Duke Nukem. There’s a franchise many gamers probably aren’t clamouring to see return anytime soon. 2011’s shambles of a game saw the character relegated to a series of clichés, buried beneath a wave of critique as audiences brushed it off. That game might have sold well, but it arguably killed the franchise dead. Which is a true shame, as Duke Nukem once was a fore-bearer for the his chosen genre.
Back in 1996 Duke Nukem made the transition from 2D to 3D gaming. Up to that point, Duke was something of an afterthought in the PC space. His 2D adventures weren’t awful, but certainly nowhere near as memorable as Commander Keen or anything over in the console space. With id Software set to release Quake into the market – gamers were yearning for something a bit more edgy. 3D Realms heard this call and decided to punt their wayward mascot into the starring role of his own first person shooter. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s easy for modern gamers to turn their noses up at Duke Nukem 3D. After all, it’s a game that relishes in its obscenity. The vulgar humor on show throughout and crass jokes feel incredibly jarring to an audience 21 years out of its comfort zone. But look beyond this top layer and you find a game that has so much more to offer than boobs and movie jokes.
Duke Nukem 3D works because it tried to replicate real life aesthetics so strongly. Playing a level of Duke Nukem made you feel like aliens were invading the streets of LA. Back in 1996 – it was nothing short of a revolution to see such detail. There was also an element of cinematic glory to Duke Nukem – a sense of awareness that the likes of DOOM and its many clones didn’t tap into. Here was a protagonist that knew what gamers wanted – and by God he was going to deliver it.
Which is why the corny jokes and humor of Duke Nukem 3D works to its benefit. They never feel outwardly mean or derogatory to the gameplay – they feel like they’re there to compliment proceedings. A quick quip here, a joke there and the game moves on. It’s never slammed in your face to the point of excess – something Duke Nukem Forever completely ignored.
But at its core, Duke Nukem 3D is an excellent first person shooter. It’s core mechanics remain solid to this day, introducing the concept of basic platforming to the first person realm. Thanks to the Build engine (Which powers the game) you can jump and crawl – as well as move up and down. These are important as they allow you traverse the world in a very different way than you could before.
Sneaking through air vents to avoid enemies or taking a jetpack to get to an area you shouldn’t be able to reach yet. These moves offer variety and allow you to tackle the game in any number of ways. Whereas in the likes of DOOM you were funnelled in one direction – Duke Nukem 3D made its world feel more real and worthy of exploration. The fact there’s so many different types of enemies too means you’ll be forever looking for ways to cut down the amount of shooting you’ll be needing to do. From the mundane pigcops through to the annoying-as-hell self destucting aliens – you won’t be lost for things to shoot at.
Which is why the level design (for the most part) is on point. Taking advantage of its LA-focused location, we get to see everything in Duke Nukem 3D as if we were visiting. From the streets of LA, to its dirty porn magazine dens – all the way through to the movie backlots. Duke Nukem makes the most of its license to have fun – and every level in these sections feels constructed to make you feel like you’re actually there. It’s a strive for realism that in modern times may be par for the course – but in 1996 was mind-blowing.
The variety of weapons on offer also compliments proceedings nicely. Your starting pistol was rubbish but thanks to its fast shooting speed – at least afforded you a final gasp if enemies came at you thick and fast. The inclusion of pipebombs, RPGs, freezerays, shrinkrays and other such toys meant you were never out of fun ways to take down enemies. Complimenting this was the use of power ups, which you can use to assist yourself. From the night vision goggles (Which are almost always useless) through to steroids (Which make you run like a Flash), there’s never a situation where you don’t have options in how to take on monsters.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, far from it. The games second episode (Lunar Apocalypse) suffers greatly from a wandering sense of focus, as levels shift from space bases to awkwardly large alien structures. It means the sense of progression through the levels feels muted, awkwardly bland and sometimes just downright boring. Removed from the streets of LA, it’s clear Duke’s jokes don’t pack the same punch and while the episode isn’t a complete car crash, you’ll be hard pressed to return to it over the other episodes on offer.
On top of this, it’s easy to get the sense that the game struggles sometimes with its difficulty curve. There are a heap of monster closets in this game that on higher difficulties feel akin to the developers shoving you off a cliff face. Nothing screams lazy like opening a wall or door, only to be met by half a dozen enemies that overpower you in seconds. It’s one of Duke Nukem 3D’s more frustrating aspects – and age hasn’t helped it.
But ultimately, Duke Nukem 3D remains one of my favourite games of all time. Your mileage may vary (In particular with Gearbox on a seemingly endless mission to squeeze the life out of the game’s legacy) but I think as a monument to mid-1990’s PC gaming – there’s very few games that quite match the highs of Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a game of its time, but still brilliant to play regardless.