Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: 3D Realms
Developer: 3D Realms
Release Date: September 24, 2008
With so many first-person shooters on the Xbox 360 platform, it's nice to see that Live Arcade is bringing back some of the classics so that newer gamers can enjoy a slice of history. Doom was a big hit when it appeared as a download, and now Duke Nukem 3D joins the ranks of classics available on tap. Released in 1996 as one of the last 2-D FPSes at a time when PC gaming development appeared to be on steroids (Quake appeared six months later, and Half Life was to emerge just two years on), Duke was an offensive, fast, puerile and stupid first-person shooter — but it sure was fun. While 3D Realms continue to procrastinate with the release of the much-delayed Duke Nukem Forever (originally scheduled to be released in 1999, now wisely "when it's finished"), the developers have somehow found time to port the game to Xbox Live Arcade for the reasonable price of 800 Microsoft points. It still plays pretty damned well.
The plot tells you all you need to know about the mindlessness of it all. Aliens have landed and kidnapped all of the sexy women. Duke — the kind of mindless, macho badass that make the Gears of War protagonists look like emaciated hippies — sets off to get them back, spewing idiotic one-liners in gruff tones along the way. That's the story, and while it's not exactly Shakespeare (or even Dan Brown), it does exactly what it needs to in order to make the action plausible. Said action involves using an overpowered arsenal on waves of hideous aliens, while trying to find key cards to progress to the next level. The settings are varied; everything from a red light district (complete with semi-interactive strippers) to the insides of various alien spaceships is represented, and I remember this being really refreshing 12 years ago. At a time when first-person shooters were all dark futuristic corridors or equally dark gothic castles, it was a real breath of fresh air to play something so bright, colorful and unapologetically fun.
This sense of fun is maintained for this second playthrough over a decade later. Sure, first-person shooters have advanced a long way (and thankfully no longer rely on the keycard- and switch-finding formula), but the gameplay holds up remarkably well. It's not something you can play for extended periods, but for quick blasts, it feels spot-on, which is exactly what XBLA is all about. The weapons feel meaty, responsive and sometimes innovative — particularly the shrinking ray, which allows you to make an enemy tiny and then stamp on him. The level design is especially good as well, with plenty of secret areas and Easter eggs for those who like to explore. There's plenty of backtracking on some of the levels, though, and sometimes the way to progress is not clear. On a number of occasions, I found myself running around in circles before finding that I needed to press a random panel of wall to reveal a keycard, or to shoot an almost invisible switch down a dark gap in the wall.
This is in part a fault of the graphics. Perhaps when you've been used to looking at pixel-perfect backdrops, hunting for an elusive button-shaped sprite is a bit tricky, but actually the visuals haven't aged as badly as you might imagine, partly because the game moves so fast. Not only is it so action-packed that you don't have a great deal of time to stare at the scenery, but the frame rate feels a lot smoother than the majority of 360 games (as you'd hope, given its age). While it doesn't exactly look new, the culture shock of heading back to an MS-DOS game isn't as bad as you'd imagine, as long as you have played the game before and know roughly what to expect. The only time when the graphics are slightly off-putting is when you're in a small wall space and it's hard to know where you're going, thanks to the grainy sameness and objects and enemies being 2-D bitmaps. This is fine on paper, but has the annoying habit of meaning that dead enemies turn to face you (because they only have a front image), often making you think that you haven't finished them off, causing you to waste additional rounds in making sure.
The sound fares less well. The music is adequate MIDI fare, if a little forgettable, but Duke's limited lines of dialogue (it's unclear if this was down to space restraints on the 3.5" floppy disks or the protagonist's limited vocabulary) sound very low-quality and could have done with being re-recorded. Often, it's hard to decode what he's saying, although they tend to be throwaway quips, but what good is brainless action entertainment without meatheaded catchphrases?
Of course, one of the biggest attractions of Duke Nukem in 1996 was the online Dukematch (deathmatch to you and me), which saw you face opponents around the country using the TEN network. Twelve years later, and with one of the most sophisticated multiplayer services available, it's unsurprising that this is a big part of the package. I had it hang a few times, and there's a definite problem with lag, but when it works, it's good, frantic fun that allows you to wreak havoc upon your opponents with the weapons and power-ups from the single-player game.
The maps are taken from the Story mode too, but because of their open nature, they actually work rather well without modification and lead to some excitingly close battles. There is also room for the whole of the Story mode to be played cooperatively either locally or over Xbox Live. This is a splendid extra for them to include, and playing with friends makes the experience that bit more enjoyable, even if the game isn't really tactical enough to warrant the extra help.
However, the punishing difficulty of Duke Nukem 3D — even on the lower levels — means that having some buddies alongside you is certainly welcome. It's not always down to the sheer numbers and aggressiveness of the baddies either; sometimes the game is just mean-spirited and makes you die in an explosion triggered by you walking along, or some unexpected enemies appearing behind you. Possibly because of this, the 360 remake comes with a unique "rewind" feature that allows you to pick the exact moment from which to restart after dying. This may sound like a cop-out on paper, but I for one was grateful for the frustration averted by not needing to save every few minutes. It's a nice feature, and because you can only use it when you die, it never really becomes tantamount to cheating.
I'd be lying if I said that Duke Nukem 3D is as good today as it ever was, but it hasn't aged at all badly, and it can teach modern first-person shooters a thing or two about level design and plain fun. On a console where first-person shooters are typically brown and grey, Duke is a colorful lesson in silliness and playability that is well worth the 800 Microsoft points. Indeed, with 39 levels (the game includes the add-on pack bundled with the PC Atomic Edition), it's actually a very good value indeed. Now hurry up and finish Duke Nukem Forever — though please, no more hunting for the multicolored keys!
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