Duke Nukem 3D is a game of almost legendary status. When it was released in 1996, it was widely regarded as one of the best FPSs ever made. Its reputation was what lead to such eager anticipation of Duke Nukem Forever in 2011. Loyal fans were dying to see their hero in a brand new game. With the release of the Megaton Edition on steam in 2013, this classic game can be enjoyed by a new generation of gamers. But how well does this game stand the test of time?
The story in the game is pretty simple. Aliens are attacking LA, and Duke has to stop them. Later on he finds out that the aliens are kidnapping Earth’s women, so he has to save them. There isn’t really a lot more to it than that. As with most games of the era, it was a paper-thin excuse to do violence. A memorable moment is the battle with the alien overlord inside a football stadium, which is finished with Duke kicking its eye for a field goal, a scene which would be reused in the first level of Duke Nukem Forever.
What it’s lacking in story it makes for in style. It nails the 80’s action movie aesthetic. Duke’s appearance embodies a traditional action hero, and throughout the game he tosses out one liners, many of them quotes from movies such as Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. As cliché as he is, Duke has something most FPS protagonists lack, a personality. From Doom Marine to Gordon Freeman, FPS protagonists are often little more than a floating gun, an empty vessel for the player to inhabit.
Occasionally an FPS will try to give their protagonist more personality by giving them long dialogue sequences with friendly NPCs. Duke can really only interact with NPCs with a single line of dialogue and tossing money at them. His distinct characterization comes from taunts directed at his enemies, and his reaction to the situations he finds himself in. He became one of the most iconic FPS protagonists entirely on his own, without needing any NPCs to banter with.
One thing you have to understand before playing this game is that it is an old school FPS. It plays very differently from a modern mainstream FPS. There is no sitting behind cover waiting to regenerate health. With a few exceptions, just about every enemy attacks with fairly slow-moving projectiles, which can be dodged. Agile movement is key to victory, and with great skill you can clear out one room after another without taking a hit.
The lack of regenerating health was never really a huge issue as there is a lot of health scattered around the levels. Really clever players can find many secret areas, which often contain health in them. If you get dangerously low on health you can resort to save-scumming for a while, and after clearing out a few rooms you should find plenty of health. But even that measure should rarely be necessary with all the health that is available in this game.
Today we often consider weapons in FPSs to be appropriate in different situations, some are good in long range others in close range, and so on. But in older FPSs it’s more of a linear progression. First you get a pistol, which sucks. Then you get shotgun, which is better. And by the end of the game you have a rapid fire rocket launcher that kills everything really quickly. And of course you can carry all the weapons in the game at the same time, rather than being limited to two at a time.
Most of the weapons in the game are pretty standard for an FPS at the time, but a couple of them stand out. Both of them work on a similar principle, temporarily making the enemy vulnerable allowing you to finish them off with a single attack. The first weapon is the shrink ray, which lets you shrink enemies, and then step on them to finish them off. The other is the Freezethrower, which turns enemies to ice, letting you smash them with a single bullet or kick. For both weapons the enemies will soon return to normal if you don’t kill them quickly.
Duke has several useful items he can find, such as the night vision goggles which lets him spot enemies in the dark. But the by far the best item is the jetpack. Occasionally its necessary to reach your goal, but more often it’s for finding secret areas, or just lazily taking a shortcut if you don’t feel like doing some platforming. If you accidentally fall off of an edge due to a misstep, rather than taking fall damage you can just activate your jetpack to save yourself. It’s a shame we don’t see jetpacks used more often in FPSs.
The level design is old school, which means hunting down different colored keycards to unlock the next area. In most cases this means a backtracking is required, sometimes returning to a particular room multiple times after acquiring keycards or flipping switches. Some of the levels are designed to really take advantage of the third dimension, having enemies positioned above and below you, and requiring a lot of platforming to get around. On these levels the jetpack can really be put to good use. Other levels, particularly early on in the game, are mainly set indoors, and your enemies are all on the same level as you.
Occasionally the game will give you a break from the constant action, and give you some “puzzles”, for lack of a better word. Basically you have a number of switches, usually three or four of them, which you can toggle into an off or on position. You need some specific combination of switches to be on to unlock the door. There are no clues as to which ones need to be on and which ones need to be off, so it’s basically trial and error. Since there really aren’t that many combinations it doesn’t take too long to find the right combination. It’s just really strange that they would include this in the game, as there is nothing particularly entertaining about this task.
The Megaton Edition comes with three expansion packs, in addition to the base game. Duke it out in D.C. has levels based on actual locations in Washingotn D.C. including the White House and the Lincoln Memorial. These levels tended to be a bit larger and more complex than the base game. The aptly named Smithsonian Terror is a long tedious keycard hunt, that soon wears out its welcome. Overall it’s not too bad. Some of the levels just drag out a little too long.
The next expansion is Nuclear Winter, which has a number of Christmas songs in its soundtrack to match its theme. Enemies in the game have been reskinned, some with Santa hats and others have been turned into snowman. While there are some new levels, such as Santa’s workshop, others are slightly modified versions of levels from the base game, which comes off as lazy.
The last expansion pack is Life’s a Beach. Not only are the enemies reskinned with Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses, but Duke’s own weapons and equipment get reskinned as well. Guns are turned into water guns, grenades are pineapples, the shrink ray is a voodoo ring. The level design is really top-notch, including areas ranging from a beach resort to a water park. All of which manage to be interesting without being so long and drawn out as the levels in Duke it out in D.C.
The game’s one real weakness is that the graphics really have not aged well. The 3d geometry is quite primitive by today’s standards. You can have skyscrapers, where one side is just a giant rectangle, with a texture slapped on it to give the appearance of windows and other details. In certain levels you see vehicles such as cars and trucks with are just giant boxes. The enemies and certain objects are 2d sprites, which are fairly low res and look pixelated up close. However from a distance they look okay. The underlying art style for the sprites is quite nice, and some of the enemies look quite fearsome.
Overall the game is very enjoyable. The old school FPS gameplay is as fun as it ever was. Aside from a few levels which are tad overcomplicated and may lead to some frustration figuring out where to go next, most levels walk the fine line of being just complex enough to be interesting. Aside from the graphics which have aged pretty poorly, there isn’t much else bad to say about this game.
This game was purchased by Rutledge and reviewed on the Linux Platform.
An overall excellent old school FPS. Offers fast paced action, and a few interesting weapons and gadgets. Only its dated graphics, and a few overly complicated levels diminish the experience.