Version tested: Xbox 360
Back in about 1988, a friend told me about a new horror film from New Zealand. The film was Bad Taste, Peter Jackson's outrageously over-the-top debut feature, and my friend excitedly told me that it was exactly the sort of horror movie you always wanted to make when you were fourteen. Likewise, if you asked a horny, gore-fixated teenage boy to describe his perfect game, he'd probably have described Duke Nukem 3D - a shooter as infamous for its splatter, strippers and quips as for its gameplay.
You play as Duke, star of a couple of early '90s 2D platform shooters on PC, now brought to swaggering 3D life. He's a parody of every movie tough guy ever; all sunglasses, tight vest and boorish machismo. Alien bastards have invaded LA, and are stealing all the babes. Duke sets off to kick their ass. There. That's your plot. Now get shooting.
For all its goofy excess, Duke Nukem 3D can actually lay claim to being one of the pioneers of the FPS genre. Bridging the static mazes of Doom and the more realistic environments of Half-Life, which followed two years later, it places you in a world of everyday locations where objects and appliances are surprisingly interactive. There's a pool table early in the game, and shooting the balls sends them ricocheting around in a reasonably good approximation of actual physics. Mirrors reflect what's in front of them, light switches actually work and even the toilets can be used to relieve yourself (topping up a small amount of health in the process).
Back in 1996, this seemed like an insanely detailed playground, and the game does a great job of showcasing its feature-rich world over the first few levels. Combat is fast, frequent and gory, while the arsenal of ten weapons covers all the expected bases and still finds room for such fun additions as the Shrink Ray, which reduces your foes to squashable size, and the Freeze Gun, which lets you shatter their icy carcasses with a well-placed kick.
The game is also famous for containing more easter eggs than the Easter Bunny's spare room, with each level concealing dozens of nooks and crannies where items and throwaway gags await the adventurous gamer. Although the game suggests some tight time limits to try and beat in speed runs, the real fun comes from poking around and finding the weird little references, jokes and hideaways lurking off the beaten track. From nods to inspirational movies such as Die Hard, to the "doomed space marine" whose rotted carcass provides a sly jab at the competition, it's a game that is always a joy to explore.
Revisiting the game today, it's clear that the structure suffers from the traditions of its era. Back then, PC shooters followed the Doom model of releasing the first third of the game as a shareware demo, with the rest unlockable upon payment. Duke Nukem was no different, and the pitfalls of this front-loaded approach are apparent when the second episode slides back into the sort of generic space corridor shooter rut that the early stages so gleefully avoid. Thankfully things return to Earth for the finale, but even then, the game never quite recaptures the spirit and energy of its audacious opening. For this Live Arcade version we also get The Birth, an additional expansion pack episode subsequently added on for the "Atomic Edition" PC re-issue. All told, there are thirty nine levels here (six of which are secret) which is a staggering amount of content. It's understandable, then, if the inspiration gets spread a little thin at times.