FIRST-PERSON SHOOTERS in the mid-1990s were all about picking a side. Duke or Quake, Duke or Quake? If you liked technological progression and brown things it was Quake, but if you liked having a wee in virtual toilets, obvious wise cracks and casual misogyny, Duke was your man.
Duke Nukem 3D arrived on the PC in 1996, and did extremely well in an age of primitive shooters for players with limited online access.
The follow-up Duke Nukem Forever got lost in development hell for the next 12 years and was finally released to generally terrible reviews. The franchise changed hands a few times, finally ending up with Gearbox Software.
And now 20 years on, Gearbox brings us this re-release of the original. The developer is so keen to make World Tour the de facto Duke that it's actually removed the previous available version, Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, from Steam and GOG.com, which has caused some anger on the forums.
But are we being left with something that cements the game's place in history or that simply creates another cash cow for retro fanatics? Here's a breakdown of what Duke Nukem 3D: World Tour offers on PC (a middling Intel i5 desktop was the test machine) and the Xbox One, and whether it's any good.
Old dogs, new tricks
Duke World Tour has new levels, and this is probably its greatest selling point. On top of the four original episodes (one of which was originally DLC, or a 'mission pack' as it was called in retail shopping days), Gearbox has managed to pull together some of Duke 3D's original level designers to knock out a new episode of eight levels.
They're a not a bad bunch, based around the ‘world tour' theme and seeing Duke's foul-mouthed ‘roid rages taking him to places as diverse as Amsterdam, Egypt, Paris and London (in a level set inside the Globe Theatre, Tower of London and House of Commons).
Allen H Blum III and Richard 'Levelord' Gray have capitalised fully on the passing of 20 years, crafting huge, enemy-heavy areas, deep caverns and the kind of intricate details that made Duke Nukem 3D popular in the first place.
Tiny cupboards open to reveal ammo supplies, fault lines on walls can be exploded to open new areas, and every space is laden with light switches, water fountains, and interactive toilets. They've definitely not lost their edge in terms of minutiae.
However, what the new levels have in common is an over-reliance on enemy placement that ranges from unfair to downright malicious (or possibly lazy). The number of times you'll turn a corner to find four pig cops in your face, or an army of leaping, chaingun-toting aliens advancing over the horizon, is high. One memorable sequence involves having to backpedal down a winding mountain trail in constant firefights while backing into health-depleting cacti. Thanks.
Duke Nukem isn't like Doom in that skilful use of your armoury with the right timing and choices can put down almost any enemy. A standing gunfire exchange in Duke always gets you hurt. Doing so against eight foes gets you killed almost immediately.
Use of the game's 'rewind' ability after death becomes a dice roll at times, as you zap yourself back into the action and hope to exploit an AI loop to get the first shot in, narrowly avoiding yet another senseless demise.
There's also a new weapon in the shape of a flame thrower that seems to set enemies on fire but rarely kills them from the supposedly lingering damage. With the flamer comes a new enemy, a weird, shrinking alien that tends to zoom around and set you immediately ablaze. Not particularly sporting. And if you encounter a load in a cramped area at close range (as happens often) you've largely had it.
The final boss, meanwhile, is nothing more than a reskin of an old enemy with yet more flamethrowers.
Overall, World Tour is a fun and inventive set of new stages, but nothing Gearbox couldn't have thrown out for free to everyone who'd already bought the original version of Duke.
A whole new world
Gearbox worked with Nerd Software (of the latest Doom II episode) to put together the upgraded engine on which Duke 3D World Tour runs. It's considerably more powerful than 1996's Build engine, and the biggest new feature is a renderer that can be toggled on and off to convert the game's level geometry into genuine 3D structures.
This means that, at the touch of a button, the motion sickness-inducing mouse look of the original Duke 3D instantly becomes as smooth a head rotation as you'd feel in any modern FPS, dimensions of vertical structures not warping or stretching as before. Enhanced lighting and shadow effects are dropped in, making the new levels, which were developed using the tech, look particularly striking.
This instant transition is a great novelty on consoles, but we found the performance hit on the i5 PC was agonising at times. We're not the only ones. Some Steam users have requested refunds owing to the tanking frame rates.
Something else we found that somehow feels unique to the new engine is that World Tour seems to handle much better with a gamepad than with the traditional mouse and keyboard. Perhaps it's the ability to strafe and aim better on the console (you can't turn auto-aim off, infuriatingly). Additionally, the default mouse speed on PC is disgracefully sluggish.
Another side effect we've yet to see cleared up is that there seems no easy way to import old user maps from the original Build engine. It works only with Steam Workshop, and people have found all kinds of problems importing maps.
Duke Nukem 3D was a hugely fertile creative ground for amateurs in its day, and it'll be a huge let down for a community if no developer-supported solution appears to help out.
A final point: at least part of the new Duke 3D engine mod is based on eDuke, a free, community-developed engine mod. We're saying nothing.
Duke Talks, you listen
Duke voice actor John St. John was already sounding a bit odd in Duke Nukem Forever, and things are no better here with the newly recorded 'Duke Talk'. Perhaps it's the enhanced quality of the recording (which incidentally sits uncomfortably next to the game's old, low-quality effects) but we just didn't digging it. Less ‘attitude' and more ‘camp', in the main, and it wasn't long before we'd reached for the (thankfully included) switch to restore the original voice samples.
The director's commentary, and we say this coming from a recent play through of LucasArts' Monkey Island 2: Special Edition and its included brilliantly entertaining insights from its creative team, is a mixed bag of genuinely interesting creative nuggets (usually for the older content), irrelevant anecdotes and incomprehensible mumblings.
Sound balancing between the different speakers is often terrible, meaning that you have to ramp the volume up to hear what some of the characters say.
'Come get some'?
Duke Nukem 3D is an old game, and was previously available for just a few pounds on Steam and GOG. It's not even back on DRM-free GOG yet, prompting some to suspect that Gearbox wants to maximise income from this rerelease.
No matter the smattering of improvements and at times genuinely interesting new levels, there's no myth or magic separating Duke Nukem 3D from any other top-shelf shooter of its day.
The wisecracks are more hackneyed than ever, and the misogyny now borders on disturbing (as in the screenshot of new content below, not to mention the FMV intro to original episode The Birth, in which a naked, pregnant woman is seen delivering an alien baby in a lab while surrounded by lurking horrors). The gameplay lacks the flow of Doom or Quake, both of which are a lot cheaper.
Die-hard fans will probably find just enough in Duke Nukem 3D: World Tour to stroke their beards over, but for the casual nostalgist or newcomer it feels like Gearbox may have priced itself out of the market with a re-release when none was asked for or arguably needed.
With strange performance problems on PC and controls that just don't feel right, we'd plump for the console edition of Duke if choosing one or the other. That is unless Gearbox makes the map import process easier to fathom in the near future. µ