Self Similar self similar’s personal gaming nonsense blog

21Aug/120

Duke Nukem 3D Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity's sake you can also click them to view the "pixel perfect" originals.

Introduction

The original, pre Atomic Edition title screen.
"The original, pre Atomic Edition title screen."

So far in these reviews I’ve talked a little about adventure games and even a flight sim… and now for something completely different: a first person shooter! Yes, another staple of PC gaming here to represent! With all of the buzz surrounding the release of Duke Nukem Forever about this time last year I thought it would be fun to go back and take a quick look at the game’s predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D by 3D Realms. Alongside Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Duke Nukem 3D is most certainly one of the best known and most beloved of the classic DOS FPS games and one that has unarguably left its mark. It was also one of the last great 2D FPSes before Quake ushered in the wave of polygon based first person shooters and Windows 95 all but finished killing off DOS game development. “Come get some!”

As I had mentioned in my Hugo Trilogy review I used to talk my parents into buying me cheap shareware and budget software quite frequently. I first heard of the character Duke Nukem from one of these same shareware collection CD-ROMs. Amongst a lot of other garbage, it was chock-full of Apogee Software’s offerings from the time including Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II. As a quick aside, buying shareware might seem incredibly daft to younger readers but in those days unless you had a friend who could “copy that floppy” it was a much more convenient way to obtain games than having to download them via a now mind bogglingly slow modem from a BBS or early online service. Hell, I didn’t even have a modem for the first year or so of owning my first PC! Anyway, I remember trying Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem II and being thoroughly unimpressed. The PC had never been known for great side scrolling platformer/action games and those types of experiences weren’t what I was after when it came to PC gaming anyway. I was, however, definitely there for first person shooters. I loved Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Heretic and (usually regretfully) tried my fair share of their imitators in those early years as well.

Pig cops, get it? Get it?
"Pig cops, get it? Get it?"

Duke Nukem 3D was released around the time I started to abandon PC gaming – my PC was aging quite dramatically and the limited funds I had as a teenager meant I had to make due with limping along with only the smallest of infrequent upgrades. I had also grown into focusing my PC time into other areas such as programming and hanging around in the BBS and IRC scenes. I believe I first encountered Duke Nukem 3D from one of my best friends who had a new machine and was playing many of the latest titles that I had only read about on boards or in magazines. Insert intense, lingering jealousy here. Shareware copy in hand, my friend gleefully demoed it for me to show me what I’d been missing. My first thought was “Duke Nukem? I remember those lame games… what the hell?” but that didn’t last long. Its technical enhancements such as its more realized 3D environments aside, Duke’s new and improved over the top, badass attitude, a plethora of pixelated “babes” to throw money at, and pig cops to violently dispatch aligned perfectly with our adolescent mindsets. Still, the best way to deal with my awkward combination of jealousy and changing tastes at the time was to be above it: above playing yet another FPS and above the sleazy, dumb humor. There I remained, steadfast in my moral superiority… until the release of Quake. 😉

So, Duke Nukem 3D was NOT a huge influence on me like it was so many other PC gamers. I was familiar with the game, having played a fair amount of the shareware episode both around the time it was released and again after getting better hardware of my own, but it was never one of those games that totally sunk its hooks into me. I definitely have a deeper appreciation of it now, looking back nostalgically, which is a big part of what makes it so fun for me to revisit now for this review.

Just a quick note: While it isn't my intent to do a direct comparison between Doom, Duke3D, and Quake I can't help but compare them a little. Not only does Duke3D sit firmly in between those titles tech-wise but I played both Doom and Quake extensively while I consciously skipped over Duke3D which makes the comparison rather personally significant.

Gameplay

Like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D before it, Duke Nukem 3D is an old school first person shooter through and through. You’re dropped into an environment that you have to find your way through from a pseudo 3D, first person perspective. Go from point A to point B – that’s absolutely it in the most reductive sense. Of course the journey is spiced up by having to survive tons of enemy encounters, often surprise ones with enemies emerging from hiding places not unlike Doom’s infamous “monster closets”, and having to sidetrack to find the appropriate keys or switches to unlock doors and other roadblocks in order to progress. Searching for switches and secret rooms, exploring air ducts and underwater passages, and doing tons of back tracking in between acquiring keys feels much more puzzle-like than anything I typically encounter in FPSes today. It also feels a lot less linear!

The space levels of Episode 2 are fan favorites.
"The space levels of Episode 2 are fan favorites."

Duke3D’s puzzles are given further complexity by the game’s inventory system. You can find a variety of items from simple ones like protective boots that let you walk through otherwise dangerous liquids and scuba gear to help you stay underwater longer, to Duke’s awesome jetpack which lets him fly around more or less uninhibited. Often these items are just used as fairly binary solutions to puzzles but even still since they’re never taken away from you they enable additional exploration possibilities. This is particularly true in the case of the jetpack which can be used to traverse entire sections of the map and skip puzzles completely if used creatively. Sometimes the puzzles can be a little frustrating with some levels taking me 20 or 30 minutes to clear the first time through. Sure, there’s a pretty sweet in-game map but those clever bastards made sure to hide obvious hints of places you’ve yet to explore making it all but useless for that. As an aside, I find this old style of FPS just a little tedious to play through these days. Running through a few levels is a lot of fun but doing it 42 times? Ugh! At least it was a lot of bang for your buck, I suppose.

Err, took a wrong turn into a movie set.
"Err, took a wrong turn into a movie set."

Finally, I feel like I should mention the environments. The Build engine allows for some approximation of rooms over rooms giving the maps more complexity and a greater sense of verticality than in earlier FPS games. It’s not quite night and day as Doom, for instance, could also fake it to a degree. Still, it’s especially worth mentioning when paired with Duke3D’s attempts to replicate real life environments. While far from perfect it does so much more convincingly than Doom ever did. Seriously, even as a kid I thought Doom II’s city levels were laughable. That was Earth… reeeeaaally?! Duke3D on the other hand drops you right into the seedy streets of Hollywood from the get go. It also features all kinds of neat little interactive objects in the environment (light switches, surveillance screens, toilets, etc.) and while these were mostly just gimmicks they did at least help establish a better sense of being in an actual place. You can also break a lot of static objects which could sometimes reveal hidden items or uncover doors. Not such a gimmick is that you can also blow massive holes in select walls. These cracked walls can be easy to miss and are a much cooler way to hide secret rooms and alternate passages than the old, stale sliding door with the same texture as the wall trick.

DNKROZ go!
"DNKROZ go!"

Duke3D’s combat is exactly the same as Doom’s – I’d even say that unlike some other older FPS games I’ve played the two engines feel pretty much identical. The most obvious differences in the combat in these early FPS games is with weapons and enemies. While Duke3D’s enemies were pretty interesting, with the most basic enemy type being able to fly and the upgraded version being able to cloak, for instance, it really shines in the weapon department. The genre has kind of gotten away from it these days but it really seemed like all of the Doom wanna-be FPS games that came out around then were trying to up the ante on the destructive power and creativity of weapons. Some did better than others and I feel like Duke3D borrowed extensively from all of them when it came to designing its arsenal. Even the most basic, starter weapon, the pistol, is effective and satisfying to use and while you have staples such as the Ripper machine gun (chaingun) and the RPG (rocket launcher) things get much more interesting when we continue up the list. Remotely detonated pipe bombs and laser trip mines? Sweet! There’s also a freeze gun that freezes your enemies solid allowing you to shatter them to pieces any way you choose. There’s even a shrink ray which shrinks your enemies so that you can stomp them into a bloody smear. Oh man, and I love the Expander! Duke can also deploy his "mighty foot" melee attack at any time with a separate button. Nowadays pretty much every shooter out there has a dedicated, separate melee key but back then if an FPS allowed you to melee it was usually selected in the same clumsy manner as any other weapon.

Surprisingly Duke doesn't have anything clever to say when this happens.
"Surprisingly Duke doesn't have anything clever to say when this happens."

Between the more realistic levels, interactive objects, inventory items, and the crazy weapons it’s easy to see why the game was lauded as a hefty technical upgrade from Doom but where many of those features really came into play is when it came to death… err Dukematch. The non-linear levels with multiple passages, doors that could be closed from either side, lights that could be switched on and off and shot out, security cameras and laser trip mines for setting traps, Holoduke decoys, etc. all proved to be fun additions to the sandboxy, ambush heavy, predator/prey style of old school competitive multiplayer. As someone who played a ton of Doom deathmatch back in the day I instantly recognized Duke3D’s potential in that area the first time I saw it in action and obviously the developers did too as many of those additions seem to have been made specifically with multiplayer in mind. I haven’t played much Duke Nukem 3D multiplayer myself but I know it was a popular LAN game in its heyday and must have been an absolute riot.

Finally, I can’t skip at least mentioning the Build engine’s awesome editor. It was freely available and even came with registered version of the game. It was known for being one of the simplest, most intuitive level editors out there and greatly helped in Duke3D having the absolutely massive amount of 3rd party levels and mods you can find today.

Story

Duke Nukem, coming back from space after the events of Duke Nukem II, gets shot down over a dystopian Los Angeles and finds himself in the middle of an alien invasion. His plans for some rest and relaxation ruined he goes looking for some revenge, as anyone would. That’s pretty much it. Onto the killing! Well, ok, there’s a tiny bit more to it. During the course of the game Duke ends up learning of an alien plot to steal Earth’s women (or at least the young, attractive ones) and being a big fan of young, attractive women he vows to put a stop to it, ending up on some overrun space stations and eventually the alien mothership. After cleaning house there he heads back to Earth where a full scale invasion is taking place. The forth episode introduced in the Plutonium Pack expansion/patch involves an alien queen who is spawning these nasty bastards straight out of Aliens. Blah, blah, blah… nothing to write home about. It’s all pretty much just an excuse to wander through mazes looking for key cards, blasting aliens in their stupid alien faces and there’s nothing wrong with that.

These guys are fucking hard even when there isn't a mass of them and you're not underwater. Ugh.
"These guys are fucking hard even when there isn't a mass of them and you're not underwater. Ugh."

So yeah, not much on the way of a plot, or setting, or any real in-game storytelling going on here but what we do have is something pretty unique amongst first person shooters at the time: a protagonist with a personality! Duke Nukem constantly makes little quips and one-liners as you play through the game which felt pretty damn fresh when compared to the legions of mutes we had been playing as up till then and indeed, afterwards. Duke Nukem is a brash, totally egotistical, testosterone driven smart ass who is apparently Earth’s biggest badass and is all too aware of that fact. He’s basically what an action movie hero like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone might be like if they weren’t simply actors, exaggerated up to and well past the ridiculousness of Ash from Army of Darkness (whom he takes quite a few of his queues from) to the point of satire. While Duke Nukem 3D would never come close to holding up as any sort of masterwork of comedic genius (after all, all of the game’s best lines are stolen) and does very little in the way of making any sort of actual commentary on anything it is parodying, it does at least manage to be vaguely amusing at times.

Duke Burger. Who knew Duke also owned a fast food chain?
"Duke Burger. Who knew Duke also owned a fast food chain?"

You can’t talk about the hyper-machismo of Duke without also talking about the alleged misogyny of the character and the game as a whole. Having played through the entire thing again just before writing this I’ve got to say that Duke Nukem 3D isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest. In my opinion the game’s biggest crime is in casually objectifying women throughout, with all kinds of posters of women, adult magazines laying around, trips through porn theaters, adult bookstores, and strip clubs, and several run-ins with strippers. Things are all mostly all pretty light and, aside from Duke offering up some cash for women to “shake it” for him on occasion, the character himself has very little to say about any of this. While I’d like to say that all of this was somehow tied to the satirical nature of the game there’s actually not a whole lot of evidence to back that up. I think it was probably just a ham-fisted, juvenile attempt to try to include some of the titillation that was common place in the 80s action movies and horror flicks that the game was clearly inspired by.

Pretty much the worst of the 'adult content' in Duke Nukem 3D.
"Pretty much the worst of the 'adult content' in Duke Nukem 3D."

Aside from kneejerk reactions from angry parents, I think most of the eyebrows were probably raised because of the supposed violence towards women. Certainly images of watching a stripper while you’re standing there with an RPG trained at her were a little unsettling. More infamously, you come across nearly nude women who have been captured by the aliens who, upon being interacted with, beg you to put them out of their misery in a very obvious homage to Aliens. You can then, if you want, shoot them resulting in a solemn “damn it” from Duke. You’re not ever encouraged to shoot any of the women you come across or anything like that and other then some pretty silly but mild comments about “babes” that’s about as bad as the game gets. Still, it’s easy to see how wires could get crossed and between forking over dollar bills to strippers and blowing up captive, nude women people assumed the worst. I think the later games in the series pushed that line a bit further with Duke Nukem Forever being the obvious conclusion, but Duke Nukem 3D itself was relatively tame.

Controls

Duke Nukem 3D came out at a crossroads in FPS controls. By default, it shipped configured to use the same old style of keyboard controls as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D before that: Both hands on the keyboard. The right moving you back, forward, left, and right with the arrow keys and the left doing everything else with the left side of the keyboard mostly used – Ctrl, Alt, Space, and Shift were typically used to fire, strafe, use items, and jump, respectively. Like Heretic and a few other games, Duke3D also allowed you to look around vertically using the Insert/Home/Page key cluster. This helped out exploring the more vertical spaces but was a little on the cumbersome side for aiming. This could be bothersome at times because, as I mentioned earlier, the most basic enemy type can fly and the auto-aim alone couldn't always take up the slack. What we really needed was… oh hey, “mouselook!”

Looking down from the top of a skyscraper.
"Looking down from the top of a skyscraper."

Not only did Duke3D support free looking/aiming with a mouse but if you wanted you could easily reconfigure your controls to replicate a pretty good approximation of today’s standard WASD + mouselook FPS controls. You have to press “U” (by default) to toggle mouse look but then… much better! Now, I say “much better” but honestly I was one of those guys who clung on to the old keyboard only style for far too long. I don’t think I fully moved on to using a mouse until it started becoming the standard for more and more games. Yeah, what can I say… get off my goddamn lawn! The mouse is a little low on sensitivity in Duke and looking at extreme angles can produce some weird bending effects but otherwise it works fine. I know some games like Marathon and System Shock did it before this but it’s noteworthy to me because the first time I ran into people really using this control scheme was in Quake online, and even in Quake it wasn’t the default control scheme with the few people I knew who used it treating it like it was some kind of "pro gamer" secret.

Oh yeah, and it also supports joysticks and gamepads but… seriously?

Graphics

Duke3D’s graphics were good for the time with the Build engine allowing for resolutions higher than the usual 320x200 VGA mode with VESA compliant cards on machines that could handle the performance cost. The pixilation caused by the scaling of sprites and textures was par for similar “2.5D” 3D engines and at least, like Doom, the game makes up for a lot of that by having good artwork and its own style. Also like Doom, on a faster machine the game will run at a buttery smooth framerate that goes well with the often fast and frantic action. Overall the presentation is strong, feeling more high budget than a lot of the other janky FPS games being releases in those days.

I still have nightmares about these fucking octabrains...
"I still have nightmares about these fucking octabrains..."

While making comparisons with Doom I'll add to my earlier comment about the way cities and other environments looked by also saying that it seems like Duke3D had a lot more variety in textures which went along way in avoiding the stupid looking city levels of Doom II and boring, repetitious areas in general. This also aided greatly in adding to the game's repertoire of humorous references and Easter eggs.

I can’t look past the fact the Id Software’s Quake was released just six months later with its amazing 3D engine using real polygons and lighting. It was a huge technical achievement and a total game changer that made Duke Nukem 3D feel a little bit like one of the last of the old guard than the next generation. Still, I suppose can't ding Duke3D too much for that since it did come out first.

Sound

I’ve already mentioned them when talking about the character of Duke but his one-liners are definitely a standout feature of the game. Content aside, John St. John’s delivery of the character has also always struck me as rather unique. I mean, can you think of anyone else, real or otherwise, who sounds anything like Duke Nukem? The rest of the digital sound effects in the game are good but nothing too special and no real advancement over Doom. In fact, I’d even say that Doom (and later Quake) make better use of sound by providing more creepy environmental ambiance and whatnot.


"Hey look, a video! On this site?"

The music in Duke Nukem 3D is another one of those things that people absolutely love about the game. From the moment the song’s title track, “Grabbag”, kicks in you know exactly what kind of game this is. The first level’s song, “Stalker”, is also a favorite and really sets the tone as you move through the run-down Hollywood buildings filling aliens full of holes. While the songs vary greatly in both style and quality overall Lee Jackson and Bobby Prince (of Id Software fame!) did an outstanding job with this one. Sometimes it rocks and other times it conjures an eerie sense of paranoia. I played through the game in General MIDI/Sound Canvas mode using my Roland SC-88 and using a real, live MIDI module is definitely the best to experience the soundtrack. It still manages to sound pretty cool in Sound Blaster/Adlib mode and is honestly probably the more nostalgic way to revisit the game’s soundtrack for most people out there. There's just something about hearing those crunchy FM synthesis tones that really takes me back.

Unfortunately the Quake one-upmanship continues in this department too. While Duke3D might have had Doom’s composer doing some awesome original MIDI tracks, Quake brought in Trent Reznor to stream its soundtrack directly off the CD. Check and mate!

Old Age

As a bit of a departure from my last few reviews I played Duke Nukem 3D a variety of ways. Another, absolutely related departure - no need to mention slowing down my CPU this time! My poor dedicated gaming 486, which is a 486DX/100, plays it acceptably but it can occasionally get far from silky smooth when the action gets heated. It’d be a lot more enjoyable with one of those newfangled Pentium chips all the kids are talking about. I had planned to build a Pentium or Pentium II Windows 95/98 era gaming rig at some point but still haven’t got around to it so sadly I had to make due with (again, only slightly) laggy gameplay for some of this review.

Some? Yes! Fear not, technology is an amazing thing! I always mention DOSBox in my reviews since it has so prominent (and so damn good!) but I usually tend not to use it. This time around, however, I did quite a lot of playing with DOSBox. Not only is it fully compatible but Duke3D plays like a dream in DOSBox and if you use any sort of scaler and a higher resolution in your configuration it’ll even look a notably better than running natively to boot. Seriously, playing it full screen on my 19” 1280x1024 LCD with my controls set to typical WASD+mouselook bindings felt more or less like playing a modern port of it. In fact, I preferred playing this way over playing with any of the modern Windows ports I found. So yeah, one vote for DOSBox!

Windows ports?! Yeah, Duke3D has been ported all over the place and while I’ll talk more about the earlier ports below the newer (2003+) open source based straight ports of the engine are easy and popular ways to play the game these days. eDuke32 is probably the most popular and sports a smoother, more modern feeling engine at current screen resolutions and even has high resolution model and enhanced music packs available to modernize the experience even further. Like I said though, I prefer the original via DOSBox. It still looks like the original and maintains all of the DOS version’s charming quirks while also running and playing great on modern hardware.

eDuke32 doing its thing.
"eDuke32 doing its thing."

eDuke32 doing its thing... with the high resolution pack installed.
"eDuke32 doing its thing... with the high resolution pack installed."

Playing with any of these methods still requires a legal copy of Duke Nukem 3D. Thankfully you can find it all over the place. Acquiring a hard copy, particularly the Atomic Edition, used on eBay or Amazon is easy and usually cheap enough unless you’re out for a copy of the big box. Personally, I’d suggest just grabbing it digitally – you can still register the shareware version of the game directly at 3D Realms though my personal preference would be to pick up the DRM free version of the Atomic Edition over at Good Old Games, or GOG.com or whatever they’re calling themselves nowadays. Seriously, I love what GOG does and the awesome old software they make available for us so given the choice I’d always choose to support them.

I also played through the entire 4 episodes of the Atomic Edition in the Xbox Live Arcade port of the game. The XBLA version is pretty much a straight port with no graphics, content, or anything else altered other than modernizing the controls to work with the Xbox 360 controller and making the awesome multiplayer modes work online via Xbox Live. Unless you have an aversion to playing FPS games with a two stick controller this is a great port and a great way to play Duke Nukem 3D on modern hardware. I know the game was also ported to IOS but I haven’t tried that version as of yet. Still, it doesn’t sound amazing and the thought of playing it with a touch interface makes me wince.

The more… interesting… ports were released in the 90s. While the Mac version was pretty much a straight port there were also different versions released for the Sony Playstation, the Sega Saturn, and the Nintendo 64. Most console ports of yesteryear had to undergo massive changes to get them onto the platform in question which was usually a fairly negative thing. Sometimes the games end up with upgraded graphics, different levels, or other changes that end up being enhancements or at least curiosities. The Playstation version of Duke Nukem 3D (subtitled “Total Meltdown” for some reason) for instance features an entirely new fourth episode. The most unique of all of these ports is the Nintendo 64 version which, while heavily censored, features tons of modifications to the maps, including some totally new ones, some new weapons, and a lot of changes to the artwork. On the downside there’s absolutely no in-game music. Whaaa? Still, seems like a lot of people played “Duke Nukem 64” and despite its shortcomings it’s still pretty widely regarded. I never played it when it was new but playing it now it seems like a very adequate introduction to the series. That said, a pipe bomb launcher is no substitute for a good RPG at your side.

A nice scan of the Atomic Edition manual is available when purchased from GOG.com or directly from 3D Realms. Let's be honest though, a manual really isn't required for this type of game. Unless you're a completest don't worry about it. If you are, thanks to the game's rabid following you can find a huge amount of technical info, FAQs, and whatnot to read elsewhere online. Here is a nice, detailed walkthrough on the 3D Realms site, for instance.

Sequels and Related Games

While not true sequels, Duke3D had a variety of officially authorized mission packs including Duke It Out in D.C., Duke Caribbean: Life’s A Beach, and Duke: Nuclear Winter. These were generally well received, particularly the former two, as having excellent level design and fun themes. Thanks to the Build engine there were also a metric fuck ton of other user created maps and mods, many of which found their way to stores by way of shovelware CDs. There were of course other games developed using the same engine though Blood and Shadow Warrior are the most notable since they were also developed by 3D Realms.

There were some odd ball, non-FPS games released in the 90s such as Duke Nukem: Time To Kill and Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes on the Playstation, which were very much Tomb Raider knockoffs featuring Duke, and Duke Nukem: Zero Hour on the Nintendo 64 which was more of a straight third person shooter. There was also Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, a 2.5 side scroller (think Shadow Complex) budget title released on the PC and later ported to other platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade. I remember it being pretty well received at the time, surprisingly. I played through the XBLA port of Manhattan Project and enjoyed it for what it was. It's important to note that all of these games continued to use the version of the Duke Nukem character established in Duke Nukem 3D with all of the humor, women, and one-liners intact, if not dialed up a little even.

Boomstick for queenie!
"Boomstick for queenie!"

Finally, the actual sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, Duke Nukem Forever, was released in 2011 after an infamously long and disastrous development cycle. While I’m obviously not going to go into a full review here I will say that the game makes a strong effort to do a lot of what Duke3D did originally only moved into the modern age. Its got all your favorite weapons and enemies and its got a lot of the same style of humor with even more voice acting throughout. There’s actually somewhat of a story too! Unfortunately they also upped the ante on the objectification of women angle and while I think I argued my case for Duke Nukem 3D not being totally “misogynistic” I’m not sure I’d be up to the challenge for making such a case for Duke Nukem Forever. Women are objectified to higher degrees and not only are they clearly depicted as sex objects this time they're also depicted as unintelligent with "bimbo" stereotypes on full display. Oh, and they included a bunch of actual nudity this time too! All that said I would recommend Duke Nukem 3D fans at least try it out.

Closing

Duke Nukem 3D is a true classic both occupying a notable spot in the development of the FPS genre and bringing us a satirical sense of humor and a loud mouthed lead character that really resonated with gamers at the time. If you're a fan of old school FPS games or if you're just interested in checking out what FPS of old played like I wouldn't hesitate to recommending that you at least give the shareware episode a spin. On the other hand if you hated the gameplay of games like Doom and Doom II or if you find the egotistical jackassery of Duke Nukem annoying or offensive then avoiding this game goes without saying. Personally, while I don't find the game to be utterly hilarious or anything otherwise obsession worthy, all these years later I absolutely do get it - it's a well-made, fun game, and I'm glad I decided to revisit it.