This year marks the 20th anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D. To commemorate this, 3D Realms have released World Tour Edition on steam, featuring a new fourth [edit – make that fifth] chapter created by a couple of the original level designers.
When I wrote about my favourite early shooters, I sadly chose to omit Duke3D, mostly because I never actually played more than the first (shareware) chapter. I’m more familiar with Blood, which used the same engine, so that took a slot on the list instead. Still, it made a strong impression for a couple of reasons.
Most obvious is the game’s general attitude – the machismo, the goofy humour, the stacks of movie references. Duke is an iconic gaming protagonist, a pastiche of 80s action heroes with his shades, his swagger and the gravelly voice. The game is, I think, aware of how ridiculous he is yet it’s totally unashamed. He mows down pig cops, delivers one-liners, and goes to strip clubs.
Most of this I can still enjoy. Not so sure how I feel about the strip clubs. Maybe I can take that as all part of the joke too, but if lady gamers are put off, I will not blame you. The women in pods moaning at you to kill them, is definitely just unpleasant and jarring.
Moving away from that sort of Serious Business topic, this was the first shooter I played with maps that looked like something in the real world. I think there’s a more subtle point at work here too, it was a shooter with locations that looked like they had an actual purpose.
Consider Doom for a moment – you might be told a level was a toxin refinery or a command post, but it was mostly just an abstract collection of rooms and corridors with a scifi theme. You’d be hard pushed to say what was meant to happen here. Duke however gave us streets, a bar and a cinema. Nowadays urban drabness is actually overdone and kind of tedious, but in 1996 it was new and exciting. We weren’t in some vaguely defined fantasy or scifi fortress, these were the sort of places that actually existed in a city.
To enhance the realism, 3D Realms packed their maps with all sorts of details, many of which were interactive. Duke could smash bottles, knock pool balls around. The duke-themed pinball machines didn’t actually do anything, but they did provide a chance for another bad joke (don’t have time to play with myself!).
Duke arrived at a time when we were looking for a new king of the first person shooters, as Doom aged. It was a new and exciting challenger for that throne, but was unable to claim it for long. A few months later Quake showed up and wowed shooter fans with its next-generation, true-3D engine. Yet even if it was stuck in the 2-and-a-half dimensional shenanigans of earlier days, I always preferred Duke3d personally. Quake was advanced but drab and uninspired, a game of grimly shooting grey monsters in brown castles. Duke3D had some colour, personality, and attention to detail.
The World Tour edition will set you back £15 on steam. Which is more than we normally pay for a 90s shooter (Quake is £4) so I guess you’re paying for that new chapter. The original full version of the game has been pulled from digital distribution, but, if you just want a few levels of Duke without shelling out, the shareware version can still be downloaded from 3D Realms. (you will need to set it up yourself in Dosbox).