Video Games – Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition
Oh, how I love Good Old Games! They bring me all kinds of old games that I used to play for half an hour and then forget about. But now I can finish them! And complain about them!
So GOG has the Atomic Edition of Duke Nukem 3D. The game is broken up into four scenarios, all of them linked together loosely.
In short: these games are excruciating to play and irritating to listen to, but some of the settings and mechanics are still important. We can learn from this game. There were moments where I had fun.
Duke Nukem 3D (just DN hereafter) was released in 1996. That’s about three years after the first Doom game came out, and two years before Half Life 1. I just want to place it time, so I can sort of compare it to these games, which I consider the powerhouses of 1990s FPS games. I’m sure there are others – I’ve never played System Shock, for example – but these are the ones I’ve played. (I’m not including Deus Ex because that was kind of a mishmash of RPG elements and FPS stuff).
First, the bad, which unfortunately is nearly everything. Since you can get a jetpack, there have to be controls to let you fly up and down, so the normal FPS movements are a little more complicated. I couldn’t find a way to change the key-bindings either, so I was stuck with the terrible controls.
There isn’t any strafing. Oh, how I have been spoiled by modern FPS games! This was a terrible problem for me at first. I played DN on the easiest setting, and I was still getting killed on the first level. It took a while to adapt to the crazy control scheme of DN, and it never felt comfortable. It lets you look left and right, kind of around corners I think, but you can’t shoot. It’s a pain. I avoided it.
And then there’s the character. Duke Nukem is an amalgamation of every 80s and 90s action hero, cranked to “maximum juvenile” with a dash of “sexist misogyny”. It’s hard for me to tell now whether this was being played as a parody or if it was meant to show how great Duke was. It feels way over the top.
And the misogyny is pretty broad; it isn’t just Duke’s childish comments. It’s reflected in the game with strippers, video clips of women dancing in their underwear, and posters for fake films – objectification at every turn. At no point is there a woman in the game who isn’t viewed as some kind of sex object. The aliens even seem to be using them as such, with alien patrons at the strip clubs and naked women bound to alien machinery.
The game wants to be a critique of modern values, but it entirely misses the mark. It’s trite and boring. It was trite and boring the first time I played it over a decade ago.
But, as I said above, there are things we can take away from the game. Here’s the good stuff.
So many weapons! And with a nice sci-fi feel to them as well. The Shrinker was always fun – when hit with it, the enemies become as small as mice, and you can step on them to kill them. You even use it once or twice on yourself – shoot it at a mirror and it bounces back, shrinking you down so you can dart through tiny holes to access new areas.
The jetpack idea is one I haven’t seen in FPS games since DN. Granted, I don’t play games as often as I’d like, but jetpacks are fun to use. With better controls than DN had, zipping around and having aerial battles with aliens would be a blast.
The Freezethrower (like flamethrower but with ice! GET IT?) turns enemies to ice, and you can then kick them apart. Lots of fun. There are wall lasers too, so you can set traps and lure your enemies to their deaths. It added a nice tactical feel to the game, which was totally optional. Plus you could kick aliens to death.
And now the most important part – setting. Of the four episodes in DN, the second one takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth and on Moon-bases. Even though you don’t get to walk outside, there are plenty of windows, so you feel like you’re out in space. This is what I want from my sci-fi games. Too many FPS games these days take place in cities or in deserts, or just generally in these small terrestrial spaces.
I want to say “Give me something new,” but I guess I want something old – I want the absurd-yet-fun settings of 1990s shooters. With the technology that goes into games these days, FPS games could have so many exciting settings in which I could shoot aliens (no zombies, please, but Nazis are still fine).
You don’t have to look far for interesting events in a spaceship setting. There’s the spacewalk, which is one I’d love – you have to go outside and climb around on the ship to fix or repair something, or to get to another part of the ship from the outside because enemies have locked you out from the inside. With only a thin spacesuit between you and the void, every movement counts; you might rip the suit on some odd piece of equipment and die. So it’s a tense sequence. Tone down conversations between characters, don’t play music. Just the player guiding the main character from point A to point B, so close to the darkness surrounding the stars.
You could even make it more difficult – the ship is spinning to produce light gravity, but that means that one side is exposed to sunlight. The ship has shielding to protect it from the radiation, but the spacesuits can only stand a set amount. The player now has to plan a route that exposes him to minimal sunlight, while the ship moves constantly and the stars spin above.
Or what about entering orbit around a planet? The ship is damaged, and the only way to slow down enough to land is aerobraking – entering the atmosphere to slow the ship, sort of skipping through the atmosphere to burn off excess acceleration. Maybe the player is battling enemies in the ship as this happens; the windows slowly heat up, turning the white light of day into a hellish red glow as the ship blazes a contrail of fire kilometers long in the sky, while the player is ducking behind crates in the cargo hold, playing a game of cat and mouse with an enemy. Things slide around as the ship’s gravity controls try to maintain a normal gravity inside, while outside there’s four or five G’s of force.
Anyway, my point is that I had fun shooting aliens on a spaceship, and I’m sad that I don’t see more things like that. Where’s the fun in video games? Halo gave the aliens a kind of dumb motivation, and also implied some kind of relationship with Cortana (who, even though she is a computer AI, has to have the holo-image of a sexy lady, because who could find a love story believable unless the woman is sexy, right?). The physical Halos were neat, though Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld, on which I bet they were based, had a much better plot. I had hoped that the Mass Effect series would have excellent space-related adventures, but mostly you land on planets and walk around boring corridors in boring installations. Big disappointment. The Half Life series is better, but the setting is grimdark, ruled by an oppressive alien regime. It isn’t a fun battle against an enemy, it’s more a slog through gritty city buildings. Even when you reach the tower that rises straight up through the clouds, you’re mostly navigating narrow corridors.
“Look at her zeros! And those ones! Daaaamn.” – Bungie programmers
DN was irritating and sexist, and if the voice over and the sexist images were taken out, it wouldn’t damage the gameplay at all. Why are you fighting the aliens? They’re abducting people and trying to take over Earth. The end. That’s all I need. Let’s shrink ‘em down and step on ‘em!
That’s about it; I think modern FPS games should loosen up a bit. Grim worlds aren’t necessary, and I don’t need some convoluted story in my shooters. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories. I want FPS games to have good stories. But always up front should be the question – is this game fun to play? Because games aren’t like books. I don’t want to just watch the story unfold, I want to be a part of it. And to keep me in that world, I need to be having fun.