Thanks to Abstraction Games, a solid port of the historic FPS franchise on Vita provides some fast-paced shooting fun, but the old-school design can get in the way of the experience.
World-building & Story
Duke Nukem takes place on an alternate version of earth at some future point in the midst of an alien invasion, which has transformed familiar landscapes into far more dystopian zones. Although the story is a direct continuation of Duke Nukem 1 & 2, you don’t really need any prior knowledge to play this title. In a nutshell it involves Duke returning from Space only to find the earth invaded by aliens, and begins in Los Angeles with the LAPD being mutated into pigs. From there Duke goes on a journey across the planet (and even beyond it) to stop the invasion.
Storytelling in general is very minor, with only brief text-based screens at the start of some chapters followed by a small cutscene at the end – it’s basically just an excuse to shoot some bad guys. Therefore the story which is here serves as a thin thread to take the titular character around a load of cool set pieces – everything from Downton Los Angeles to Area 51 to the Moon, which provides some nice variety in settings and were very intriguing places to explore.
Aside from the actual story, the game is filled to the brim with humorous nods and jokes and it’s this which give the game its character and help to bring the world to life. There are so many little in-jokes or references to real world things hidden throughout the game, that you will find yourself chuckling quite often at whatever it is you’ve come across. It genuinely encourages exploration of areas just to find what joke the developers have thrown in to make you laugh.
This extends to Duke himself, a walking cliche of one-liners and cultural references who feels completely at home in this warped-reality earth. Listening to him say lines from Die Hard or tell aliens to “shove it up your ass” is just hilariously fitting in this world 3D Realms have created.
Presentation & Sound
As a game originally released in 1996, Duke Nukem isn’t the most impressive thing you’ll play on Vita. The game uses 2D models for most things that tend to ‘rotate’ as you go around them, giving the illusion of them being 3D – it’s certainly a unique effect but is quite dated by today’s standards. Despite this, everything has been given a lick of paint for the current gen, and in parts it can look pretty nice on the handheld’s screen.
Unfortunately in movement things aren’t so great – everything is blocky, animations are stiff, enemies move around in clunky manner etc. Thankfully the speed at which you can fly through the levels means you’ll rarely be focusing on anything for too long and the game’s style is something you’ll get used to after a while.
Variety keeps the presentation fresh – as previously mentioned, Duke finds himself in a number of different environments, everything from cityscapes to desert valleys, and this helps stave off monotony. I have to say that the environments were my favourite thing about the title – although they’re definitely dated, you can tell a lot of thought has gone into making sure the different set-pieces stay interesting.
Sound is a high point – sound effects are hardly the most realistic, but guns tend to pack an appropriately healthy punch to them; pig-cops squeal upon being shot; alien ships sound appropriately foreboding etc. Soundtrack is also impressive – initially I didn’t think much of it and it doesn’t do much to add to the atmosphere, but I did find myself humming catchy songs from the game long after playing and there’s definitely variety for each set of levels you play in.
What was best for me – amusingly – was the Voice Acting. Although sparse, Duke is a gruff 80’s action hero at heart and he makes various quips and one-liners about the situations he finds himself in (and often quotes films or other other cultural references from the era too) – these are almost universally hilarious and definitely add to the atmosphere as a whole.
Gameplay & Content
As with most of the other aspects of the game, Duke Nukem 3D is an old-school shooter through and through – although some of these design choices can be quite frustrating by modern standards, it retains a charm that can’t be found in more recent games in the genre.
To begin with, everything is played from a completely first-person perspective – there’s no zooming out to see Duke. The camera is fully 3D so you can look around and properly examine the environments, which helps give a sense of scale to some of the areas you explore. And indeed there are some impressive zones you’ll run through, making exploration as fun as the shooting sometimes.
There are some mild platforming elements while travelling (the game has a dedicated jump button, something I really appreciated) but in general levels just come down to finding keys, opening doors and shooting enemies. Duke Nukem 3D has much more intricate design than more modern shooters, with the path to progress not always obvious and back-tracking encouraged to find new areas to progress. Some of these maps are incredibly well handled leaving you with a real sense of satisfaction upon completion, but others are just too obscure – spotting a specific hole in a wall or coming across an access code in a certain part of a level becomes ridiculous in places, leading to some major frustration.
Another aspect of Duke which is more archaic his health which does not regenerate automatically – meaning you’ll need to hunt down health packs and avoid as much fire as possible, as there’s no hiding behind cover for a few seconds to recover. This is interesting as it actually promotes a different style of play than you might expect – rather than going in all guns blazing I found myself ducking behind walls to avoid the shotgun fire of pig-cops or running away from Protector Drones to not get overwhelmed.
Thankfully to avoid any possible dead-ends from lack of health which would force the player to have to start the level again, Megaton Edition includes a time-rewind feature – meaning you can return to any previous section of the level you’re playing. This greatly improved quality of life for the game and I found myself using it often, particularly when ambushed by an enemy who shears off most of your health before you can react (and believe me, that’ll happen more often than you’d expect).
Down to the actual shooting then and it’s generally quite good. For starters there is generous auto-aim, which is always useful on consoles but particularly for Vita due to the small analogue sticks. There are a variety of weapons available – eleven in total – which range from standard pistols and shotguns to more interesting alien weaponry such as freeze rays or shrink rays. All are fun to play with and have situational uses, so you’ll find yourself switching between them often.
Sadly the game lacks enemy variety – although you will begin to come across tougher foes as you progress through the campaigns, more often than not you’re just swarmed with increasing numbers of familiar foes which you have to pick off using weapons you already know work against them, meaning familiarity sets in quite often.
Boss battles are unique, however – they are often visually impressive feats towering high above Duke and seeming like overwhelming foes to defeat. In practice actually fighting them often devolves into nothing more than strafing around and unloading every bullet in your arsenal into them, meaning they tend to be more spectacle than enjoyment.
Content wise, Duke Nukem 3D is a meaty package – there are four main campaigns to work through, each with ten or so missions plus a couple of optional bonus missions. While the developer times for these levels usually clock in around the 3-4 minute mark, you’ll actually find each takes you a lot longer on your first playthrough – normally around 15-20 minutes per mission. On top of the base game, you’ve also got three extra campaigns to work through (which were originally add-ons to the base game) so there is plenty to do.
There’s also multi-player, but unfortunately at the time I played there was literally no-one online for me to test this with, which is a shame as I feel like Duke’s mechanics would be well suited to a fast-paced arena shooter mode.
Duke Nukem 3D isn’t without its problems and elements of it could have aged better, but Megaton Edition provides such a wealth of enjoyable content that it’s difficult not to at least give it a passing recommendation if you’re looking for a fun, retro-styled shooter on the Vita.