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Duke Nukem 3D is a first-person shooter developed by 3D Realms and was released for DOS in 1996. It was a commercial hit but also controversial thanks to it’s adult content. This game was also quite a departure from the previous two Duke Nukem games which were side scrolling action platformers. Just like many classic games that came before it, Duke Nukem 3D was originally released as shareware in January, 1996 while the full version was released in April of that same year. The full game consisted of all three episodes with about ten levels per episode, including the secret levels. An expansion known as the Plutonium PAK was released in November, 1996 and included a new fourth episode, one new weapon, and some new enemy types among other additions. Eventually, the Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition was released which included all of the content from the original game and the expansion. I was only about five or six when this game came out and didn’t have the chance to play it when it was in its prime. My first exposure to the game was when my mom bought a Duke Nukem 3D mouse pad for my dad and I. It has the original box artwork on it and I thought it looked really awesome. I still use it to this day. The game has been ported to several systems over the years, each with varying success. I finally got my chance to play it after the Atomic Edition released on GOG in 2009 and fell in love with it right away. The Atomic Edition has been digitally re-released a few times, some with all new features, but thanks to licensing issues, the classic version of the game has been removed from GOG and Steam. However, as of this review, the 20th Anniversary Edition is currently available on Steam.
One of the most popular source ports for Duke Nukem 3D is EDuke32. It enables the game to run at higher resolutions, includes bug fixes and all kinds of new features. This review will cover the Atomic Edition, played using the EDuke32 source port, the Megaton Edition originally released in 2013, the recently released 20th Anniversary Edition, and the Duke Nukem 64 Mod which is a pretty faithful recreation of the Nintendo 64 port. And because I already owned the Megaton Edition on Steam before it was removed, I will also cover the three official expansion packs for PC – Duke It Out in D.C., Duke Caribbean: Life’s a Beach, and Duke: Nuclear Winter.
There is a story in Duke Nukem 3D but it’s definitely not the focus. Aliens have invaded Earth and are attacking Los Angeles. After they shoot down Duke’s ship, Duke makes it his mission to stop the alien invasion. And apparently, the aliens have kidnapped all the “babes” and you can find them scattered throughout the levels. There are these violent and humorous cut scenes that play after defeating bosses and those seem to be the only way the game advances the story in any meaningful way. The story is simple, it works, and it’s clearly just a backdrop to set up the gameplay.
Duke, himself, is a muscular macho guy reminiscent of classic action heroes. Thanks to the voice work of Jon St. John, you’ll hear Duke spouting various one-liners during gameplay. There’s tons of pop culture references and the game, in general, is a love letter to classic action movies. Unless you were born yesterday, the references are pretty obvious. I couldn’t help but smile when I came across the desks of Harry Callahan and John McClane or when you approach a trapped “babe” and she says “kill me”, a blatant reference to the Alien movies. Even Duke’s lines reference classic movies like Army of Darkness, Predator, Sudden Impact, and more.
Duke Nukem 3D was pretty amazing for it’s time and not just for its gameplay but for its environments, too. Like other classic shooters from the 90s, you’ll be pressing buttons, flipping switches and hunting down access cards which unlock doors to new areas. But what really set this game apart from its competitors is the interactive environments. Yes, other games let you flip switches and press buttons but this game will even let you blow through walls to access new areas and secrets. You can give money to dancing women and they’ll show you their breasts. If you need health and can’t find a health pack, destroy a toilet or hydrant and drink some water. Destroy a few trashcans as they may contain items inside like ammo, health, or armor. We take little things like this for granted in games today but the interactive environments were pretty mind blowing for the time.
The first episode is set in Los Angeles so you start out blasting your way through an adult theater and the red light district complete with a strip club and adult book store eventually reaching an alien ship where you fight the episode’s boss. The second episode takes place in space and you’ll explore various space stations, ships, and even the Moon. In the third episode, Duke is back in L.A. navigating through various environments including a bank, movie set, hotel, and finally a stadium. The fourth episode has Duke hunting down the Alien Queen. Once again you travel through various environments including a fast-food restaurant, post office, and even a pornography production store, before finally reaching the alien spacecraft to take on the Queen. The first two levels of the first episode are quite iconic and really help set up the tone of the game. You’ll quickly realize that sex, violence, and science fiction is what Duke Nukem 3D is all about.
One of the things I love about this game is the enemies. The enemy designs are just excellent. Assault Troopers wear green armor and fire lasers and are pretty much cannon fodder since they don’t pose much of a threat. Some of them are equipped with jetpacks so they can fly around areas. Assault Captains are almost identical to the Troopers but they wear red armor and can even teleport around. Pig Cops are mutated L.A.P.D. officers that wield shotguns and they only appear in levels set on Earth. Sometimes they fly around in air crafts and will even drive tanks. The second episode introduces Enforcers which kind of look like dinosaurs with a nose ring. They’re equipped with a chaingun and will start rapidly firing if they spot you. Assault Troopers, Pig Cops, and Enforcers are the most common enemies you’ll encounter throughout most of the game. Assault Commanders are large aliens that sit on some kind of floating platform and fire rockets making them a bit dangerous when encountered. Octabrains are these large floating three-eyed aliens that are normally found underwater but occasionally they show up on land. They fire these psychic blasts which are easy to avoid but can damage you pretty badly if you’re hit. From the second episode onward, you’ll come across alien nests filled with eggs that hatch little green things called Protozoid Slimers. If they manage to latch onto your face they’ll start draining your health but you can remove them by firing your weapon or kicking. According to the manual, these things try to suck out Duke’s brain through his nose. Sentry Drones are also introduced in the second episode. They fly around and explode if they get close to you making them extremely annoying. The fourth episode introduces Protector Drones which are these human-alien hybrids. They are one of the most dangerous enemies in the game. They move extremely quick and will start slashing at you if they get close. They’ll occasionally fire shrink blasts and spew green blood when killed which is toxic, causing damage if you’re standing in it. Tell me that’s not an awesome reference to Xenomorphs from the Alien series. Some locations are guarded by turrets which can be destroyed and you’ll need to watch out for sharks when underwater. In addition to the enemies are bosses at the end of each episode. The Battlelord, Overlord, Cycloid Emperor, and the Alien Queen.
My only problem with the enemies is that two of the most common enemy types, Pig Cops and Enforcers, are hit scan enemies. This becomes problematic in environments with open areas since it can be hard to avoid their attacks and if they show up in numbers you’re forced to scramble around looking for cover or you’ll be killed rather quickly. This leads to another problem and that’s ambushes. There’s just way too many, especially in the last two episodes. When you activate something enemies will start teleporting nearby or maybe a hidden door will open somewhere and several enemies will come pouring out. Because the game requires you to hunt down access cards and find ways to access new areas, you’ll frequently be back tracking. I don’t mind enemies that appear in previously explored areas since it’s normally an indication that you’re going the right way but when you press a button only for enemies to suddenly teleport in behind you, that becomes frustrating.
To help you combat the alien threat is a pretty cool arsenal of weapons. You start out with a pistol which you may not use all that much after obtaining any other weapon. The shotgun is probably the most effective as it can take out most common enemies after only a few shots and ammo for it is usually easy to obtain. The chaingun cannon is your automatic weapon. It’s really satisfying to use against multiple Assault Troopers but you’ll drain ammo quickly if using it against the tougher enemy types. The RPG fires rockets and the devastator is like a rapid firing rocket launcher making it one of the most deadly weapons in the game. When you throw a pipe bomb you’ll switch to a detonator to blow it up when ready. Pipe bombs seem to be plentiful and they’re great to fall back on if you’re running low on ammo for everything else. You can also lay down laser tripbombs which blow up when you or an enemy break the laser beam. These are excellent for setting up traps. Then there’s the more exotic weapons like the shrinker and expander. The shrinker will shrink enemies so you can step on them and the expander will expand enemies until they explode. And finally there’s the freezethrower that can freeze enemies enabling you to shatter them to pieces. But if you don’t want to waste any ammo you can always rely on your mighty foot and kick everything. Although, I’d only recommend kicking objects and frozen enemies since you’ll probably get destroyed if you try to kick most of the aliens.
To aid Duke on his mission are various items you can obtain and store in your inventory. Jetpacks enable you to fly around making it one of the most useful items in the game. Scuba gear enables you breathe underwater, portable medkits can be used to restore up to one hundred health points, and protective boots let you walk in hazardous liquids like toxic waste and lava. Using holoduke creates a hologram of Duke for distracting enemies, night vision goggles enable you to see enemies in dark areas, and steroids let you run faster and your kicks are deadlier. The items can only be used for a limited time. Items like the jetpack, holoduke, and night vision goggles can be activated and deactivated at will. The protective boots and scuba gear will automatically activate and deactivate when necessary.
For it’s time, Duke Nukem 3D had some great visuals. The textures, sprites, and animations really help bring everything together. The texture work is excellent and is accompanied by tons of little details that really help make the environments feel like real places. Especially, the locations set on Earth. I’ve always felt that sprite-based games are timeless and normally age pretty well and that’s because you’re not looking at low polygon models which seem to age terribly as technology advances. Thankfully, Duke Nukem 3D has some great sprite work that makes the action feel more intense. One of my favorite death animations is the Assault Troopers choking on their own blood. Even watching a rocket turn enemies to gibs is extremely satisfying. The developers used some fancy tricks that let you aim up and down which was actually a big deal when this released. Although, the environments aren’t in true 3D and it’s noticeable when you look up and down and see that the backgrounds and textures around you start warping and stretching.
The levels are really well designed but I found that it’s very easy to get lost, especially in the later two episodes. Sometimes you may not see the switch or button required to progress because it blends in with the environment or is hidden behind something. I can see this being more of a problem for newer players and even though I’ve played this for several years now, if I don’t play it for a while I never seem to remember where everything is so I’ll get lost again in several levels. The fourth episode, in particular, contains some switch puzzles that really left me scratching my head. For example the second level of the fourth episode, Duke Burger, requires you to find the blue access card before you can enter the restaurant. To do that you need to interact with the drive-thru menu that will open a hidden door in the wall behind it revealing the card. That kind of thing is not obvious and I think it took me a good half-hour to figure that out when I first played it. Sometimes buttons and switches open up new areas in other parts of the level that you may not even be near or previously explored. Sometimes it’s a small doorway you don’t even notice or maybe an entire wall exploded opening up a whole new section so you’ll want to take notice of areas as you progress.
Another problem with the levels is that ammo can be hard to come by. Unless you’ve played the game before and know where many of the secret areas are or what weapons to use when, ammo can sometimes be scarce. Fallen enemies don’t always drop ammo and if you’ve used up all your ammo in the beginning of the level, you may not be properly equipped for the threats ahead. It’s very noticeable in the first level of the third episode and is especially true for the fourth episode since it can be very easy to use up all your shotgun and chaingun ammo in the first few levels making these earlier levels even more difficult. The new Protector Drones introduced in this episode can take quite a bit of damage before going down so I found them to be the reason as to why I never had a ton of ammo.
The Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition was developed by General Arcade and published by Devolver Digital, released on Steam in March of 2013. It runs on OpenGL and is compatible with modern operating systems and even includes the classic Atomic Edition. The Megaton Edition was eventually ported to the PlayStation 3 and Vita in January of 2015. One notable addition to the console versions is the rewind feature. If you die you can rewind back to several moments before your death and try again. The Megaton Edition doesn’t really change that much and it’s essentially just a re-release of the Atomic Edition but what makes this release quite special is that it also includes all three of the official expansions which can be hard to come by nowadays. The Steam version even included Workshop support for fan-made mods. Unfortunately, after Gearbox Software became the new owners of the Duke Nukem IP, the Megaton Edition and even the classic game was removed from all digital distribution. Only if you owned these versions before they were removed can you still play them. It really sucks for those who missed out.
Gearbox released the Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour Edition in October, 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Just like the Megaton Edition before it, it’s basically another re-release of the Atomic Edition. It does include some neat features like the ability to turn on and off true 3D rendering at will. With it on the environments are in true 3D and include some enhanced lighting effects that really give the game more of a visual flare. Returning from the console versions of the Megaton Edition is the rewind feature but you can still quicksave and quickload if rewinding is not for you. Med Kits and health items are now branded with a pill instead of a cross for whatever reason. This version also includes Steam Workshop support but the game does not retain the same file types of the original game so previous mods will not be compatible. I’m sure the modding community is hard at work dissecting this version. One of the biggest problems with this release is the sound quality. I don’t know how they fucked it up so bad but the sound effects are of noticeably low quality. It’s also disappointing to know that the the 20th Anniversary Edition does not include the expansions that were previously included in the Megaton Edition. Maybe Gearbox is planning to release them as free DLC but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
For twenty dollars I bet you’re thinking the 20th Anniversary World Tour Edition isn’t worth it even if it does include true 3D rendering. Well I’m happy to report that there is one major positive to this release and that’s the inclusion of a brand new fifth episode with levels created by original level designers Allen Blum and Richard Gray. The levels are large and extremely detailed. There’s plenty of secrets to find, enemies to kill, and, thankfully, ammo to obtain. The level design is amazing and I only got lost a few times but there’s nothing here that made me want to use a guide. I would often just stop moving for a few seconds just to gaze at the new environments. The levels take you all around the world to places like Amsterdam, Russia, Egypt, before finally ending in Hollywood. It’s also worth mentioning that the new music was composed by the original Duke Nukem theme composer, Lee Jackson, and sounds amazing. Jon St. John also recorded some new dialogue for Duke which just sounds kind of odd and sometimes out of place. Another included feature is the developer commentary. If you enable developer commentary you can find commentary throughout the levels which can give you some insight on the game from the developers.
Not only does this version include a new episode but it also includes a new enemy type called Firefly. Although, this thing is nothing special. It blows fire and explodes when killed. You can also obtain a new weapon called the incinerator which launches fire balls at enemies and will leave puddles of lava on the ground that will burn you and enemies. It looks very similar to the freezethrower weapon and just seems to be a contrast of it. Even so, it’s pretty fun to use and it’s fun watching enemies catch fire then run around screaming until they die. The final boss is just a redesigned Cycloid Emperor which is kind of a bummer.
The new episode alone is definitely worth purchasing the 20th Anniversary Edition but twenty bucks is still a bit steep. Considering the original game is now twenty years old, many of us have already played it countless times including the other re-releases that came before it. Unless you’re a huge fan of Duke Nukem 3D, you may want to wait for a sale.
Duke it Out In D.C. was the first expansion released in March of 1997. The aliens have captured the president and Duke sets out to save him. If you thought the levels were confusing in the original game well good luck with this expansion. The levels in D.C. are ridiculously large and the layouts are just too complex at times. The detail and texture work are really quite fantastic but each level almost feels like a labyrinth and I think I got lost in every single level. You battle through various Washington D.C. areas including the White House, F.B.I. Headquarters, and the Smithsonian which, by the way, is definitely the most complex level in this expansion. When I first played this level it took me about three hours to finish it. Yeah, it’s ludicrous. Maybe the level designers were aiming for accuracy in the level layouts but that doesn’t always translate well in a game that requires you to hunt access cards to progress. Do not be ashamed if you need to consult a guide. Other than that there’s no new weapons, enemies, music, or even bosses. The final boss is just another Cycloid Emperor battle.
Duke Caribbean: Life’s a Beach is the second expansion released in December of 1997. This is definitely my favorite expansion of the bunch. Duke is vacationing on a tropical island only to discover the aliens are vacationing there, too. Duke Caribbean has a sunny and bright tropical theme and levels take place in locations like beaches and hotels among others. The level design here is great but I still got lost quite a few times. However, no levels are as complex as the levels in the D.C. expansion. Duke has some new dialogue and all of the weapons have been redesigned. They function the same but were redesigned to match the tropical theme. The pistol and shtogun are now water guns, the pipebombs are now explosive pineapples, shit like that. Duke himself and even the enemies are all wearing beach clothes which is actually a neat little touch. New enemies include Inflatable Sea Monsters which rapidly fire explosive shots and they become very annoying in the later levels and then there’s birds that shit on you. There’s also new music to accompany the tropical atmosphere and it fits the theme well. Once again, the final boss is a redesigned Cycloid Emperor.
Duke: Nuclear Winter is the final expansion also released in December of 1997. Santa is apparently being mind-controlled by the aliens. This is the weakest expansion by far and it seems like it was designed by amateurs when comparing it to the others or even the original game. The first two levels just take you through the first two levels of the original game but now everything is covered in snow and is decorated for Christmas. The rest of the levels take you to various Christmas-y locations like a toy factory and large town village. Some of the layouts are complex and I got lost a few times but there’s nothing too ridiculous. The biggest problem with this expansion is that the levels lack the impressive detail seen in the other expansions and even the original game. Most of the levels are covered in snow and it seems like creators used that as an excuse for the bland level design. Everything is either white and boring or very basic looking. Some of the interior locations look alright but nothing spectacular. New enemies include Elves and Snowmen but they’re sprite work leaves a lot to be desired. Nuclear Winter isn’t all bad. It does include a new boss type and some excellent, yet familiar, Christmas music.
Duke Nukem 64 was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1997. Instead of playing the original game on the 64, with the abysmal controls, I decided to play the Duke Nukem 64 Mod instead. It’s pretty accurate to it’s console counterpart and that’s good enough for me. The original game does not include any in-game music but you can download the optional music pack which includes music from Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown for the original PlayStation.
Duke Nukem 64 only includes three episodes but some of the levels have been redesigned and even incorporate levels from the fourth episode of the PC version into its existing levels. For example the second level of the first episode includes a part of the Duke Burger level. For the most part, everything should be familiar if you’ve played the original game. The most noticeable change is the weapons. All of the weapons have been redesigned or altered in some way. I really love some of the redesigns like the pistol and shotgun. There’s now two ammo types for the shotgun, dum-dum and explosive rounds. Submachine guns now replace the chaingun cannon, the shrinker and expander look completely different, the RPG is now a missile launcher and there’s even a grenade launcher. The plasma cannon is a new weapon which can be charged up and just obliterates enemies.
Duke Nukem 64 does contain some major differences compared to the original game. Obviously not having in-game music sucks, for some reason the shotgun has no muzzle flash, and the Cycloid Emperor in the original 64 game has an actual 3D model which was not carried over into the mod. All of the Assault Troopers now wear blue armor and much of the adult content has been toned down like the sex shop in the second level of the first episode is now a gun shop and the steroids are now rebranded as Vitamin X. You can’t actually kill any of the “babes” but instead you can save them if you interact with them. No giving money to erotic dancers and women don’t flash their breasts. With all of that said, it’s obvious that the original game is superior but the 64 version still has it’s strong points and I think the mod is even better than it’s console counterpart. One thing I did like is that the night vision goggles in this version actually let you see everything in the dark rather than just the enemies.
Yes, Duke Nukem 3D does include multiplayer and I hear great things but I have not tried it.
Duke Nukem 3D is considered a classic and I definitely put it up there as one of my all time favorite first-person shooters. It’s politically incorrect, violent, and contains boobs. What more do you need? The action is fast-paced and the gameplay is fun. Like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D has a huge modding community with some excellent mods like the high resolution pack, DukePlus, and there’s even a Starship Troopers mod floating around out there. This game has been digitally re-released several times throughout the years and has been ported to almost every console since it’s initial debut. Yeah, it has some problems but what game doesn’t? If you never played Duke Nukem 3D I would recommend you play the PC version before any other.