If someone were to propose that the Duke Nukem videogame franchise were to make a comeback in 2011 this time last year, just like every other year since the original announcement of Duke Nukem Forever the suggestion would most probably have been laughed at. However, it does seem as though our misogynistic hero is trying his best to propel himself right to the forefront of videogame culture with not one, not two, but in fact four new games set for release this year.
Alongside the home console and PC release of First-Person Shooter (FPS) Duke Nukem Forever, Apogee Software and Deep Silver are bringing three ‘Multi-Mode’ releases to handheld systems. Effectively the latest line in the progression of Duke Nukem’s earliest formula, Platform gaming, the first title in this new campaign, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass, is available now for Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable (PSP), and sets the scene for a series of adventures that are right up the familiar Duke Nukem alley.
Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is the essentially the successor to Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, offering a true 2.5D experience with some additional gameplay mechanics thrown into the mix. This is where that ‘Multi-Mode’ tagline comes into play, as Duke Nukem: Critical Mass does go beyond the expected Platform game set-up by offering scrolling shoot-‘em-up and combat-orientated sections.
The Platform gameplay remains the most prominent component of the game, and plays much as it did in the earlier titles in the franchise. The player generally proceeds from left-to-right, playing on several tiers up-and-down ladders and jumping between balconies, combating basic enemies with a selection of guns and close combat manoeuvres. There are many hidden items to find and ‘babes’ to rescue, as well as the occasional alleyway that acts as a shooting gallery. Known as ‘Cover Fire’ sections, the player presses Up of the D-Pad to press against the wall, then aligns their aim with their aim with the either the D-Pad or touchscreen and moves forward to the next cover position with the R shoulder button, pulling back with L. There are also preset sniper locations, where upon finding a sniper rifle the game will automatically switch to a first-person view on the top screen and an aiming adjustment control panel on the touchscreen. The player must eliminate all the enemies in the area in these sections before being taken out themselves, often earning significant rewards for swift completion.
Just within the traditional Platform set-up it’s obvious that Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is progress, renovating the formula with modern gameplay ideas. However, the transformation goes beyond that with the Jetpack and Boss Battle scenarios. The Jetpack stages are short scrolling shoot-‘em-up levels in which Duke is armed with a machine gun, rocket launcher and some impressive close combat manoeuvres, while the Boss Battles take the Cover Fire gameplay a whole step further. Instead of being locked to cover, the player is entirely free to roam the area with either a centralised camera or a waist-high, over-the-should camera similar to that introduced – and which since has become tradition – with Resident Evil 4. The same touchscreen aiming applies, though players can use the face buttons for quicker, less accurate sweeps.
As progressive as all this is however, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is significantly weakened by one major flaw: its various control set-ups. Many less experienced gamers will find the quick succession of different arrangements to much to contend with, but even for the well versed players the changes from using a face button to fire to using the R shoulder button, using the D-Pad to aim to using the face buttons and the sheer lack of a decent aiming/firing option for right-handed players during sniper locations is almost certain to infuriate. An unsightly blemish on an otherwise remarkable Nintendo DS game, this issue will hopefully be rectified with the Duke’s second Multi-Mode outing.
Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is surprisingly technically accomplished. Sitting somewhere between a PlayStation and Nintendo 64 game visually, the game edges towards the latter in terms of it’s animation. The sound quality is also remarkable, with some of the best voice acting yet offered on the Nintendo DS format, including that if the launch line-up for the next-generation Nintendo 3DS system. A two-player mode is also available requiring a Game Cards per player, which allows the entire game to be played co-operatively, and in-game Achievements system is also included.
In a dwindling core gamer market on the Nintendo DS family of consoles, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is a shining ray of hope. It’s undeniably a case of progressive experimentation in which the flaws are immediate and, for some, may be significant enough to cast a shadow of doubt upon the will to continue beyond the first few levels, but as the first title in a new trilogy of Multi-Mode releases there was always going to be some kinks. If 2011 truly is the year when the Duke Nukem franchise returns to the forefront of the videogames industry, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is a fine first step towards that lofty goal.