Sunday, April 17, 2011

Duke Nukem: Time to Kill - You'd Better Have Plenty of It

After the release and success of Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, 3D Realms announced the long-delayed Duke Nukem Forever. Once development hell began for DNF, 3D Realms and n-Space developed the first of many side games for the franchise called Duke Nukem: Time to Kill for the PlayStation (PS1). Released in 1998, this was not only the first game created specifically to satiate fans until the release of DNF, but it was also the first third-person shooter (TPS) in this line of games. While this game should be able to keep one entertained for as long as it should, I can say that I am definitely not a fan.

The first thing to mention, as always, is the story of the game. It is actually important that you don't skip the cutscene that plays when you pop the game in for the first time, which I must say was put together rather excellently with great accompanyment by "The Thing I Hate" by Stabbing Westward, as the game picks up exactly where it leaves off. We see in the video that aliens, including the familiar Pig Cops, have come to take over the Earth, again, and it is up to Duke to stop them. The manual elaborates by telling us that the aliens are called the Draks and they have the goal of altering Earth's past in an attempt to erase Duke from history. While time travel isn't completely original for the series, Duke Nukem I had this for Episodes 2 and 3, it seems like an interesting concept in theory, especially since the entire game is built around this. Unfortunately, it only goes downhill from here.

When the game actually starts, there is a pretty steep learning curve for controlling Duke. It doesn't help that the game utilizes "tank controls", where moving and turning the camera are assigned to the same stick. While you would think the rest of the controls would probably make up for this, they seem to only work when they feel like it, especially Duke's movement speed and jumping. This is a real pain during later platforming segments where your control has to be very precise or you end up dying or halting your progress, which led me to using a jetpack to bypass even the smallest jumps over lava. The control is further crippled by the ratio of the speed of Duke's actions to the speed of his enemies. The speed of drawing and holstering his weapons, and even strafing, is so slow that you will more than likely take a hit or two before you can get one on the enemy.

But the aiming system itself deserves special mention, which you'll have a hard time wrestling with. The manual states that Duke can aim pretty well as long as you point him in the general direction. During gameplay, this seemed more and more like an outright lie. While it is true that Duke can aim at an enemy on his own, it only applies to what appears to be a thin line of sight in front of him. So naturally, I tried to aim manually, which is also very tedious, as enemies are much faster than the aiming speed in both normal and precision modes. However, the biggest problem I had was trying to aim at an enemy directly in front of me. To elaborate, when near an enemy, the red aiming reticle, which only appears when in a firefight by the way, will attach to the enemy like it should. But instead of staying there, the dot will sometimes bounce back and forth between your intended target and the wall behind them, leading to more lead in the wall than in an alien's chest. For this reason alone, I used the Combat Shotgun as soon as I could and never thought twice about it.

Duke is definitely no stranger to weaponry, and this game has plenty of choices, overwhelming even. There's the standard Desert Eagle, Combat Shotgun, and RPG, among others. But throw in the fact that each time period also has it's own unique weapons, like a Buffalo Rifle and Holy Hand Grenades, and your list of weaponry will cover the selection screen, which ends up with you having more weapons than you will actually use. While most of these work just fine, especially the guns, some of the weapons, like the Throwing Knives, have abyssmal control and overall aren't worth using.

The graphics of this game are pretty standard fare for that point in the PS1 era, but I found that the graphics of Duke Nukem 3D were a lot better to look at, and those were mostly rotating sprites. Duke's character model actually looks a little feminine, even with his time-accurate costumes, and the Pig Cops are more obviously portly, which can be a little jarring after watching the opening movie. However, I can't complain too much, as it is an older system, but it was still a little hard to look at at times. At the same time, the level design was done well for a TPS like this, but some moments are a little cryptic, like needing to blast open a wall to get to the first Gun in level 3 or needing to push a trash bin in level 6 to get one of the crystals for the time machine. Overall, some of the levels could have used some minor tweaks in size and design to be more interesting to play through.

On that note, the boss levels are the shortest, being basically a room. However, instead of being challenging, they can actually be taken out with total ease. You don't even have to enter the center part of the room to kill the first one and hiding in one of two pools of water is enough to kill the second, which even conveniently hovers above to let you get in a few cheap shots. These stages just didn't provide enough of a challenge to excite me, instead making me wonder if they knew how to properly design a boss room. The same can be said for the overwhelmingly difficult challenge stages. If Duke finds a Stopwatch in a level, he can be transported to an extra level at the end where killing the enemies in a room within a time limit will net you a new weapon. However, the enemies deal enough damage that it is very unlikely you will get the weapon, let alone survive with it.

The biggest aspect of a Duke Nukem game is actually the one-liners that he churns out. They are the bread and butter of his dialogue and are usually pretty hilarious. But this game is actually a little off here. While it is funny the first couple of times to hear what Duke has to say, it gets annoying when you hear him say the exact same lines repeatedly, sometimes in a row. It appears that Duke here has a limited dialogue pool, which is a shame as a bigger selection for the game to cycle through would have made it easier to tolerate.

Now, the game would be a fairly decent reccomendation, even with the control problems, if not for one simple flaw: the game utilizes an arcade-style continue system. While it is easy to get used to at first, screwing up enough can get you to focus on getting through levels flawlessly and saving continues, actually making the experience more painful given the wealth of enemies and the damage they can deal at once. Compounding this further is the fact that checkpoints seemed to be placed too far apart from each other, making for large sections that need to be redone at a time. This became more and more unbearable over time, reducing my willingness to continue playing. In fact, it got to the point where I was almost getting to an "infinite death cycle", where no matter what you do your progress is forever halted, the only solution being to restart the entire game.

I have played through a majority of the game, about three levels off from the end. But at this point, I had just about lost all will to continue playing. I decided to watch the ending on YouTube, and it turns out that a scene in the opening where Duke's motorcycle is transformed into a pink girlie bike offers a rather questionable motivation for the narrative. This just didn't make sitting through the game seem that worth it anymore, so I just relinquished all will then and there.

Duke Nukem: Time to Kill has an interesting time travel premise, but the numerous gameplay and control problems actually make it more frustrating than fun. I have read that there was some influence from Tomb Raider, but I have no experience with that line of games and thus have no comment on that. I can't really recommend this game, except to those who have played both Duke Nukem and Tomb Raider before, or are brave enough to bear the flaws and make it to the end. Otherwise, I would suggest that you look somewhere else to find a TPS worth playing.

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