ion Maiden feels like a breath of (old) fresh air

Alexis Duclaux Mar 29, 2018. 6 comments

Guess who’s back? Back again? The build engine’s back, tell a friend.

The build engine is back with a brand new game.

For me, these words there, they imply so much. It’s a feeling so powerful and filled with meaning that you could almost mistake it for that sensation you get when you see an old friend. Although he’s changed, and you hope it’s for the best, there’s something eerily familiar and soothing about it. At the same time, you can’t wait to see what he’s become but you want it to be the same person you used to know and had fun with.

Although this engine hasn’t powered that many games, it’s still ingrained inside my mind as something that helped hone my tastes in games and which I always hope to find even a bit of it inside other games.

It’s funny to say something like that. To talk about an engine as a way of life. I don’t think that in the future, and if these engines ever stop being used, someone will say ‘Man, I miss Unreal Engine games’ or ‘I need more games made with Unity.’

Even with more specific engines made for a special type of games such as the REDEngine used for The Witcher games I feel there would be only a small percentage of people who’d miss these. And I guarantee you that most of them would be modders or people that used to work on those.

And that’s because the Build engine isn’t just an engine. Now, more and more engines are made to support a wide variety of games, of genres. Even engines made in-house such as Ubisoft’s Snowdrop engine is made to be able to support very different types of games. You just have to see what it powered. Snowdrop powered Mario + Rabbids, but also South Park: The Stick of Truth. Konami’s Fox Engine powers Metal Gear Solid V but also Pro Evolution Soccer. The more the engine has to do and the less polished it might be in a particular area, and the more you have to add new features to work with your game. Also, the more your engine ends up being just a weird mutant engine which might be unstable. There’s a reason games like The Witcher 3 are so well polished and optimized because their engine was made only to do that kind of game.

With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why I love Build engine powered games that much. Because in the end, this engine started as a philosophy, first the people got a distinct idea of what they wanted to make, they were inspired by DOOM, and then they made the perfect engine for they need.

Tailor-made.

What they wanted to make was better first-person shooters than DOOM. Fast paced and crazy games with insane spiraling levels.

The most prominent and most well-known game made with this engine is the astonishing Duke Nukem 3D. A game which hasn’t aged a day.

Before I go further with that game and its philosophy, please be aware that I’m only talking about its game and level design. This is not an opinion piece to discuss its graphics (Although I love them), its humor (Which, although I still laugh sometimes, has aged a lot) or its setup (But I’m a sucker for anything in space).

Now it’s out of the way, let’s resume.

Duke Nukem 3D is the quintessential game made with the build engine which also powered incredible games like Blood, Shadow Warrior, Redneck Rampage or the underrated (Not really, actually. But there’s William Shatner in there, so there’s that I guess) William Shatner’s TekWar.

All these games share something way more important than the crude and stupid humor, which I have to admit made me chuckle more than once. This ‘soul’ they share, that core design, is the way the world where the player is left wandering is built.

Although these games were made to have the same set of rules, you have guns you move at a frantic pace, and you shoot everything between you and your objective while finding secrets and weapons, these game shine because of their levels.

You see, the Build engine is not a 3D engine per-se. It’s more described as a 2.5D engine. The layout of the level is created using a 2D tool, and then the engine adds a height component so all the space you see when you play wasn’t actually made using a 3D tool where you can decide exactly what goes where, or use anything else than blocks, really.

And all that goes into what’s the best thing about that engine.

It’s all about the level design.

Level design is the art of making the space in which the player will travel. A lot of thoughts are given by those lucky enough to have the skills to understand what players want.

A simple way to define that would be to say it’s about the flow of the player.

Now, more and more game designers or just common sense ask to have that space to make sense. If your player is inside a kitchen, this has to look like a kitchen with a reasonable size for a room of this use.

The more video game evolve as a medium and the more it has to be believable.

But look at any game made with the build engine, or any games made in the 90's for that matters, and tell me if any of these level layouts make any sense.

Most of the time they don’t, enormous corridors or huge rooms filled with junk. Because before being functional they needed to be rooms where you could play, where you’ll have the most fun, and then we put that coat of paint to make it look like an office or a building.

For games made with the build engine, what was the most important was to have space where you can move with the crazy velocity your character often have in these game.

Of course, I’m not saying the designers of these old games were not trying to make it believable, they probably did. Or that making sure the levels make sense is a bad thing. I don’t mean that games now are worse than then. Just that it’s a different way of making games which I believe is nothing else but awe-inspiring for games of that kind. So, in a way, I guess I’m saying that making fast-paced first-person shooters in any other way is a bit stupid. Huh. Damn.

Let’s get back on track.

I’m sure it was secondary for these designers to make sure the space was believable. The player needed to have a perfect flow and too bad if the room didn’t make much sense as long as you had a glimpse of what the place was supposed to be, then it was fine. The level needed to be recognizable as a movie theatre or an underground base as a whole, but that’s it.

That no-nonsense way of designing levels, without all the clutter we now have in some games, had the advantage of allowing for a fast-paced kind of games such as DOOM or Duke Nukem 3D or even games like the firsts Unreal Tournament which is hard to replicate now. Even DOOM(2016), a game I loved and finished a couple of times, in which your character is actually faster than in the DOOM of old, if you look at it, doesn’t give the same sense of momentum, speed and anticipation like its elders.

What about Ion Maiden?

Ion Maiden is a game made using eDuke32 which is already an evolution of the Build engine which is itself based on the EDuke 2.0 which was first made for people to be able to mod Duke Nukem 3D.

Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, heroine of Ion Maiden, was actually first created to replace the Duke in the game Bombshell which was supposed to be Duke Nukem: Mass Destruction. After a lawsuit against Gearbox, 3D Realms (the old owner of the Duke Nukem trademark which they lost when Gearbox bought it to finish Duke Nukem Forever) had to find a way to complete the game without using the Duke Nukem IP.

No matter how well liked Bombshell was, it launched a new IP. Which 3D Realms wanted to build upon. And it’s quite clear where the inspiration for Ion Maiden comes from. You can feel it from every fiber of that game.

The team at Voidpoint is actually composed of old Duke3D modders and Eduke32 devs, so you know they mean business and they know what they are doing. And I’m not just talking about the engine. All of the philosophies we spoke earlier are back too and refined.

And that’s why the game feels like a Duke 3D sequel.

Hail to the queen, baby!

Ion Maiden builds on everything Duke Nukem 3D was great from. It is even such a weird feeling to have the sensation that you’re actually playing an extension of DN3D. Although I distinctly know for a fact that the Duke is a bit slower and his shots have less panache, less ‘oomph’ for lack of a better word, Ion Maiden feels exactly like how my mind remembers DN3D.

The level design is amazing and rewards your exploration. Although from an architectural point of view the levels still make no sense if you stop to think about it for more than three seconds, (Although they do seem more coherent at first glance) the over-the-top action and fast-paced, frantic movement makes up for that. Big time.

It’s a fantastic game which successfully understood what it wanted to emulate and decided that the best thing to ensure it was made correctly was to build upon the foundations of the engine itself.

Because why reinvent what works?

Just update the engine and slap all these old ideas with a new coat of paint. It gives a new lease of life about something we thought long lost. And for a little less than the two hours I took to finish the first of seven chapters, which are going to be added in the next six month if the guys developing this can keep their schedule, I was just the happiest man on earth.

Sometimes that’s all we want.

I can’t wait to go back to that game. I want the rest of it, and I want it as soon as I can.

But please, give me back Duke’s kick, it’s not in there, and it feels wrong.


Alexis Duclaux is a Game Jam veteran who worked on strange shitty games and even worked on a Game Jam game which won a Best Game Design Award at the MIGF 2015 - Proximity. He also writes strange tales when he’s not trying to tell the fake story of a french king (in French).

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