As far as genres go, retro FPS has to be my all-time favorite. While they may not always have the same cinematic style of bombastic, balls-to-the-wall action as the modern AAA shooter’s clusterfuck of set-pieces and grenade spams on extreme difficulties, they manage to be intense in their own unique way.
If you’ve ever played the likes of DOOM which, let’s face it, you have, you’ll understand the sweat-inducing tension of discovering a monster closet while low on either health, ammo or both. If you have nothing more than your chainsaw to mow down the crowds of Satan’s hellspawn, you know it’s your fault. In a retro-FPS, your skill and knowledge of the environment daisy-chain together to decide your outcome. It’s a brilliant genre, and one that has never truly died in the minds of PC gamers, but it’s finally back with a vengeance.
In this Face-Off, we have three competitors. Dusk, a fully-3D FPS inspired by the mid-nineties introduction of Quake and Unreal; Project Warlock, the spiritual successor to Hexen; and Ion Maiden, a game created entirely in Duke Nukem 3D’s Build Engine.
As three different games tackle a similar genre, it’s remarkable how different they can all be. Dusk’s fully-3D environment is one that takes full advantage of the movement now possible in a 3D world. Classic bunny-hopping (as there should be), bounce pads which shoot you high into the air, and a super-sick slide which can be combined with the shotgun for some beautifully brutal gib-exposing kills.
Ion Maiden takes second place if you’re looking for speed and verticality – although the latter is certainly evident for the infamous and plentiful BUILD engine platforming sections. Much like Duke3D, Shadow Warrior and Blood before it, there’s a super-fast slidiness to every step you take. Every step makes you feel ever-so-slightly superhuman, but there aren’t any cool dives or slides like in Dusk. It feels more grounded in the era its emulating – circle-strafing and short hops are the only movement you’re getting here.
Dusk’s polar opposite in movement design is Project Warlock, a game that resurrects the old school clunk of Doom, Wolfenstein, and Hexen. It feels like an original iD Software game down to its core and because of that there’s not much in the way of movement. It’s slower and more methodical than its contemporaries; the oh-so-familiar plod of original Doom’s hallways feel the most genuine here.
It’s to its credit then that Warlock’s shooting is some of the best in a retro-styled shooter yet. In two words, it’s absolutely sublime, although so is every game’s combat in this Face-Off. All three games have found a perfect balance between punchy and switch combat and every one of them feels at home with the way they move.
Ion Maiden undoubtedly has the worst shooting out of the bunch, but that’s not to say it’s bad at all. It suffers from its choice in the weaponry it equips you with – the coolest but least controllable being the protagonist’s auto-tracking rolling grenade. It explodes upon impact but can be fairly unwieldy – you can’t always guess which enemy the grenade is going to hit. However, Ion Maiden is the only game on the list that’s currently in Early Access so any problems with it can be sorted out in the future.
Out of the three, Project Warlock is still the most unique. Dusk’s arsenal of weapons do feel the best to blast enemies into meaty chunks, but they feel rather bog-standard when compared to the insane variety of Warlock’s arsenal. There’s a huge variety of weapons and spells – all of which can be upgraded through the game’s overarching RPG mechanics – a feature which makes this game stand out heavily from the crowd.
Compared to the RPG spellcasting of Warlock, Dusk and Ion Maiden feel so traditional that they feel like second nature to anyone who frequently plays old shooters. If you’re looking for really interesting weapons, then Warlock and Maiden are your bags; if you’re looking for the best feeling weapons, Maiden and Dusk are the Kings.
As strong as all three of these games are in the construction of their combat, it’s the construction of interesting and engaging levels that really make a retro shooter feel great. With three completely different themes, Wizard-Demon clashes in Warlock, Cult-infested farms and cities in Dusk, Militarised urban sprawls in Maiden, does each game stand out?
Project Warlock’s level design is by far the more linear feeling of the three, although most of that comes down to its focus more on enemy patterns instead of creating tricky arenas designed around the basic output of foes like in Dusk and Maiden. Whether it’s mechs with rapid machine guns, flying Demonesses, Ice-captured skeletons or huge knights with shields, every combat arena here feels like it takes a back step compared to its enemies.
That’s not to say they’re unmemorable. Project Warlock’s comic book aesthetic makes sure that the gorgeous eye-candy on display here will mind-meld with you for life. Enemies, environments, weapons and more are all beautifully drawn and implemented here.
As the only fully-3D game in this competition, Dusk looks remarkably archaic in the best way ever. Its recreation of the simplistic low-poly visuals of nineties shooters looks amazing in high resolutions – although with some cool retro effects in the options menu you can make it look as pixelated and old as you want.
The winding, foe-filled labyrinths of Dusk’s cult-ruled levels are some of the most engrossing I’ve played since the days of Doom 2. As much as it pains me to say it, in many ways Dusk’s levels are more polished than some of the best retro shooting levels – I wholeheartedly believe that some of Dusk blows Quake 2 out of the water.
Maiden feels more like classic a classic Build engine shooter albeit at a much grander scale. Throughout my time with the early access shooter’s single available episode, it felt like what I’d always imagined the original version of Duke Nukem Forever to be like. The first episode feels gigantic and sprawling – it feels like a world, and the attention to detail is everything I wanted Build engine games to be. It’s a true successor to the Duke legacy.
Our second-ever Face-Off is completely different from our first. Whereas our kids game battle between Crayola Scoot and Nickelodeon Kart Racers saw a clear victor, this time it’s harder to choose.
Ion Maiden shows an irrepressible amount of promise, but it is far from finished. It feels like a true successor to the classic Build engine games and it’s certainly a game to watch. Dusk and Project Warlock are out this instant in their fully completed form – the former even including an okay-but-not-great multiplayer mode.
If you have to choose between the three, it’s one of a matter of taste. Personally, I feel Dusk is the better game, but with more content and RPG elements you may be more tempted by Project Warlock.
So, I guess this entry of Face-Off ends in a tie between two wildly different but spectacular shooters. They may be different, they may be targeting different audiences, but Project Warlock and Dusk are both some of the best retro-themed shooters available on the market today.
Project Warlock: 9/10
Ion Maiden: 7/10