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Duke Nukem 3D

Purchased through Gog.com

I stopped playing Duke Nukem 3D after about 3 hours.  My time with the game ended not with frustration, nor with the feeling that my time was being wasted, but with the realization that I had experienced all it could offer.

DN3D is not a poor game.  Even after the few hours I had invested I could see how it has earned its legacy.  The problem in a way, is its age.

I’m not referring to the visuals, or even the technology of the time.  It still runs fine and I have no problem mentally adjusting to aged graphics (‘aged’ graphics, not ‘bad’ graphics).

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The problem is with how Duke Nukem holds up in comparison to modern games, and how the evolution of the medium has since created more complex, deeper games to which Duke Nukem can’t possibly compare.

About the game

Duke Nukem 3D is an exceptionally designed first person shooter.  The guns are fun and varied, with each one being useful in certain circumstances and none ever becoming useless.

The combat is effectively visceral and the sound design appropriately complements the visuals, giving every action a sense of weight and impact.

Combat is intense as you are given just enough ammo to always fight, but never enough that you can afford to be careless.  Ammo management forces you to assess your battles and encourages strategy, picking the most effective weapon for the situation and using cover to manage enemy groups.

Enemies are comical and cartoonish, but each enemy type is uniquely recognisable for you to understand the threat they pose.

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Levels are a challenge to navigate, but rarely become confusing or frustrating to traverse. The layout of each level can be familiarized fairly quickly and for the most part there is always a sense of destination or an idea of where to next travel.

There are some 1990’s-era obtuse puzzles, but nothing that annoys to the point of quitting.

The combat isn’t always perfect though, there is an over reliance on cheap ambushes.  Some enemies will be lying in wait, gun pointing at a corner, waiting for you to arrive. Enemies which are near impossible to predict, and will almost certainly require dying at least once to realise their positions.

I’m not a fan of this troll killing of the player, especially as it requires reloading with newly gained foresight of the enemies positions.  I’d rather be able to respond and deal with a situation as opposed to unavoidably dying and memorizing traps.

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I’m not fond of the infamous Duke Nukem humor either.  Duke himself is a Schwarzenegger replica carrying massive amounts of male insecurity and a psychopathic amount of self importance.  He is essentially Johnny Bravo, but played dead serious.

His (and the game’s) humor is so juvenile that my 11 year old self thought it was childish when I first saw the game 20 year ago.

The plot contains the same amount of maturity.  Save Earth’s women from aliens with guns.  Brilliant.

One might argue that Duke was written ironically, but there are no jokes made at his expense, so his attitude comes off as blatant pandering to teenage boys.  This would also explain the inclusion of all the strippers that you can ‘activate’ to make them perform a quick, semi nude dance.

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This is particularly jarring when fighting in a strip club.  Strippers continue their 3 frame dance motion and will still jiggle on command even after every other life-form in the room has been murdered.  This removes what little semblance of life they possessed and they truly become environmental objects – with again, no irony.

Worse, there are moments where naked women are tied up in alien biology, begging for death, evoking horrifying rape like imagery.

Again, no Irony here, it’s just an obvious attempt at being edgy.  I criticise the developers for this, but I also blame the 1990’s in general, my generation’s middle ages.

The above criticisms weren’t what really made me stop playing (though re-reading the above it was probably enough).

The problem

It’s clear that the developers knew how to create a great FPS – DN3D is exceptionally developed from a design point of view, and I completely understand why it was so successful when released in 1996.

Unfortunately 20 years later, the mechanics and level design alone aren’t impressive enough to propel me through 40 levels.

DN3D has solid combat mechanics and clever level design – but that’s pretty much all.  More modern shooters have many other elements that can hook you in, driving you to the end.

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Compare Duke Nukem 3D to ‘Wolfenstein:  The New Order’ – another FPS that also has satisfying combat and weapons, varied enemies and maps.

The difference is that ‘The New Order’ also contains a cast of fascinating characters.  It has a world rich in detail and history.  There’s personal drama and development, and a story told through character actions.

At the time of Duke Nukem’s release the act of battling enemies through changing environments was novel enough to encourage playing to the end.  There were few shooter alternatives available and competition would not have been as numerous as it is today.

Today I’m absolutely spoilt by games that have good design and combat, but also engage emotionally, providing the desire to see how the story ends.  Games with characters that you want to save/murder, great soundtracks, more refined mechanics and far more features.

There is no Deathshead type antagonist in DN3D for you to despise and pursue.  There are no companion characters to fight along side or get to know.  There’s never going to be a situation to sneak up on enemies while they complain about their commander.

You shoot enemies and hit switches – and though this is one of the more engaging games of this type, there have since been may more realised games released.  Games with richer worlds and characters that make Duken Nukem seem bare.  

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I stopped playing about 3 levels into the second episode.  I had collected the majority of guns and fought the majority of enemies (ground, flying and water types). There were some clever use of mechanics (such as being able to shrink to access new areas) but nothing that blew me away.

I got to a point where I understood the meat of the game and that nothing introduced could amaze or encourage me onward.

There were no characters to care about nor enough variance in environments/mechanics that were going to turn the game on its head.  I quickly started seeing each level as a box of enemy placements – and the illusion of the world disappeared.  There wasn’t anything else that could keep me connected.

It’s the Unreal problem.  It’s a great shooter, but not much else – the constant action simply stops being engaging.  The difference here is that, with Unreal, I forced myself to complete the game long after tiring of the core game play.  In Duke Nukem 3D, I just stopped.

If I had a choice between this and say, The New Order, the Half-life Series, Spec Ops: The Line, and Painkiller – then there is no choice really.  These games and others like them offer so much more.

I couldn’t possibly recommend Duke Nukem as a product.  It isn’t a ‘bad’ game, it just simply can’t  compare to many games that have come since its time in the spotlight.

Duke Nukem 3D is better suited as a museum piece.  Its existence has value as an artifact to be examined, perhaps even played – just so people know what it was about in a historical context.  But if you are looking for an enjoyable shooter then there are many other, more engaging games to be found.