Duke Nukem 3D – No Longer the King, Baby

We kick off first-person shooter month with 3D Realm’s classic Duke Nukem 3D.

In 1996 my Dad took it upon himself to buy a computer and I took my first real steps into PC gaming. At the time it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I was a big Nintendo fanboy back then and, while I liked having an alternative to the same NES games I’d been playing for five years, my eyes at the time were firmly set on the future of the house that Mario built (aka: the N64). That said, looking back it’s hard for me not to shake my head at how little I initially appreciated the experiences of those first few PC games. Wing Commander II, for instance, wound up being one of my all time favorites. Likewise, Duke Nukem 3D is a game that I spent countless hours with.

Returning to it after so long is, in turn, something of a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, the game is a wellspring of personal nostalgia. Just launching into the opening seconds of the L.A. Meltdown chapter was a trip down memory lane of epic proportions. The rest of my playthrough was likewise littered with moments of remembrance that took me back to those days spent staring into the glow of my monitor, the echo of virtual gunshots and screaming aliens ringing through my room.

Fond memories aside, I was actually kind of disappointed with my return to the game. I wasn’t naïve enough, of course, to think that I’d be walking into it with the same mindset of my younger self, but it still surprised me how ultimately underwhelmed I was by the whole thing. There was a time when I thought that Duke Nukem 3D was outright awesome. The violence, the attitude, the sexuality; to a nine-year old in 1996 a game with honest-to-god boobs seemed like a revolution. In 2014, on the other hand, it’s a game that feels goofy at best and mildly uncomfortable at its worst. The fact that the game focuses so heavily on captured, imprisoned and sexualized women (many of whom beg you to kill them) just really rubbed me the wrong way as an adult.

It didn’t help that the Duke himself kind of fell flat for me. This was an especial disappointment because, back in the day, I thought Duke Nukem was just about the coolest protagonist around. I loved everything about him, especially his one-liners which were always my favorite part of the Schwarzenegger movies the character was actively aping. This time around, however, I wound up turning the sound right off. Granted, I did that partly so I could watch House of Cards while I played, but that aside, you can only hear “hail to the king, baby” so many times before you start rolling your eyes.

This isn’t to suggest that Duke Nukem 3D on the whole is a bad game. From a purely mechanical standpoint, I’d still say it’s pretty sound and there are things about it that I still really love. Its arsenal, for instance, is simply one of my favorites from any shooter I’ve ever played. When you get down to it, its not that different from most of the shooters from that era (pistol, shotgun, machine gun, etc.). Even so, there’s just something about the game’s guns that’s just viscerally satisfying to me. Your enemies aren’t pushovers by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard not to feel like a bad-ass when you’re ripping you through a room with your chaingun or exploding squads of aliens with the RPG (best RPG ever). You really also can’t understate the usefulness of the pipe bomb. Overwhelming pack of pig-cops? Meet my bouncing stick of remote detonated doom.

It also boasts some nicely crafted levels that are, at times, really fun to explore. Yes, there is a strong degree of linearity to it all. You’ll pretty much always have to adhere to the trope of finding colored-coded keys to unlock the different parts of each level. That said, most stages also boast a bevy of secrets and alternate routes to discover. There’s a real joy to climbing through a vent and getting the drop on a group of unsuspecting aliens. The game also makes great use of its outdoor areas which will often morph and transform as you blast your way through.

Unfortunately, there are also moments where you’ll find yourself getting lost. You wouldn’t think it possible, seeing how the game actually provides a very thorough and useful map option. That said, you’ll frequently find yourself wandering levels looking for keys or doorways that you’ll swear don’t exist until you finally just stumble onto them out of sheer happenstance. I wasted a good forty-five minutes on the Duke Burger level, for instance, because it just didn’t dawn on me that I needed to try and order something from a decorative drive-thru window before a vital key would show itself. Granted, some would probably see this as part of the charm of older games. They make you work and try weird things to proceed. The thing is, I think there’s a difference between work and wasting my time and, too often, I felt like Duke Nukem 3D was doing the latter.

In the end, when you actually tally up Duke Nukem 3D‘s pros and cons, you do get a good game. That said, it’s a game with some definite caveats, mostly on the stylistic side. The problem, unfortunately, is that style is a lot of what made the game special in its heyday. Is it fun to play? Yes. Undeniably so. You’ll lose hours in Duke Nukem 3D and more than get your money’s worth for the $5.99 that GOG’s asking. That said, for me at least, it originally broke new ground by being more violent, more sexy, and possessing more personality than any other game I’d played before. Almost 20 years later however, it feels more like a marker of how far we’ve come than anything else.

Come back next week for my review of Arma: Cold War Assault (aka: Operation Flashpoint)!

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