Say Hello To My Little Friend
Before Duke Nukem went 3D, he was the star of a pair of fairly amusing shareware platform games. Now the Manhattan Project is taking him back to those roots, with an all-new side-scrolling action game that sports a mixture of retro gameplay and snappy 3D graphics.
As with most Duke Nukem games, the plot is fairly inconsequential. A villain called Morphix is saturating New York with a radioactive slime which is turning Manhattan's vermin (human and otherwise) into hideous gun toting mutants. With the city's police force rapidly turning into pig cops, it's now up to the Duke to track down Morphix and put an end to his dastardly plan. In your way stand hundreds of mutants scattered across eight action-packed episodes. There are platforms to hop across, ladders to climb, buttons to push, babes to rescue and colour coded keycards to recover. To quote the Duke, "someone's gonna pay for making me find these frigging keycards".
The level design is generally very good, with detailed locations packed full of secret areas to uncover, desperate leaps to pull off and power-ups to collect. Settings range from the rooftops of Manhattan down into the sewers and subway system, and although the game lacks the interactivity of Duke Nukem 3D, there are plenty of surreal moments along the way, such as a nightclub full of babes and mutants boogying on the dancefloor, strobes flashing as Duke leaps between the lighting rigs hanging from the ceiling. The humour doesn't all hit the spot, but little touches like the way Duke's health depends on inflating his ego by killing mutants and rescuing babes make it all worthwhile.
Do I Look Like A Frog?
It's not all good news though. The spike traps that are found throughout Morphix's underground factory are particularly annoying, instantly reducing you to a shower of gibs, often without seeming to touch you at all. Then there's the Frogger inspired section in China Town, which has you fighting your way down a dual carriageway, blowing up cars or switching between the two lanes to avoid oncoming traffic. I guess Duke never heard of using the pavement. Sorry, sidewalk.
What makes this section even more annoying is the fact that you can't see the traffic until it's right on top of you, a flaw which afflicts the entire game. A lot of the time the developers have set the camera too close in, nicely highlighting your character in the middle of the screen, but leaving you with virtually no peripheral vision. You can pan the camera around to a limited extent to see what's waiting for you, but only while you're stationary. Other than that your only option is to zoom in even closer, which is completely useless unless you want to admire Duke Nukem's jawline.
At times the game can seem almost sadistic. The fully 3D engine means that Duke can walk in and out of the set at certain specific points (marked by a flashing green arrow), and occasionally the camera will curve around in a loop to track him as he edges his way around a building or changes direction. Most of the time you're locked onto a fixed side-to-side track though, and you're left wondering why the game is forcing you to hop across a dozen narrow girders under enemy fire to get back to the other end of the one you started off on, when there's nothing obvious which would have stopped you from just walking along it and saving yourself a lot of time and effort. The controls are also a bit too basic, harking back to the original shareware games and ignoring the innovations of more recent side-scrollers like Abuse. As such the mouse is only used for its extra buttons, and there's no way to aim your gun except to point it straight up, which makes picking off enemies standing on platforms a lot harder than it really should be.
The Manhattan Project is an entertaining if somewhat shallow and overly simplified action game. At times it can prove frustrating, while other sections (including many of the end-of-episode boss encounters) are really too easy. What really spoils the experience though is the poor camera placement, which shows off the 3D graphics to great effect but isn't always particularly playable. At a near budget price it's worth a look if you want some retro side-scrolling action with the benefits of modern technology, but ultimately it falls short of its potential.