Duke Nukem 3D is a game very dear to my heart. Cast your minds back to late 1998, where a younger, more foolish version of myself used to delight in sneaking out of the house to visit a nearby friend and play a naughty game with swearing and breasts in it.
At the time, playing Duke Nukem 3D felt unruly. Set in gritty, action movie locales, it revelled in the pleasures of the skin and swearing and farting in a way that felt really adult, but in reality was quite immature. Regardless, Duke Nukem 3D is a beloved classic, where shootouts result in broken glass shattering, sending fragments across your screen, wood and twisted metal punctuate explosions. This was all packaged with a wink and a smile; with Duke cracking his knuckles at the start of the first level, it makes it clear that you’re in for a cigar chomping rollercoaster of shootouts and explosions… and aliens on the toilet.
So this latest repackaging, then, comes hot off the heels of the excellent (and, until recently the only way to play Duke) Megaton Edition, which Gearbox unceremoniously ripped from the store shelves to make way for this new coat of paint in the form of World Tour. Adding a whole extra chapter, a new weapon and a brand new lick of paint, is the changes worth the sacrifice of Megaton Edition?
First up are the new maps, which for me are the biggest draw of Duke Nukem: 20th Anniversary World Tour. Gearbox have corralled some of the old talent that worked on the original maps for the game – namely Richard ‘levellord’ Gray and Allen Blum – and together they’ve crafted the “World Tour” episode which pits duke in an around-the-world alien stomping cruise of sorts. Densely packed with a higher degree of detail than the old maps, they’re also a tad more difficult, with fiendish enemy placement and even scarce ammo drops on some maps, providing a fair amount of challenge for the average duke veteran. Visually, the new maps are beautifully made in the now ancient “build” engine, with some nice lighting affects throwing some much-needed colour to the streets of Amsterdam and other locations.
There are enough hidden corners and secrets to keep you hunting through the new content for a while, but the design of the maps seems slightly inconsistent. Some are openly designed and working out the key card puzzles is the primary thrust of the proceedings, but some are more tightly designed corridor fare than others, constricting the player to single streets, turning Duke into more of a shooting gallery than a clever geographical puzzle of sorts. Of particular noteworthy attention is the San Francisco level, which has a destroyed golden gate bridge running through the middle, and a huge expanse of river separating your spawn point and your goal. Some clever key card placement ensures you want to fully explore the level before moving on, and you can do so at a pretty liberal rate.
This is what I remember most about old school shooters – the level design. Working out the lay of the land, keeping track of locked doors so you remember them for later, and the rewarding secret hunts made them what they were. Unfortunately, here in World Tour, we get an inconsistent degree of exploration across a smattering of a few levels. While that is a shame, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of the more strictly designed maps, especially stuff like Amsterdam, replete with 4/20 gags and obligatory stoner humour. Though a mild departure for Duke Nukem, and definitely leaning on the more “DNF” levels of irony, it was welcoming to see Duke back in all his swearing and cussing glory.
For fans that have been with Duke since the beginning is the excellent developer’s commentary, recorded largely by Randy Pitchford and the aforementioned level designers. It offers some insight into the creation of the game, shedding light on design decisions and and cut content and other assorted tidbits of information from the time. Developer commentary can be turned on and off in the menu and it comes in the form of physical nodes that you activate in the level. As a bit of a fan, I was fascinated by some of the insights here, and content like this elevates Duke Nukem 3D: World Tour above being just another remake.
That said however, the “lick of paint” given to World Tour is strangely illogical and incoherent. The addition of better lighting makes sense, and actually looks very nice even in the ageing Build Engine, but the contrast is all kinds of messed up. Whites are too white, and shadows are too… shadowy. Not a huge mark against it, but it’s a bit odd to look at sometimes. A welcome addition is the inclusion of what Gearbox are calling “True 3D” which essentially draws actual three-dimensional geometry in the map. It looks really nice, allowing you to look up and down freely without the weird “warping” effect you got with old Duke and its 2.5D sprite-based walls. Oddly though, sound effects have suffered a hugely noticeable hit in quality over old versions, and it’s the first thing I noticed when I booted up the game and heard how muddy and dim everything sounded. This is contrasted against the newly recorded “Dukeisms” by Jon St. John himself which sound beautifully crisp, but layered over the awful muffled sounds of the original game just seems so out of place. It’s so incoherent. How do you mess up audio files so badly?
If this is your first time playing the old classic, then Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is the perfect point of entry into the series. Likewise, if you’re a long time fan and have been out of the loop for a few years, this too is a great time to come back. But if you’ve been playing Duke over the years then the shadey decision by gearbox to pull the Megaton Edition from Steam might leave a sore feeling. The real saving grace, however, is the developer commentary and the new maps, which despite some inconsistent design bring some rather well designed levels in to the mix, and the new lick of paint doesn’t hurt either. It reminds me of the recent new maps by John Romero and how old veterans coming back to their work is a good thing. Despite some minor issues, and some rather low blows by Gearbox, I’d say this is a fine new outing for old man Duke.