Still groovy after all these years.
Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour on PS4
Sifting through the detritus of a seedy L.A. dive bar, Duke makes a mess of the place. The bullet-riddled corpses of his alien adversaries litter the floor and the walls are punched through with holes. On the TV a white Bronco speeds along the freeway – an OJ reference? Yeah they went there! Approaching a civilian woman standing in the corner, Duke proffers a wad of $1 dollar-bills and demands that she “Shake it baby!”
After collecting the all-important key card (classic), Duke is ambushed by four shotgun-toting pigs in police uniform with “L.A.R.D.” emblazoned across the chest. It’s around this time that the developer commentary – an excellent feature indeed, starring original designers Richard ‘Levelord’ Gray and Allen Blum – kicks in:
“This was a funny joke back then. I guess it’s almost relevant again now we have so many cops shooting people… We went through a period where we started to respect our police officers again and this joke became less funny, and now I think we’re back where everybody just wants to hate the cops. I don’t hate cops; I respect law enforcement.”
This is the kind of smash-mouth, anti-PC presentation that you’re in for with Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour. (That’s probably the last time you’ll read the full title in this review.) It comes wrapped around a tense, satisfying shooter that still presents a stiff challenge, and sports a welcome graphical makeover.
The success of re-editions of classics hinge on one central question: is it still engaging to play? Duke Nukem 3D most definitely is. There’s something very organic about the way shootouts are dictated; it’s wholly up to you to turn the tide with any of the myriad options open to you. There is also an uncluttered purity to the way things are put together; for instance, there is no cover mechanic, no button to snap behind a crate or a low wall, but what there is is a duck button and a low wall – work for it. This may sound obvious, but after years of context-sensitive button-presses that make chameleons of characters and leave little room for creative experimentation, it’s refreshing. It’s emergent too.
Every tactic you stumble upon will feel like just that – as if you’ve stumbled upon it. An early irritation with a particularly resilient sub-boss prompted a bout of creative carnage: I lined a corridor with laser trip-wires, baited him to give chase, and by the time he had rounded the corner, after soaking up heaps of damage, I savagely finished him off with a shotgun blast to the head. It’s worth noting too that when some awful beast does top you, Gearbox has imported the handy rewind mechanic featured in 2008’s Xbox Live Arcade version, which allows you to scrub backwards through your playthrough and pick a spot at which to respawn – brilliant.
Duke will pick up an array of different gadgets to aid him in his absurd quest: jet-packs, decoy holograms, night-vision goggles, scuba gear, acid-proof boots, steroids, the list goes on. These not only add to the depth of strategy, but aid exploration in a series of huge, lovingly designed levels crammed full of secrets. Gone are the objective markers of today; the level design recalls keycards, maze-like corridors filled with lurking horrors, secrets like walk-through walls and hidden weapons reward exploration. It’s refreshing to go back and experience design that doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s satisfying when you collect the right keycard and everything slots together. The elated feeling of finding the atomic door at the end of every level won’t soon leave you. The one aspect that holds the game back is something that only really comes into play with the benefit of hindsight: the genetic make-up of the game is something that we have simply moved past.
Perhaps this sounds daft in a game that contains the words “20th anniversary” in its title, but once you have plowed your way through enough levels, the rote, formulaic design will wear you down. There’s only so many keycards you can collect. As an exercise in looking back and exploring the way design was in 1996, it’s as fun to play as it is fascinating to see how far we’ve come since. It’s always tough to look at games like this in context when they’re being re-packaged and sold to you very much outside of it.
That being said there’s a heap of extras here to sweeten the pot. The aforementioned commentary is insightful, daft, interesting, funny, and it’s very easy to get a sense of the craft and work that went into the game. It’s easy to understand just why it still holds up when you hear about the tinkering done to fine tune maps and fill them with exquisite detail. There is only commentary on certain levels – the option must be turned on for the prompting icons to appear littered throughout each level – and they are usually the first levels of each episode. It’s handled well: the icons are where they need to be, ensuring that once activated, the designers will fill you in on the section you’re staring at. It’s also hilarious that at times Richard Gray will say things like “watch this,” as if he doesn’t understand that firstly I can’t and secondly, as I’ve no clue what he’s getting up to, I can’t follow suit. It’s barely a gripe; in fact it just made me laugh.
There is even more bang to be had for your buck however. Included here are the original three episodes, the fourth included in the Atomic Edition back in 1996, and a new fifth chapter created by the original designers. It’s rare that re-releases get this much love. It’s worth noting however that players that own the Megaton Edition will find this a bit of an ask, as that previous edition still boasts the most content overall with the inclusion of all the expansion packs. World Tour only has the five chapters.
Now, about that makeover: the game has been re-rendered; textures sharpened and a little bit brighter; dynamic lighting has been welcomed into the fold; and the 3D objects in the environment now seem to actually inhabit three dimensions – always a plus. What all this amounts to is that the game looks as good now as your lying brain remembers it being. How dishonest can your nostalgia be? Well, the ability to flip the graphics to and fro between the original and the new render – à la Halo Anniversary – will reveal all. It feels like performing an autopsy; it’s just as nausea-inducing anyway. Gazing up at the buildings is an exercise in holding your stomach, as they distort, bend, and whirl by in dizzying parallax. The way we were, eh?
The game’s tongue-in-cheek humor and over-the-top satire of joyfully ’90s tropes is similar in wit and execution to Grand Theft Auto. It’s akin to looking down at your feet and seeing the culture around you reflected in a filthy, muddy puddle – and then jumping wholeheartedly into it with both feet and making a fine mess. There is something else that feels right about this one, something that makes it feel relevant again. There’s been an ocean of time, hardware, software, and design leaps between 1996 and now, and though it’s not done so without showing its age, Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour has made the journey across it.
Score: 4/5 – Great