Review by ClessAlvein05

"Awesome, now can we have Duke Nukem Forever already?!"

The Duke Nukem series has for many drifted further into the sunset each day that Duke Nukem Forever's "when it's done" non-release date brings no further promises besides a few screenshots and 3D Realms' stories about engine re-starts and physics additions. But among the released titles, Duke Nukem 3d is the most famous among a series of fine games, and still goes down in my book as one of the greatest first-person shooters--no, games--ever.

Its visuals may have been done in a glorified Doom engine and look dated now, but they were excellent at the time; its audio consisted of an adequate-to-superb MIDI track and a first-rate sound effects set with many excellent voices; and the gameplay was phenomenal, with interactive elements not surpassed by most games for years.

Let's start with the visuals. The stretched, rotating city backdrops were nothing that Doom hadn't done; even the looking up and down was nothing more than viewing different angles on a pre-rendered scene, and there were no true rooms above rooms. Full 360 degree FPS/flight sim games like Descent I and II were already ahead of the curve on this, and 3DR was lucky to just barely beat out Quake and its major advances to the stores. In fact, one could argue that Apogee/3d Realms had made a living imitating previous game engines, not only in 3d games (Blake Stone and ROTT = Wolfenstein, Wacky Wheels = Mario Kart) but in 2d games (Bio Menace = Commander Keen.) But put all that aside for a second and think of this: How much did this actually hurt Duke Nukem 3d as a game? Did the backgrounds fail in their presentation of city lights and stars? Did the walls, buildings, elevators, and other objects not look as high-quality as almost anything at the time? In fact, these objects were in many ways well ahead of not only Doom but also Descent and other contemporary FPSs, not only in basic graphics qualities (textures were of vastly higher quality than Descent) but in interaction (which is its own beast, one of course helpful to Duke.) Descent had the embarrassment of paper-thin--actually infinitely thin--doors, putting it behind even Doom and on par with Wolfenstein, whereas in Duke doors are not only generally of proper thickness as in Doom, but can rotate and not just move up and down. Doors, and innumerable other objects, have all sorts of mobility, often with amusing results (such as squishing an alien with a door and seeing the remains move up and down.) The use of sprites may seem bad at face value, but they are usually of high detail given the times, and the Build engine as always exhibits a lot of creativity--not only in Duke could it resize objects, but in Shadow Warrior it would go on to give “depth” to some sprites, like keys. Some of the effects are cumbersome on slower systems, and make you wonder why polygons couldn't be used, and the animation can sometimes seem a little choppy, but the game does well as a whole with them (furthermore, most polygon animation of the time was also pretty choppy, and low-detailed--look at the massive flat surfaces on most Descent robots.) The Build engine lacks rooms below rooms, but Duke does a nice job of “warping between regions” to compensate for this. The colors are appropriate--reasonably dark in the caves, clubs, and night, but light enough given the comic nature of the game compared to titles like Quake; and areas that need very bright lights use them. Given the 256-color limits of the VGA and SVGA systems of the time, the detail of the colors is great; there isn't much waste of color, shading looks good, there are various pigments on magazines and other small objects, and transparent objects don't look blotchy. There are excellent cutscenes at key times; the one where Duke makes good on his promise to a boss after winning, while whistling the Duke theme, is classic. In recent years, there have even been Windows “upgrades,” like with Doom, that do allow full 3d, polygonal remakes of objects, and much higher detail textures.

The audio is very good, although as a whole the sounds are much better than the music. John St. John's deep bass voice is PERFECT for Duke, capturing his attitude and style and getting all the right phrases (which, borrowed from elsewhere or not, are always superb; no need to list them here, particularly given the no-curse-word policy in reviews.) Like in Doom, many of the alien and object sounds are “borrowed” from old horror movie stock, but that in no way hurts the game itself. I always enjoyed the crunch of a gibbing, the clicking of loading a clip or switching weapons, or ambient metallic whirring in factories. There are heavy echoes in caves and lowered pitches underwater.

The music isn't even close to Duke Nukem 2's Adlib hard-rock bonanza, although that says as much about how great DN2's soundtrack is, and there are still some great Duke 3d tracks. Everyone loves the title screen song, Grab Bag, which has been redone many times; and I honestly enjoyed the first-level song, “Stalker.” Most of the other MIDI tracks are slow, somewhat boring, and basically adequate; Lee Jackson, who split the music with Adlib genius Bobby Prince this time, isn't nearly on the same level. A lot of this, however, reflected the beginning of a general trend against heavy ambient music in FPSs; Quake, for instance, had background music that didn't have much melody, but was simply dark and creepy. The end-of-level recorded music in Duke is excellent, and the ambient music in clubs is solid, if obviously short and repetitive.

The gameplay and interaction are, obviously, hailed by most Duke 3d fans as the title's best factor, and they're as good as advertised. Duke was one of the first FPSs to seriously address the issue of weapon variety: Why do so many games of the genre, particularly the early ones, have to resort to a short-range, weak, infinite-ammo punch or the like, a weak handgun, a strong, slow shotgun, a chaingun, an explosive rocket gun, and some very-high level guns? Duke included all of these for good measure, but expanded heavily not only on the “high level” guns but everything in between on the lower levels. The shrink-ray doesn't really damage an enemy but allows you to deliver the fatal kick (the preferred “infinite ammo weapon” of choice for Duke, which conveniently switches automatically.) And shrink-rays within the game allow you to wander into some small spaces (but do it quickly! You might expand and get squished!) You also get a freezer that also can down an alien in one more kick. Among numerous other weapons, pipe bombs are obviously a great way to frag some enemies and open some walls if you avoid the splash damage, and if you avoid your own trips as well as pre-installed ones, the laser tripbomb can quickly frag some enemies in the wrong places. The breadth of items, not surprisingly, is wider than most similar games; just to name a few, there are steroids for speed, various medkit variations, and night-vision goggles, scuba gear, and jetpacks, all of which are rechargeable.

The game's attitude is Rise of the Triad on steroids (literally, I guess.) Like with ROTT and many other games of theirs, 3DR tried to outdo its id counterparts in the attitude department. The difficulty levels are creative; the vocals are creative and show that attitude; the interaction is similarly creative. No longer is it just “easy” or even “I am a chew toy” or “can I play, Daddy;” it's “Yeah, piece of cake!” There's not much of a plot or more than a loose connection to the prior games (your ship from Duke Nukem II you fly off on is shot down and you want to save some babes,) but how many FPSs of the time, or at all, have any plot? The interaction is deep--beyond the laugh factor in playing arcade machines, stepping in alien “waste,” urinating in toilets for extra health (and then blowing them up and drinking the water for more health, along with refreshing fire hydrant water,) there are plenty of secret areas and levels. The levels are extremely varied, from city streets to alien bases to caves to clubs to sewers to prisons with churches to mountains to underwater, and are expandable with the Build engine. While some may find it distasteful and misogynistic, Duke can use an infinite supply of money in strip clubs, interact with kidnapped women in alien bases, watch short clips of adult movies in both theaters and small booths, and go into adult video stores. (Hey, you're a parent or something and don't like these? You can also turn these, and the language, off.) Even minor details the game could survive without, like bullet holes, cultural references to the OJ trial, and phone numbers on the bathroom wall (867-5309) are handled well. Shadow Warrior and Blood borrowed these elements nicely under the same terms of the Build engine, and even as late as Doom 3, you could “have time to play with yourself” on the arcade machines.

It's telling that this game is still considered a groundbreaker in the FPS genre after all these years, and perhaps more telling that the embarrassment of Duke Nukem Forever's endless development hasn't in any way diminished the luster of this masterpiece. The game's overall “weak 10” depends entirely on how its whole is vastly better than the sum of its parts: it has a few graphical and musical shortcomings, but makes up for these entirely in its legacy and gameplay. Like Final Fantasy VI, it's one of those games that, for me at least, drew the line between the “classic” and “new ages” of gaming, which for some old-schoolers brought on the negatives of vastly different gameplay and plots. While Duke ports poorly in Windows, there are engines that enhance it, and you could always dig up one of your older computers that ran primarily in DOS. Whatever you do, you ought to find a way to play it.

Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/04/07

Game Release: Duke Nukem 3D (US, 01/31/96)

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