Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Duke Nukem II - Not Quite 3D Yet

About two years after the release of Duke Nukem in 1991, Apogee launched the first sequel of the series, simply named Duke Nukem II. As with the original, it was released as a Shareware title (offer a portion of the game for free and then pay to play the rest) for DOS. Is it any better than the original? And more importantly, is it worth paying attention to today?

For starters, there is more of a story in this game than there was in the original. Here, a year has passed since the defeat of Dr. Proton in 1997, with Duke promoting a new autobiography, humorously titled "Why I'm So Great." During a news interview, Duke is taken aboard a spaceship occupied by an alien race known as the Rigelatins, who wish to extract his brain and use it to plan an invasion. Duke escapes from the ship and has to save Earth by fighting on the Rigelatin home world. Again, this is more fleshed out than before but seems more like an excuse plot than anything else. What helps though is that the pixel art is improved and players are accompanied by a static cutscene at the end of each episode as a way to lead into the next. The dialogue from Duke is actually very humorous and well-written, providing the only, but great, source of humor for the game. Then again, it's a game from 1993, so I probably shouldn't be complaining much about the story. After all, the technology wasn't very advanced compared to what we have today, so it suits the time it was made.

Unlike the first game, there is now an option to set a difficulty level when you begin a new episode between Easy, Medium, and Hard. For this review, I played on the Easy setting for the sake of efficiency for this blog's project of playing through as many Duke Nukem games as possible before the release of Forever. The game is fairly challenging by design anyway, with the only main difference being the amount of enemies on screen or how many power-ups you can obtain in a level.

Speaking of power-ups, while they exist in this game, they are, thankfully, not required in order to advance through the game. Instead, power-ups include four different guns with limited shots. These guns are a Laser, a Rocket Launcher, a Flamethrower, and Normal, which sets the gun back to the default one you carry around. Each gun has its own special effectiveness. The Laser can go through anything, including multiple crates and enemies at once; the Rocket Launcher will destroy any enemy in a single hit; and the Flamethrower has a wide range and is the only gun that can continuously fire without needing the Rapid Fire power-up, plus it can act as a makeshift jetpack when pointed at the ground. Health items come in the form of Cola, Turkey, and Atoms, each which boost your Health by one section. However, you can refill six sections with a Six-Pack, or refill by two when you grill the turkey, which now runs toward you instead of being a drumstick, by shooting and then touching it.

All of these power-ups are contained in crates of four colors. Red (Health or harmful Napalm bomb), Blue (Point Items and Atoms), Green (Weapons), or Gray (Essential items or nothing). The placement of these items is not random like one might assume from playing modern games, but rather set in stone. Because of this, it is fairly easy to memorize the placement of certain essential items should you die and have to restart at the beginning or at a handily placed checkpoint. Thus, you can bypass large amounts of crates to get to the essential ones quickly and avoid the crates with bombs more easily.

The game is a platformer by nature, and the last in the series for about ten years to be so. There are eight levels for each of the four episodes, each which seem should get progressively harder as they go. That is actually not the case here. While the first game could get really difficult in the later stages, this game actually has certain "types" of levels, which seem to follow a patterned placement for the first half of the game, but the second half has them placed in a nearly unpredictable fashion. I'm sure this was for challenge, but even that doesn't distract from the fact that the game has a very erratic difficulty spike between levels. The crowning example of this is Episode four, which starts with a difficult platforming segment on the outside of a spaceship, but then the next level is essentially a breeze. Then the game is more difficult but in a way that seems to level out in a very consistent fashion. The penultimate level of that episode, however, requires you to have mastered the platforming of the game to a degree that you will require inhuman reflexes. While I could get used to the game's platforming in the masterfully designed levels, it still doesn't make me less annoyed at the game’s erratic difficulty.

The end of each episode has an entire room dedicated to a boss fight. These fights puzzled me, but in all of the wrong ways. For one thing, there is absolutely no variety in the bosses, save for their pattern of movement or their attacks. Otherwise, they all look exactly the same. Secondly, every single one of them is a total breeze. Their patterns are very easy to figure out and adjust to. Sure you may take some damage during the fight, but they seemed to actually get easier as the game progressed, rather than more difficult. In fact, I purposefully grabbed a power-up in the fourth fight and died just so I could come back with the gun still in my hand and take down the boss with minimal damage. Still, I applaud the developers for making the fights at least somewhat challenging. The first boss requires you to have catlike reflexes to dodge the pattern of nukes and another requires a lot of ducking to stay alive. It may not be much, but I still managed to get some enjoyment out of beating them, if only so I could see another wonderful ending cutscene.

The controls for this game are exactly the same as the first, so I was able to just pick up and play the game with ease. However, some of the platforming can get awkward, since you need to be dead center to climb up poles or chains. This likely stems from the game using blocks of space to determine location instead of individual pixels, so it's really more because of limitations than anything else, only becoming annoying when asked to do this in midair.

Now, the graphics are done very well for the time it was released and vastly improved over those of the first Duke Nukem. The variety of the enemies really shows this, as well the backgrounds standing out better and combined with better textures. However, my hardware would not allow me the pleasure of listening to the music, so I am unable to personally comment on that. It should be noted that Duke's appearance here is much closer to his iconic image from later games, as well as the final time we see him without his shades. His voice is also only heard once at the very beginning before the Main Menu screen, albeit a different one.

So is this game worth your time? I would say that it actually is. Duke Nukem II is significantly improved over the first game all across the board, even if they aren't completely perfect. While there is a large amount of trial-and-error gameplay going on, I can say that Apogee knew how to do it right and is thus a game worth checking out, especially if you have played the first game beforehand. The 3D Realms site has the first episode for free download if you want to try it out first before deciding to buy the full version. Like the first game, there is a word of warning: The game may not work on newer operating systems, so it would be a good idea to unearth an older computer, up to Windows XP, for full enjoyment.

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