[Note: Yes, this is a rant and it is very much my personal opinion. Yes, I’m probably taking this game too seriously. No, I don’t think any parts of the game should be censored and I fully support 3D Realms’ right to free speech (despite one terrible part of the game) and their right to terrible game and level design too.
I should probably also point out that this review contains a (very slightly obscured) screenshot of part of the game which is fairly insulting to anyone who is even slightly transgender.
Even so, I’m a “Duke Nukem” fan and I like most of the other “Duke” games. I’m mostly writing this rant because I think that this game doesn’t really do justice to the character and the franchise in general. This game might not annoy you – if it doesn’t, then have as much fun as you can with it and don’t bother reading this article.]
“Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” is an action 2D/3D platform game that was released in 2002. In case you’ve never heard of him, Duke Nukem is a parody/pastiche of various 1980s action heroes. He’s handsome, he has a ridiculous amount of muscles, he’s blond, he likes wearing vests, he likes big guns and he’s been around since 1991.
In the mid-1990s, he took the leap from 2D to 3D, as well turning into the kind of character who can still cause ludicrous amounts of controversy amongst both conservatives and liberals. Normally, I have a certain amount of respect for things which can stir up controversy on both sides of the political divide. But this is the only time where I’ve actually been personally pissed off at a Duke Nukem game, but more on that later…..
Anyway, when I recently rediscovered an old copy of “Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” and started re-playing it, I was excited. After all, this was a game where Duke Nukem finally returned to his 2D platforming roots (more on that later) and I absolutely loved the old 2D “Duke Nukem” games.
Hell, even the plot of this game is much more like the storylines of the “old” games – basically, an evil scientist called Mech Morphix has developed a type of slime called “GLOPP” which can mutate people and animals into
cannon fodder for Duke Nukem evil mutants. It is, of course, up to Duke to save the city of New York from these mutants and to put an end to Morphix and his evil plans.
I should have liked this game. Hell, I should have loved this game. But I didn’t. And I’m only about halfway through it so far.
First of all, let me say that this isn’t a “bad” game. But it isn’t a great game either. One of the first major problems with it is the fact that it’s never quite sure whether it wants to be a 2D platform game or a 3D platform game. In terms of graphics, it’s a 3D game from the early 2000s. In terms of gameplay, it’s a 2D platformer from the 90s, with a few parts that allow you to move in three dimensions. Sort of.
Basically, Duke moves along an invisible two-dimensional “track” running through the level. Occasionally, you are given the opportunity to move to a different “track” which is closer or further away from the screen. This is incredibly distracting and annoying, since you’ll occasionally see items and enemies in the foreground and/or the background but will have to spend ages working out how to reach them because this game doesn’t function like an “ordinary” 3D game.
Whilst I’ll give 3D Realms credit for trying something innovative (and gaming certainly needs more innovation), I still think that the game would have worked a lot better with good old-fashioned 2D graphics rather than with flashy 3D graphics. Yes, this game was probably made at the very end of the time when it was still “cool” for a game to be in 3D and this probably explains the choice of graphics. Still, the game looks like it should be a 3D platformer, but it handles like a 2D platformer. Keeping it in old-school 2D would have just been a much more sensible, if slightly less glamourous, choice.
I also have fairly mixed feelings about the level design too. On the one hand, the levels are still slightly non-linear and you have to search the entire level to find a keycard (like in “Duke Nukem II”) and you also have to rescue one of the many supermodel-like women who Morphix has strapped to GLOPP bombs before you can progress to the next level.
Whilst it’s good to see non-linear level design in a platform game, the design has been (how can I put this nicely?) “simplified” slightly and, although I still got stuck on a few parts, the levels require nowhere near the level of exploration and searching as the levels in “Duke Nukem II” did.
Honestly, I get that this game is probably aimed at teenagers (at straight cisgender teenage boys, to be precise) but I was able to complete “Duke Nukem II” before I was even a teenager, as were probably quite a few other gamers of my age. So please, 3D Realms, don’t patronise us (and future generations of platform gamers) with simplistic level design.
Plus, whilst I don’t agree completely (but don’t disagree completely either) with the ideas a certain well-known and controversial Youtube videogame critic , the “rescuing” mechanic in this game is a pretty lazy replacement for a keycard and it just comes across as ridiculously gratuitous lowest-common-denominator fanservice. Even for a “Duke Nukem” game. And that’s saying a lot.
Once you rescue one of the women, she’ll strike a suggestive pose and Duke will say a pick-up line or a one-liner about how great he is. This happens in literally every level, regardless of context. Even if you’re in the middle of a mutant-infested sewer, the woman you’ve just rescued will just stand there in various suggestive poses rather than, say, trying to escape the sewer like any sentient form of life would probably do.
Yes, there’s nothing wrong with sex and sexuality in computer games (and there should really be more of it in my opinion). But the way that this is presented in “Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project” is just ridiculously nonsensical and, more importantly, it detracts from the atmosphere of the game.
In “Duke Nukem 3D”, the nudity in the game actually worked in dramatic terms because it was included fairly infrequently and, when it was, it always made some vague level of sense in the context of the level. It was all part of the gritty and “mature” atmosphere of the game, rather than just a lazy replacement for a second keycard in literally every level or anything like that.
Anyway, going back to the level design, the other major flaw with it is that it is boring. Yes, Duke might go through a variety of different locations, but they don’t really look that different. Yes, I’ve only played the first four levels/chapters, but I might as well have just played one of them.
Every location I’ve seen so far has been gloomy, urban and drab. Yes, I get that the game is set in New York, but they could still have added a bit more variety to the general atmosphere and style of the settings. Honestly, “Duke Nukem II” was released almost a decade earlier and literally all of the levels in it are far more memorable and just generally more interesting.
Plus, one thing that seriously annoyed me with the level design was this one insulting background detail:
Yes, if Duke himself had said something like that, I could have shrugged it off as just part of his character (even though I’d probably have a slightly lower opinion of him, since I like to secretly think that he’s open-minded in his own way).
Hell, even if the stereotype/caricature on the billboard was an actual character in the game, I personally wouldn’t mind too much (well, there are hardly any transgender characters in games, so even fairly caricatured ones would be something of a small improvement over next to nothing).
But, since this billboard is a background detail – a part of the world of the game – it pissed me off quite a bit. Playing a game set in a world where transgender people are casually seen as “freaks” kind of has a habit of ruining my personal enjoyment of the game in question.
Yes, most people probably won’t care about this (or even really notice it) and, no, I don’t think that the game should be censored just because one part of it personally pissed me off. Yes, I get that it was probably meant to be a (rather crappy) joke rather than anything malicious. Yes, I’m probably reading far too much into it. But, still, that poster still drained a lot of the fun out of that level for me.
But, the one thing that is fun in this game is the voice- acting. Once again, Jon St. John does an excellent job with many of Duke Nukem’s various lines and catchphrases and there are a whole bunch of new hilarious lines in the game. My personal favourite is, after you die and respawn, Duke will sometimes say “Ah, so there is life after death!”
Not only that, there are a few brilliant movie references too and I’ll never forget how much I laughed when Duke said “Mimic that!” after shooting a mutant cockroach on the subway level for the first time.
However, one problem with the voice acting is that 3D Realms has censored a few parts of it. For heavens’ sake, it’s a “mature”-rated game in America! At least let Duke swear properly without bleeping it out like a daytime TV show! Honestly, people who play this game aren’t going to care if Duke says a few four-letter words, in fact they’d probably expect nothing less. And, unfortunately, 3D Realms has given us less.
One interesting feature of this game is the fact that Duke has a lot more weapons than he ever did in the old platform games from the 90s. He can also throw pipebombs too, which can come in handy during a few parts of the game. But, there’s never quite enough ammo. Yes, I’m ridiculously cynical about infinite-ammo pistols in FPS games. But, for action platform games, they’re pretty much mandatory. After all, the focus in a platform game should be on the action rather than on conserving ammunition (unlike in a well-designed FPS game like “Duke Nukem 3D”).
Seriously, an infinite ammo basic weapon was one of the main features of “Duke Nukem II”. It was one of the things which made the game so joyously playable. You could blast away at anything that moved without a second thought. But, no, such basic gameplay-essential things are obviously beneath the more modern incarnations of Duke Nukem.
But, despite all of my many criticisms (and the fact that I’m probably taking this game way too seriously because I’m a “Duke Nukem” fan), I’ll probably keep on playing this game. Why? Because it’s at least partly an old-school 2D platform game and these are a dying breed these days. Secondly, as terrible as it is, it still features one of my favourite nostalgic videogame characters. Thirdly, I’ve only played half of it and I’m still irrationally holding on to the vague hope that the other half will be better.
But, if I had to give this game a rating out of five, then it would probably get two and a half at the most. It could have been so much better, but it wasn’t.