Reviewing The Classics: we play Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

Stand by for retro reviews done right, folks. Reviewing The Classics is a series where Gearburn staff play some of their most loved retro games from bygone consoles and PCs with floppy drives. This week, Wiehahn has a look at the deliciously brutish Duke Nukem 3D, an iconic first person shooter that taught us all about cheesy one-liners and kicking alien ass. Hail to the King Baby!

To start this review off, I have to note that I’m struggling to contain the deep wells of nostalgia that I have for this title. Duke Nukem 3D was as much a part of my childhood and the shaping of my psyche (not sure if that’s a good thing) as smoking cigarettes and… yeah, he was a bad influence. But damn I love his egoistic boulder of a face to death.

That being said, I promise to present as much of the facts that my willpower allows. But consider yourself warned, there will certainly be a healthy dose of reminiscing involved through the duration of this review.

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Note: This review is based on the Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Addition. But there’s not much difference between the two except for minor graphical changes, a few extra campaigns and a new HUD.

Some brief context (in an attempt to suppress my nostalgia)

For those of you reading this that aren’t necessarily familiar with the legend that is Duke Nukem, please allow me to tell you his story.

As a kid of the nineties, especially a boy, your life was dominated by action heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and yes, sometimes even Steven Seagal… these were the icons of your time and how you strived to live your life one day, kicking profuse amounts of ass.

Duke Nukem 3D was one of the first experiences that truly allowed you to enter the shoes of such a hero, and he was a pretty badass one to boot.

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It has to be said though; Duke probably was everything that is considered wrong and politically incorrect today. He was shallow, violent, vain, chauvinistic and probably a little racist too. Come to think of it, he should probably have been the bad guy. But it was the nineties, nothing made sense back then.

And the plot for each game is pretty much: Aliens invade Earth. Duke single-handedly murders everyone one of them. And we don’t really know why

Although Duke was admittedly not the best role model for susceptible young minds, it can’t be denied that the game itself was a masterpiece, being one of the first first-person shooters (FPS) to take you to real life locations, incorporate multiple breakable and interactive objects, and that openly portrayed adult content and humour. I’m sure most of us who played it in its heyday will count themselves lucky.

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“But who is Duke Nukem? What is his story?” you might be asking yourself. Well, to be honest, there’s not much officially known about Mr. Nukem. All we really know is that he’s obsessed with women and vice versa, has a monolithic ego, is an expert in fire arms and loves killing aliens… actually probably anything that isn’t American. And the plot for each is game is pretty much: Aliens invade Earth. Duke single-handedly murders everyone one of them. And we don’t really know why.

Anything beyond that is pretty much fan theory, but that’s what made it so great. Much of the legend of Duke emerged outside the boundaries of the game. He had enough charm and charisma to catch our attention and we did the rest, carrying forward his legend as champions of the digital king.

Now whether you’re reading this as a newcomer or just for nostalgic kicks, let us begin our review of Duke Nukem 3D (now to be occasionally referred to as simply Nukem or Nukem 3D… just because).

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The Review

The first thing I noticed when re-entering the world of Duke Nukem 3D was how easy present day FPS titles have become. The shooters of today seem like Teletubby walking simulators when compared to classic old school shooters such as Nukem, Wolfenstein and Doom.

Killing enemies can be beyond tough and dying pretty much effortless. In my opinion, playing Duke Nukem 3D on the “Damn I’m good” (hardest) difficulty level should be a compulsory training exercise for any professional FPS athletes.

The shooters of today seem like Teletubby walking simulators when compared to classic old school shooters such as Nukem, Wolfenstein and Doom

In Duke Nukem 3D you aren’t really doing the whole taking cover and camping thing. This approach usually only works when you have infinite health regeneration like most shooters today. Pop out of cover, fire off a few rounds, take a few bullets in the face until everything goes red and then pop back into cover. Rinse and repeat until the game is over.

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This is not the case in Nukem. Here you only have a very limited health count that can only be filled with health packs that are rather sparsely scattered, and sometimes very well hidden, throughout the game.

Furthermore, most enemies will be able to take you out with, at most, two shots and death means respawning at the beginning of a usually very lengthy level. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. You will occasionally also find armour packs and health boosts that will slightly counter the threat of imminent death, but they are few and far between.

To put it simply, the idea in Nukem is not to get shot… at all. Imagine Dark Souls 3 as a nineties FPS and you’ll have a slight idea of the frustration you can experience in this game.

Speed and constant movement is your greatest ally. It took me a while to get used to this approach but once you’ve got it down, you’ll start to scratch the surface of what makes this such an intensely fun title. From the moment you start until that last bullet is fired, you are going to be running around like a rabbit on crack.

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The level design is also built to take advantage of this fact. Nukem offered you a surprisingly non-linear approach, allowing you to speed your way through a sprawling network of corridors and smartly designed open spaces.

To put it simply, the idea in Nukem is not to get shot… at all

The level design is considerably more fluid and less restrictive than today’s rather rigid and linear shooter levels. The way in which you discover certain secret paths would be considered as taking advantage of a level design mistake by today’s standard.

While we’re on the topic of level design I also have to say it’s amazing to see how much games have evolved in only the last decade. What was considered to be a graphically superior final product in 1996 looks like the prototyping stage for a game today. Everything is built from primitive, sharp-angle blocks and textures seem like they have been stretched over their surfaces.

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Graphics isn’t the only thing that hasn’t aged too well in Nukem. The sound design can be almost unbearable at times, such as moving around in sewer tunnels where every movement and action sounds like a distorted cry from hell.

Now to what I personally believe to be the most entertaining part of Duke Nukem 3D: weapons. This is probably one of the most noticeable gameplay differences between shooters of the past and present.

You have an arsenal of weaponry at your disposal to exact your malevolent form of justice. From the humble kick in the face to the iconic shotgun to the brutally unforgiving Devastator and on to the downright unnecessary yet extremely entertaining Shrink Ray, killing shit is seldom this amusing.

But these weapons mean nothing if you aren’t going to hit your target. Duke Nukem 3D boasts what I would call “anti-aim-assist”.

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In present day shooters hitting an enemy a light year away would require you to raise your crosshair an almost imperceivable distance. Hitting a target in Nukem just a few meters away would mean aiming at the sky. Luckily, the game will provide you with a plethora of enemies to practice on. I can’t remember the last time I saw such as great and unique variety of enemies in a FPS title.

From the well remembered shotgun-wielding “Pig Cop” to the creepy-ass Octabrain to the really fucking annoying “Sentry Drone”, you will have more than enough targets to shoot at.

And let’s not forget the boss fights. Even though there were only three bosses in the original Duke Nukem 3D, they felt like a whole campaign on their own. It was around the first boss fight I remembered that you can use cheat codes in Duke Nukem 3D.

Verdict: Even though the quality of its graphics and sound design haven’t held up too great, Duke Nukem 3D still provides a highly entertaining, severely challenging and unique shooter experience. Its addictive, fast-paced gameplay and wealth of weaponry, enemies and locations will ensure that things stay interesting and unpredictable, a recipe many shooters of today fail to emulate.

Score: 8/10

Wiehahn Diederichs


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