Duke 3D really, really needs no introduction, and certainly not another article describing it. Still, this was one of the most requested games for me to review, so there apparently are people out there interested in my personal take on the genre-defining classic (bless your little hearts). Plus, I’ve already done Blood and Shadow Warrior, so I might as well complete the Build Trilogy. Plus, now that Duke Nukem Forever actually appears to be coming out, the timing seems quite appropriate.
“Genre-defining classic” though, you might be wondering? Shouldn’t that fall to games like Doom and Wolf 3D? Absolutely, but Duke deserves his place in that category. Put simply, everyone was so busy falling over themselves to copy Doom that no one thought to do the genre differently. To make an FPS, you had big guns, over-the-top violence, keycards to open new areas of the level, and an exit switch at the end of the maze. Print and ship. The difference is, while Duke certainly has these elements, it was one of the few games post-Doom to use them as a launching point instead of the entirety of its content.
Simply put, Duke did things that no one else was doing. It popularized wisecracking self-dialogue as a counter to the standard silent protagonist. It made levels that actually looked realistic – compare Doom II’s attempt at city maps to the detail presented in Duke. It introduced a level of interactivity that broke the standard of static, invulnerable levels with no divergent paths. And it sold the idea of character – not just Duke’s obvious machismo, but the entire game’s tone from art to levels. Interactive strip clubs and actively crumbling city streets were worlds away from static, boxy rooms that simply held bad guys. If you take one thing from this review, it should be this: Duke really was the point that the genre started breaking from its tradition of being little more than bloody monster mazes.
So what’s the actual game about? Well, it’s endless pop culture references atop a solid FPS engine, gunfights, and light puzzles. It’s a campy version of camp. Duke himself is a musclebound action hero blending Schwarzenegger’s build, Val Kilmer’s head, and Bruce Campbell’s lines. On his way home from his previous two 2D platform games, he’s shot down by a cadre of aliens that have invaded Earth – setting him up as the last man available to save the day. The journey takes him from mundane streets to orbiting space stations in his quest to kill three alien bosses at the end of three episodes, for 28 levels total.
Variety is the spice of Duke, and the Earthbound location plays expertly on the familiar. You’ll see levels based on Hollywood sets, red light districts, Chinese restaurants, and flooded city streets, to name a few. Compared to Doom, where a level’s purpose is only suggested by its name, you instantly understand where you’re supposed to be inside Duke’s world. It’s difficult to simply describe these levels, as the craftsmanship really needs to be experienced first hand. The artists made textures as needed, and while many are certainly reused, there’s also almost as many one-off art tiles made simply to add decoration, a name plaque to a building, or fill a specific role required to make the level complete. Every level in Duke is truly a distinct place, and (nearly) every level is a joy to explore.
It’s also astounding that they managed to keep both the variety and the quality high throughout almost the entire campaign. The first (shareware) episode is about half the size of the rest, and has many of Duke’s most memorable levels – the red light district, the porn theater, the prison that starts with an escape from the electric chair. If you’ve been around gaming enough to get good and jaded, you might suspect that this means their handful of best levels went into the shareware, and they slacked on the mass of paid levels.
You’d be wrong. The second episode (taking place in space) has the potential to be an endless string of metal corridors, but they actually manage to keep a great variety of moving spacecraft, nice vistas (you’ll get frequent opportunities to peep out at a parallaxed Earth skybox), and cramped areas that play differently than the wider, open areas of L.A. When you return to the streets in the third episode, you might fear they’re just re-hashing ideas from the first. Not so. There’s plenty more real-life inspired places to visit, and some levels even better than what was in the first episode. Again, this comes from thinking about and designing these levels as locations with practical uses (crew barracks, pubs, banks, reactors, etc), not just interesting mazes. It makes them fun to explore, and twice as fun to trash.
Still, Duke’s signature feature isn’t the detail and texture variety, it’s the interactivity brought to the levels through use of the Build engine. It’s some of the first times players could turn on lights with light switches, shoot lights out to cause the area to flicker, blow open new passages in walls (or simply tear chunks out by shooting nearby explosives), use working elevators, ride a moving subway car, and more. All of these had to be rigged appropriately by the level designer – so they certainly aren’t dynamic events – but they did go a long way to making these levels feel alive. Duke also explored basic scripted events (later popularized by Half-Life and Call of Duty), allowing for explosive traps, crumbling buildings, or even just letting Duke throw out a special quip appropriate to the situation.
Even the things that couldn’t be shot or blown up had some level of interaction to them – from working pool tables, to flashing pinball machines, to cash registers or terminals opening up secret areas. You could drink from broken hydrants or wizz into urinals to regain health. Blood spattered on walls and slowly dripped down. Kill an enemy under a door, and he’ll get squished when the door closes – and when it opens again, they’ll be a string of taffy-like gore stuck to the bottom. Dive into underwater areas and you’ll track wet footprints when you come back out. Throw in working mirrors and remote security cameras and you’ve got a lot of impressive new tech going on.
Weapons and enemies start off rather generic (shotgun, rocket launcher, growly alien laser troopers), but soon turn appropriately zany, and most importantly in this genre, just “different.” Pig cops make obvious fun of the police, crawling parasites hatched from eggs give a chance to tip the hat to Alien, and a nimble chaingun foe takes the occasional opportunity to poop within the level – well, just to be juvenile. Weapons, meanwhile, expand to delightful toys like the mini-rocket chaingun called the “Devastator”, the Freeze Ray, and the Shrink Ray. The freeze ray launches icicles that turns enemies blue, whereupon they are automatically shattered by Duke’s mighty kick when you move close. The shrink ray actually zaps enemies to a tiny size, whom Duke will gleefully squish beneath his boot. Some levels even required Duke to use mirrors to shrink himself, and your view indeed would be shrunk in real-time and forced to run around the level at a (temporarily) tiny size. Again, more examples of funny, out-of-the-box things Duke did that others simply weren’t doing.
The one point where I’ll break with both history and nostalgia is in my personal opinion on the necessity of the character of Duke. I don’t believe he’s the anchor that brings the spirit of the game together, and I don’t think he was a critical part of the game’s success. Sure, he was expertly voiced by John St. John, and infused the perfect amount of meathead machismo into the proceedings. Yes, he’s got some funny lines (aside from quoting the entire script of Army of Darkness), and it was a big step forward to have the character speak. But I also believe, based on everything that was going on with the technology and the game-changing level design, the game could have been just as successful without him. He’s a teenage fantasy, and the perfect vehicle to explore an apocalyptic parody of Los Angeles, but between the character’s misogyny, the gore, and the mere presence of strippers, I feel like a lot of people have overlooked what made the game truly impressive.
The final shoutout goes to the game’s multiplayer. “Dukematch” is the obvious play on Deathmatch, with the exception that it uses the same levels from single-player instead of custom-built arena maps. Because of this, many of the secret doors have switches inside for enterprising multiplayer combatants to use them as hidey-holes. Some of the game’s less-useful inventory items also shine here, like the Jetpack to drop down on foes, steroids to zip around the levels, and the Holo-Duke – a Total Recall-inspired plantable decoy version of yourself that never seems to trick the A.I., but frequently trips up multiplayer foes. Overall, it’s fun and chaotic (shrink ray and stomping on a foe is oh-so-satisfying), but hails from a day when multiplayer was a extra add-on, played by comparatively few, to a meaty single-player campaign.
Co-op is the other main feature. You and a friend can plow through the entire single-player campaign as two Duke clones with different colored pants (whom I have dubbed Duke and Luke Nukem). Static and I did this last year, and while the levels themselves don’t change in any way to accommodate multiple players (leading to occasional issues with design), it works overall and was overall a blast. You can tell it was another add-on feature – for instance, weapons respawn but ammo does not; usually requiring characters to specialize – but there were never any game-wrecking issues.
It’s also worth noting that both forms of multiplayer Duke took great advantage of the matchmaking/lobby services that were solidifying at the time, namely Kali, MPlay, and the Total Entertainment Network (TEN). The Atomic Edition even shipped with the TEN client and some out-of-box integration. It still paled to the single-player, but it meant that Duke was far more connected upon release than Doom was – or to put it another way, if Doom was the LAN game, then Duke was (at least for a while) the Internet game.
It’s quite a legacy, and Duke as a game is certainly good enough to live up to it. I’m sure plenty of modern gamers aren’t going to be able to get over the 2D sprites and very wonky view warping when looking up or down (hell, even the industry abandoned all this when Quake came out just six months later). I say they’re missing out on a fun time and a creative campaign. There still aren’t many shooters, even today, that put this level of interaction, detail, and care into their levels. When Duke came out, the cover of PC Gamer proclaimed that Duke was finally a “Doom killer.” Over a decade later, we can look back and agree definitively that yes, yes it was. Hail to the King, baby.
A list of what Duke revolutionized: Interactive environments, realistic levels, working mirrors, dynamically-shrinking enemies and player character, wide variety of different locales, talking protagonist with actual characterization, crazy weapons, scripted events, levels that were not completely locked and static, and the importance of overall tone and attitude to the game itself.
The core gameplay – kill monsters, find keycards, move through a pretty linear level – it hasn’t changed since Doom. This is one of the best executions of that, and overflowing with extras, but still basically the same tropes. So while Duke’s living world is still fresh, the gameplay is (and arguably already was) dated.