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.
Graphically, the game has aged fairly well. You can smooth out the pixels if you like playing through a smear of Vaseline, but apart from some disorientating quirks of perspective when you look up or down while moving, it still looks solid and free from any major visual snags. The sprites look odd, essentially 2D characters in a polygon world that rotate to face you at all times. The effect can be distracting, but for a game caught between the old and the new, evolving the genre as it went, some technical mismatching was unavoidable.
The good news is that it still plays as well as it did in 1996, with the deliberately puerile attitude and humour doing much to make up for any creaky moments. It's notable that of all the games that tried to copy Nukem's approach - games like Postal and Redneck Rampage - none were able to compete on gameplay. They all had to become more scatological to compensate. Levels often boast several paths to success, and the addition of a jetpack and scuba gear to your inventory frees you up to explore in ways that other shooters could never offer. Some levels fall into the old FPS trap of poor signposting, leaving you dashing around empty areas, looking for the door or button you've somehow missed along the way, but for the most part the level design is still worthy of praise for its ideas and execution.
New to this version is the option to respawn at any point in your game. Unlike Prince of Persia, or other time-rewinding games, this isn't an ability you can call upon at will. It only kicks in when you die, and the game suggests a restart point based on your performance. You can take control and drop back into the game at any moment from when you started, however, so if you feel you need more health and ammo to get past a troublesome section, you can head further back and play more carefully.
It sounds like a cop-out, and it's certainly true that progress now relies more heavily on perseverance than pure skill. It's also a necessary evil, because Duke Nukem 3D is often a horribly unfair game, with a sadistic habit of dropping enemies silently behind you, or triggering massive deadly explosions when you innocently stroll past a certain point. Trial and error is key to survival, so the rewind function ends up acting more like a surrogate quicksave than a built-in cheat system.
There's also online play, which hasn't aged as well as the solo game. Dukematch is the multiplayer fragfest mode, supporting up to eight players, but I've been unable to find any matches that weren't reduced to the level of farce by lag and an archaic deathmatch system. Circle-strafing around flickering, disappearing sprites, shooting wildly in the hope of earning a kill, is just not much fun. The co-op mode fares slightly better, allowing eight players to rampage around the levels in story mode, against a constantly respawning army of enemies. It's not really a co-operative experience - the game doesn't have the strategic depth to justify such manoeuvres - so you really just rush about killing dozens of bad guys until someone reaches the end of the level. Fun, but not something worth returning to that often.
Duke Nukem 3D was one of my favourite games of the '90s, and it was with some trepidation that I returned to it in 2008. Thankfully, while some of its design decisions are more than a little frustrating, it remains a brilliantly entertaining first-person shooter and probably deserves more credit for helping to shape the genre than it has been given. It's a shame the online modes aren't more compelling, but having spent two blissfully nostalgic days battling through the single player campaign, I'm happy to consider it 800 Points well spent. Now just give us Duke Nukem Forever. Please...
8 / 10