Review: Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

Hail to the King

Duke Nukem – the posterboy for the video game power fantasy. A macho man spitting one-liners while splitting skulls. All the ladies want him, all the men want to be like him. Needless to say, Duke is one of the more famous figures in gaming.

Surprisingly, this character’s reputation has been built on a relatively few number of games. Over the span of 25 years, only four games make up the mainline story. Even then, half of them aren’t in the style younger games would expect when they hear the name “Duke Nukem.”

The first game in the series, aptly titled Duke Nukem, was released way back in 1991 as a shareware DOS game. Developed by Apogee Software (then famous for the Commander Keen series), the original installment of the series was a 2D platformer style of game. Other than presenting Duke in a bright pink vest, most of the series’ characteristic style and humor saw its roots here.

After another 2D platformer outing in Duke Nukem II, Apogee (now going by the moniker 3D Realms) decided to switch up the formula with the series’ next outing. In 1996, the PC gaming world was in the midst of an FPS bloom. The release of the game Doom a few years earlier was a massive influence on developers and gamers of the time, to the point where many FPS games released afterwards became colloquially known as “Doom-clones.”

A character like Duke seemed like a perfect fit for this style of game, so 3D Realms put the character into his own Doom-clone: Duke Nukem 3D. The game received an overwhelmingly-positive response, and would go on to itself become influential on the burgeoning FPS genre.

Cut to twenty years later – Duke is still a well-known figure in gaming but, thanks to the fiasco that was Duke Nukem Forever, his icon status seems to be for less than honorable reasons. With the IP now owned by Gearbox Software, the series is taking a look to the past in a rerelease of its most famous and successful title.

Developed by Nerve Software and Gearbox Software, and published by Gearbox Publishing, Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour was released on October 11th, 2016. The title was released for PS4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam. The PS4 version was played for this review.

TL;DR: Aliens

If you look online, you’ll find out that the story of World Tour takes place directly after the previous game. Duke is returning to Earth after defeating an alien species, when his shuttle is shot out of the sky. He lands in Los Angeles to find it under attack by aliens who are abducting women.

However, in the game itself, there’s little-to-no setup, or even much of a story at all. Firing up the game plops you on the roof of a building, with Duke quipping “Those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride!” And then off you go to commit xenocide (which I’m unsure if that’s actually a word or just the title of a book)!

The game itself is extremely light on story. World Tour edition includes five “episodes” – the three that made up the original game, a fourth from the original’s Atomic Edition expansion, and a fifth that is brand new to this release. Small cutscenes and text breaks between episodes provide some context to Duke’s adventure, but it’s minimal at best.

That Old-School Feel

As mentioned earlier, World Tour is very much an old-school FPS title. You’ll be exploring various environments, collecting weapons and ammo, and mowing down aliens until the credits roll. As this title is little more than a remaster of the original Duke Nukem 3DWorld Tour retains all of the original quirks of a mid-90s FPS.

Those that are used to modern-day FPS titles, with all of their gameplay evolutions and ease-of-use tweaks for consoles, will probably find World Tour to be a difficult game. Health doesn’t regenerate, enemies are relentless, there appears to be no aim-assist for console players, and there’s nothing conveniently telling you what way to go or what to do. The Call of Duty generation may find these points abhorrent, but going into the game with an old-school frame of mind shines a more positive light on these aspects.

In fact, there are some things World Tour does that you don’t see too often in modern shooters. One of the biggest things I enjoyed about the game were its open-ended levels. Each level in an episode drops you right in with no specific goal – that is something that you have to figure out on your own. The game encourages exploration and some experimentation to find the end of each stage. Exploration particularly is rewarding, as each level has secret areas strewn everywhere, some easy to find, and others cleverly hidden. Finding these areas often rewards you with some powerful weapons and/or items that can make your battle a bit easier.

There were a few occasions where I found this lack of direction detrimental. For example, the beginning of the fourth stage starts you off in a sealed room rapidly filling with water. There’s no obvious way out, and I spent a good ten minutes trying and retrying this section over to figure out how to exit. As it turns out, there’s a set of switches near the bottom of the room that are hard to notice thanks to the graphics (more on that later), and you have to hit them in a certain order (with no clues) to open up your way out.

Don’t expect it to be too easy though, as I still found World Tour to be quite a difficult game. Your health pool is limited, and even the most basic enemies can cut you down with ease if you’re not careful. After getting mowed down countless times in the first few levels, I found the best way to play through the game was the antithesis of Duke’s personality: rather than charging forward guns blazing, it made more sense to carefully plan out your advancement through the stage, checking corners before rounding them, etc.

While health is very much limited, relying on you finding medkits throughout each stage, ammo can be occasionally even more scarce. If you don’t take a few moments to plan your shots, you can find yourself rapidly wasting ammo. With each stage having only a limited amount available, it can be quite easy to run through your reserves and get stuck with no other weapon than your Mighty Foot, i.e. a kick to the skull.

Luckily, World Tour does have one added function that can help ease the pain: the ability to rewind upon death. Once Duke is killed, you are given the option to rewind the game to any previous part of your current playthrough. While I’m sure that some may complain that this eases the game too much, allowing the player to brute-force a level, this function was one of my favorite parts of the game. Knowing I could retry an area as often as I wanted gave me the freedom to experiment and figure out the best way through a challenge, almost like a pseudo puzzle game.

There are a couple complaints that I have with the game’s systems, though. The first, and most annoying, was the inability to see how much ammo I currently had in a clip before I had to reload. The game only tells you how much ammo you’re holding, and you have no option to reload your weapon whenever you wish. Unless you count each of your shots, be prepared for frustration when you’re unexpectedly forced to reload in the heat of battle.

Secondly, and speaking of weapons, switching your weapon comes with a bit of an annoying delay. Pressing R1 and L1 scrolls through images of your current equipment at the bottom of the screen, and the moment from highlighting a weapon to Duke equipping it is just enough of a pause for enemy fire to take you down.

Back in My Day…

Once again, World Tour is a remaster of a 20-year-old game, and it definitely shows in the graphics. Duke Nukem 3D was one of the last of an era of sprite-based FPS games, essentially using 2D assets to create a 3D world. For this title, though, Gearbox added what they call “True 3D Mode,” which rebuilds the environment in full 3D. This option can be turned off at the press of a button to play using the original assets.

Despite this True 3D upgrade, environment texture and character sprites remain the same. Enemies and various objects are 2D sprites that rotate with your camera to always stay facing toward you. Textures are pixelated and low quality. As this is a remaster, rather than a remake, these are to be expected and definitely not something that I hold against the game.

Said low quality textures, though, came back to bite me in the ass a few times. I mentioned earlier the level I was stuck at, trying to get out of a chamber filling with water? The primary issue for this was due to the fact that the switches I needed to press were part of the environmental textures, and were blended in so much as to be near-impossible to make out. Interactive objects blending into the textures is a running trend in World Tour, and it ends up creating some artificial difficulty.

Hit the MIDI Hard

Unlike the graphical engine, the music in World Tour remains the same as the original Duke Nukem 3D. The tracks are all presented in old-school MIDI synth goodness, the best that 1996 DOS games had to offer!

The soundtrack is, as I said, synth based, with a very heavy lean on bass and percussion. The styling of the tracks lend themselves well to the atmosphere, alternating between driving blood-pumping rock and more foreboding horror-style tracks. On their own, the songs in this game have surprisingly good composition and a decent amount of variety. Really, my only complaint when it comes to the sound portion of the game is in the mixing. The soundtrack is mixed very quietly against effects and voiceovers, occasionally being drowned out during battle.

Speaking of which, while the sound effects are also MIDI-based, the voice-overs for Duke are of a fairly decent quality. The voice actor for Duke, Jon St. John, returned to re-record many of Duke’s lines, along with recording new ones for the new episode in World Tour. These clips still have a bit of low-fidelity scratch to them, presumably to keep them from contrasting weirdly against the rest of the game’s sound design, but they are still clear, easy to make out, and great at characterizing Duke.

More of the Same, Nothing Wrong With That

Overall, Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is a great blast from the past, very strong in its gameplay and design…but that’s mostly because the original game was constructed so well. Aside from adding a new episode and the True 3D mode, this remaster doesn’t do all that much to change up the original. I do believe, though, that this title is better for doing so.

The main issue in recommending this game, though, stems from that fact. World Tour doesn’t offer much new, and Duke Nukem 3D is available in various different forms across all kinds of consoles, with multiple releases on PC as well. With older versions available everywhere, it can make the currently $20 price tag for this version a bit hard to swallow.

However, World Tour is still a great game, especially for the old-school-minded gamer. The price may be a bit steep, but if you don’t already own a version of the game, or have yet to play it, I’d say it’s worth your time and money.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Gearbox Publishing for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.