Duke Nukem 3D – Nightmares and Pipe Bombs

Duke Title

Back in childhood days, computer games were usually a group activity. Two or three kids would crowd around the screen, pop in the floppy disk or tape, wait patiently for the game to load, and take turns trying to play. The emphasis was on trying, especially when those kids, used to side-scrollers on the Mega Drive, tried to play Duke Nukem 3D.

Duke Nukem 3D isn’t the friendliest introduction to first-person shooters for anyone, compared to something like Doom. Even the basic enemies hit pretty hard, so you need to either be quick to take them down, or be good at dodging bullets. If you’re still learning how to move around, this doesn’t end very well.

We were usually lucky to even make it into the cinema, often being killed in a small apartment near the entrance, not able to turn around a corner fast enough to take down the enemy standing around the bend. Not being able to aim means running out of ammo fairly quickly, and trying to storm the cinema by kicking everyone to death. Not knowing how to strafe, and only having keyboard controls rather than a mouse, had a lot to do with it. It was fun to toy with, but impossible to progress at all.

So it’s been nice to go back and try it again now I can actually play the damn thing. And what a damn thing it is. As good a game as Doom still is, Duke just has something that Doom lacks. Part of this is the level theming: much of the first episode, and all of the third and forth, take place in stereotypical cityscapes, so you raid a cinema, a bank, a police station, and the set for a film about Duke’s exploits in the previous episodes. The last two episodes in particular take this to the extreme: the forth episode is a Mission Impossible sendup, and the third boss is fought in the middle of an American Football stadium. They make a welcome change after the claustrophobic, dimly-lit, facehugger-filled spaceports of the second episode.

Another part of the theming comes from Duke’s dialogue, especially in the first episode, so enthusiastically evoking the action nonsense of the nineties that it’s impossible to take the game seriously, with Duke merrily taunting enemies he’s just blown up, or badly singing Born to be Wild in a karaoke bar, or swearing when the aliens blow up his ride. Three times. Camp was more muscular and explosion-laden in the nineties, but it definitely wasn’t dead.

One thing you notice as you play through the game, though, is the levels start becoming rather skewed when giving out ammunition. Why are the levels so liberal with pipe bombs? Explosions are great, but unless you’re up against a great crowd of enemies, which doesn’t happen overly often, they seem rather a waste. The level designer’s fondness for them is hard to decipher.

That is, until you play it on Nightmare.

Doom’s Nightmare setting is a place of hurry and panic, where the sole focus is on running through the level as quickly as possible. Duke’s, while not exactly leisurely, isn’t an enforced speed run like Doom’s is, but leaves room to breathe and think things through.

This is almost entirely because of a single difference between the two games. In Doom, every enemy comes back. In Duke, they only do so if they leave a corpse. And explosions destroy corpses.

Duke Piggy Boom

Suddenly, the dishing out of pipe bombs makes sense. Rather than running everywhere in a blind panic as you try to remember perfectly where to go, you can stop for a moment to consider whether you’ll need to come back through the area you just cleared out. If you are, put down a pipe bomb so the inhabitants can’t come back. You can now take the time for detours to grab weapons from secret areas, and can afford to not remember exactly where you’re going.

Inadvertently, this means both Doom’s and Duke Nukem 3D’s mechanics in Nightmare bring the feel of playing them closer to that of their bare-bones story.

Doom’s story is of a demonic invasion of Mars and Earth, ending in the inevitable demonic conquest of Earth. Taking this story as-is would imply a tone of panic, of the feeling that time is not on your side. However, on the lower difficulty levels, the ease with which armies of demons can be blown away, and the leisurely pace at which one can explore the levels and absorb the atmosphere and the music, give the game its natural feel of 90’s camp goriness, defying you to take it seriously. On Nightmare, though, the demonic forces come back over and over, and since ammunition is mostly picked up from the ground rather than bodies, the game becomes a panicked dash through the levels, hoping to reach the end before sheer numbers bring you down, as is fit for an inevitably victorious demonic invasion. Playing at this setting, you can almost take the story at face value, Daisy and Romero excepted.

Duke Nukem 3D, on the other hand, has its tone enhanced by Nightmare difficulty, not subverted. The basic plot, and feel, of the game are that Duke is an incomparable badass, and that, while the invading aliens are powerful and numerous, Duke’s victory is assured, through brawn and firepower. While Nightmare is still difficult, the ability to take out enemies permanently gives a sense of final victory that Doom lacks. Where Doomguy can only hope to run his way through the endless eldritch onslaught for as long as possible, Duke can take his time, confident that he can blow his enemies to Kingdom Come. He even destroys the Alien Queen herself, after all, with a pipe bomb.

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Perimeter – The Scourge and Wrapup

This series is dragging, let’s finish it.

The main problem faced with traversing the Chain – according to the narrative, at least – is that the presence of humans triggers the appearance of the Scourge, a vast array of alien beings that head straight for your base to destroy the Frame. The Spirits think that they are the physical manifestation of people’s nightmares.

Scourge

In theory, it’s an interesting aspect of the setting. In practice, the people living in the Frames have some very unimaginative dreams, and those dreams are consistently unimaginative for several hundred years. Also unexplained is why no one has nightmares during a battle with another Frame. Battling via remote-controlled robots creates a lot of adrenaline, I guess.

Maps involving Scourge rather than other Frames are an exercise in tedium. The Scourge come in large numbers, and are more time-consuming to take down than they are challenging. Since they frequently respawn, these maps just become a long grind to the objective. What was their purpose? It’s possible they were included to give a break from the Frame missions, but the length of them undermines this.

Even worse is the map with no enemies at all, where the mission is to move your frame to the portal at the other end of the map, endlessly retreating when a volcano appears, covering it, and moving on again. And no, you can’t just make a run for it. I showed what one volcano in the last spotlight. Imagine having to move right over three or five of them.

Between these and the tendency of later missions against enemy Frames to be brutally unfair lessons in your ability to save every time something goes wrong, the campaign becomes frustrating in the latter stages. I’ll be honest, the reason I took so long to finish this is that the sudden difficulty spikes burnt me out – not because I couldn’t get through them, but because I had no incentive to do so. I reached the last mission when I played this game before, but now I don’t have the patience. I’m going to sum up my feelings on the game, and move on.

Wrapup

Logo

When Perimeter came out, the marketing was a-gush about how it was going to change the RTS genre with its new ideas. They were excited about how the units worked, and about how many polygons the engine could deal with for the terrain manipulation. The game box itself subtitled the name with “Real Time Strategy Reborn”, and that’s how it appears throughout the game itself. It might not be as tediously unnecessary as most subtitles are these days, but it’s a lot more arrogant.

The claimed changes to the genre obviously haven’t happened. Why?

The first reason is simply that units that change types repeatedly aren’t appropriate for most of the milieu that strategy games take place in. Many strategy games involve armies comprised of people, and people are usually given rather specialised training: you’re not going to see a bunch of ground squaddies suddenly start flying a squadron of Lancaster bombers.

The second reason is similar: the terrain modifying. I talked before about what a nice concept this was, but its implementation left much to be desired. The textured terrain appears oddly stretched after being morphed, which doesn’t give any favours to a game which is pretty drab in appearance to begin with.

To sum Perimeter up, it had some interesting ideas, but the gameplay was not what it could have been. If the ideas sound interesting to toy with, it could be worth a look.

"That's all we get, huh?"

“That’s all we get, huh?”

So this first series ends with a whimper. I might come back to it some day, but for now we’ll press on. Next up is Theocracy. I’ve also started a game of Dominions 3 by email with a friend, so we’ll start posting about that once we can start discussing our strategies without showing our hands to each other.

Perimeter – Campaign and Setting

This post was originally going to be a lot longer, but I’ve cut out several sections and am going to come back to them later. This mostly because Perimeter is a pain in the neck when it comes to taking screenshots: it has an inbuilt screenshot function, but only works when inside the game engine. I need to use a separate program, Fraps, to take screenshots of campaign screen and menus, and another program to take screenshots of cutscenes, since the player for watching them isn’t fullscreen so Fraps can’t use it. It’s a mess.

So far I’ve been looking at the mechanics of the game. What about theme? What about story?

The basic plot goes like this: at the start of the game, humanity is about a quarter-century into the Exodus, a mass-migration of all mankind from the three worlds it habitated – the Root Worlds – inside vast moving cities called Frames. The Frames travel through portals to new worlds in a large network of planets called the Chain in search of Eden, the supposed paradise at the Chain’s end. The Exodus was begun by the appearance of the Spirits, who claimed to have created Mankind and the Root Worlds, and spoke of an Eden, convincing mankind to go in search of it. They also claim that the Root Worlds have collapsed after they were emptied, leaving no way to go but forwards.

Spirit Portal

The Spirits look like Humans, and it’s left ambiguous as to whether they’re some sort of alien, or a group of humans with high mental capabilities. Either way, they were persuasive enough to force all of mankind to take part in all of this, and they’re needed to construct Alpha Portals for interdimensional travel.

The player is pretty detached from the story: each Frame has a designated Legate that takes command during a combat situation, and you take the persona of the Legate for whichever Frame the story focuses on for that mission.

The first thing to say about the campaign is that it focuses more on the large-scale narrative of what happens to each Frame rather than on specific characters. Instead of conversations between different personalities between missions à la Starcraft, you have an aloof briefing given to yourself as Legate. Is that a flaw? Giving different Frames a personality would be an odd way to communicate the tale of a ship that houses an entire ninth of the human population. These are not small communities which will be led by a small council, they are massive superpowers that are physically insulated from the outside world and under attack from the manifestations of the nightmares of their people.

It does mean that you’re not going to have a particularly strong emotional connection, so if you look rooting for individuals this isn’t your game. The only individuals you see, with one exception, are in the video clips. The Spirit lifting the Portal above is a recurring character, and spends most of the rest of the time looking around with a bored expression on his face, as if he’s seen this all before. The video clips are also the only time you see humans, where they’re shown remotely controlling the combat units.

Human

Soldiers

They’re the only place you’ll see Basics kicking ass.

The story takes place over hundreds of years, so it’s ambitious, at least, with an interesting setting. How much do they do with it? Let’s see as we go.

As far as the actual missions go, the campaign can roughly be split into two parts. The first part gradually introduces the concepts and units of the game one or two at a time. The second part is a tortuous series of missions where the opponent will begin with more and more of the map, and you’ll begin with almost nothing.

When I say the first part introduces things one at a time, I mean one at a time. You can’t even build units until the third mission! The Spirits give them to you as a sacred technology, marking the confirmation of your status as Legate. Of the first two times you face another Frame, the first one requires almost no conflict at all, and in the second one you spend most of it defending, snatching the odd Core by covering it with the Perimeter, and building up enough Energy reserves that you can run away.

This second one takes place on a planet called Krugh: a quick look around the Perimeter forum over at GOG.com shows it’s the mission where a fair few people quit, because that’s when the game became hard or nonobvious. It’s a good point to start looking at particular missions, as it gives a simple example of how the first part of the campaign works.

Next time, we’ll look at the usefulness of puzzle maps in campaigns, and shine a spotlight at the Exodus’s unique units.