Recently developed by the Gaming Your Way team, Ionic is a new sci-fi strategy-shooter that joins the ranks of popular tower defense spin-offs. Many casual gamers would argue that the tower defense genre has reached a critical mass, especially after last year's colossal influx of new titles. As a result, we're seeing quite a bit of variation of the classic "creeps walking down a path" formula. In Ionic, you take the helm of a massive "Dreadnought" spaceship, fending off alien attacks by constructing various gun batteries, turrets and defensive modules. Enemy fighters simultaneously advance from both sides of an almost-ridiculously long and horizontal map, which represents the size and shape of your Dreadnought battleship.
The ultimate goal is to protect your Dreadnought's "core" from enemy attacks. It's located in the middle of your ship and has a finite amount of non-regenerative health (illustrated by the blue bar in the upper-right corner). Hit the [left] and [right] arrow keys to pan your viewing area throughout the map, or use your mouse to navigate the mini-map along the bottom (drag the slider or click an area to move instantly). Instead of the usual tower-building mechanic, weapons and modules are constructed atop various "slots" scattered across the ship's hull. To build weapons and modules on hull slots, just click the slot and choose your selection from the small build menu that appears. You can also hold [shift] while clicking an empty slot to automatically build the last weapon or module you selected.
You can view detailed information about each weapon and module by clicking the "Weapons" menu in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Below it you'll find the "Resources" menu, which represents the actions of your ship's crew. By default, 100 points are distributed evenly among four priority levels; "R&D" is the rate at which upgrades (and new weapons) become available, "Construction" dictates the speed of building and repairs, "Life Support" provides the crew's sustainment and "Cloning" gradually raises the number of available crew. The latter two attributes seem a bit ambiguous unless you read Ionic's walkthrough guide, which implies that a larger crew increases the productivity of R&D and Construction (the walkthrough warns players to keep the Cloning level equal to or below the Life Support level). Enemy fighters will continue attacking your ship in timed waves, although you can pause the game at any time by opening the aforementioned menus.
Analysis: Ionic will attract strategy-shooter and tower defense fans like moths to a flame; the "battleship" premise is unique and under-utilized in this genre, sporadically popping up in occasional gems like Orbital Decay. But hardcore fans are usually the toughest to please; strategy enthusiasts may find themselves looking for additional layers of depth, or frustrated by the seemingly-arbitrary gameplay mechanics of the Resources feature. Tower Defense veterans would have appreciated more than just one level and a "Survival" mode, in addition to a wider variety of upgrade paths and inspired combat scenarios.
Initially, the asymmetric layout of these slots might seem random or counter-intuitive, but that's where the strategic elements of Ionic come into play. In addition to an assortment of offensive weaponry, your Dreadnought also has access to quite a few defensive and "hybrid" modules to choose from. At the start of each game, you'll only have access to three modules; machine guns, laser cannons and a shield generator. Each offensive weapon has a unique function with inherent strengths and weaknesses; for example, machine guns fire multiple bursts of lighter damage, while laser canons inflict higher damage at a slower rate. The shield module will protect weapons within its radius, mitigating the incoming damage from enemy fighters. Each weapon and module can be upgraded as the game progresses, increasing damage, radius and effectiveness and allowing you to change your strategy accordingly.
Regardless of gameplay preference, movement control is particularly frustrating; we can't imagine why the developers neglected to offer the [A] and [D] keys to pan from left to right—it would have made a substantial difference in accessibility. However, despite its flaws, many casual defense fans will receive Ionic as a gratifying and stylized break from the TD norm. It's well-polished in just about every other aspect (including the sleek UI and graphics) and the pacing is easy-to-digest at 20 or 30 minutes to complete.