Ion implantation by intense beams of metal ions can be accomplished using the dense metal plasma formed in a vacuum arc discharge embodied either in a vacuum arc ion source or in a ‘metal plasma immersion’ configuration. In the former case high energy metal ion beams are formed and implantation is done in a more-or-less conventional way, and in the latter case the substrate is immersed in the plasma and repetitively pulse-biased so as to accelerate the ions at the high voltage plasma sheath formed at the substrate. A number of advances have been made in the last few years, both in plasma technology and in the surface modification procedures, that enhance the effectiveness and versatility of the methods, including for example: controlled increase of the ion charge states produced; operation in a dual metal-gaseous ion species mode; very large area beam formation; macroparticle filtering; and the development of processing regimes for optimizing adhesion, morphology and structure. These complementary ion processing techniques provide the plasma tools for doing ion surface modification over a very wide parameter regime, from ‘pure’ ion implantation at energies approaching the MeV level, through ion mixing at energies in the ∼1 to ∼100 keV range, to IBAD-like processing at energies from a few tens of eV to a few keV. Here we review the methods, describe a number of recent developments, and outline some of the surface modification applications to which the methods have been put.