Duke Nukem probably wouldn’t be a very popular guy in 2016. It’s not a taxing mental exercise to come up with plenty of reasons for that, but I think it’s how unapologetic Duke is that would really do him in these days. This is a character who’s never said “sorry” in his life; well, maybe in the context of “sorry about your face” after having shot someone, but you know what i mean.
In 2016, if you’re going to run around shooting people and saying naughty words, you need to soften the blow a little. You need to feel bad about the people you shot. You need to learn about why saying those words is wrong. You need to incorporate an RPG-styled inventory or progression system so you become a “smart game” rather than a “dumb game,” because in 2016 Video Games Are Art and we’re done with “dumb games.” You need to be apologetic, in other words.
Duke, doesn’t do any of this. He shoots bad guys because they’re bad. He says naughty words while he’s doing it. His inventory is “whatever is necessary to carry all of the guns at once” and his progression is “over the steaming corpses of his defeated foes.” Few games are more Duke than Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour. It’s a small miracle that we’re still allowed to play it.
A lot of us who are over a certain age have played Duke 3D, but in case you haven’t: this is one of the classic “dumb games.” The portrayal of Duke Nukem (voiced by Jon St. John) we associate with the character today started here: he’s foul-mouthed, heavily armed and solves every problem he has through violence or simple puzzle-solving. Duke 3D begins with our hero vowing revenge against a force of aliens who are invading earth after they shoot down his car. By the end of the game, he’s gotten that revenge several thousand times over, and at no point do we question whether or not he’s done the right thing in the right way. He’s Duke. Obviously he has.
In the history of first-person shooters, Duke 3D’s 1995 release sits snugly between 1993’s DOOM and 1998’s Half-Life. The latter is key to the development of the genre because its success was responsible for the heavily-scripted style of first-person game that we see today; even your favorite walking simulator (or “Mignon” as I’ve come to call them) owes a debt to Half-Life’s powerful world-building and iconic playable introduction. Duke 3D wasn’t quite there yet. Instead, it focused on testing the boundaries of what could be done with a three-dimensional virtual world; DOOM’s hellish mazes were one thing, but Duke 3D was all about more realistic and believable levels, often with several possible paths to success.
The iconic first stage, Hollywood Holocaust, is a prime example of this philosophy. After Duke is stranded on a rooftop by the destruction of his ride, he’s tasked with getting through a movie theater and making it to the exit; he’s not actually “tasked” with this, as in no handler tells him to and no list of objectives pops up telling him to do it, rather it’s just assumed. Duke can progress directly through the theater, eventually opening a locked door and making it to the exit button, and if you play well he’ll make it with a decent stash of ammo for his basic weapons.
Alternatively, Duke can enjoy the level as intended and play around in the world, earning rewards and completing the level in a much more powerful state. You’ll discover that Duke is healed by drinking from sinks and water fountains if you take the time to check them out. You’ll find secrets strewn about, including a powerful rocket launcher that you wouldn’t normally obtain for several levels. If you’re really adventurous, you’ll try Mario-stomping on an early enemy and discover that they can be used as a platform, allowing you to skip most of the level and move on in seconds. There are highs and lows in the level design, but for the most part this sort of experience defines Duke 3D. For a game from 1995 that’s entirely linear by today’s standards, it offers a greater degree of freedom than many of its contemporary counterparts.
Without spinning this off into a dissertation on classic FPS design, Duke 3D remains a solid, fun experience today. The 20th Anniversary World Tour is a largely authentic version of the original game, though playing on a PlayStation 4 pad rather than a mouse and keyboard still feels a bit odd. The most significant addition is an entirely new episode taking place in various locations around the world, but there’s other perks as well, like a new flamethrower weapon, the ability to rewind when you die instead of replaying sections, and a True3D option that upgrades the ancient graphics ever so slightly.
There’s also a developer commentary track available via icons floating in the world. The fact that the commentary is led by Gearbox big cheese Randy Pitchford is a little off-putting, though, since he wasn’t really relevant to Duke 3D and is better known for his efforts in completing and shipping the much-maligned Duke Nukem Forever. Online multiplayer is available as well, though it doesn’t stand up very well compared to the shooters of today and I can’t recommend it.
One other note: let’s say these additions aren’t really doing it for you. Let’s say you’d rather stick with the previous definitive edition of Duke Nukem 3D, the Atomic Edition. Well, I hope you’ve already got a copy, because Gearbox has actually removed this edition from Steam and Good Old Games in favor of the World Tour. Naturally, this edition is more expensive and less compatible with the massive number of mods and user-created levels that have been produced for Duke 3D over the years, so there’s been no small degree of outcry from the game’s fanbase.
Looking at Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour as its own package, though, and pretending that Atomic Edition doesn’t exist, this is a solid port of a classic game that remains an integral part of gaming history. The new features are minimal but appreciated (though I still think we could have done without Pitchford commentary) and I found the PS4 version ran at an acceptable clip. I mean, you’d expect that for a port of a 1995 game in 2016, but it’s best not to make assumptions these days. Duke superfans will probably be displeased with the business decisions associated with this game, but if all you want to do is play some Duke, this is a pretty good option. No apologies are necessary – and that’s just how Duke would want it.