Shooters are going through a renaissance lately, with recent games like Doom, Shadow Warrior, and Strafe taking the twitchy, adrenaline-soaked approach of the past and combining it with modern game design approaches and technical proficiency. These games tap into our memories of older shooters, their frantic speed and surprising tactical depth, and bring them howling forward into the 21st century as if they'd never been forgotten. They've been a salve against the glut of modern, self-serious military shooters which, while fun on their own, have sort of congealed into this samey, left-trigger-right-trigger, recharging-health paste.
Duke Nukem, however, hasn't been so lucky. Even barring the awkward '90s 'tude and unfortunate cheesecake, Duke's gameplay has been firmly rooted in the past. Duke Nukem Forever was a non-starter from the beginning, landing with the thud of a poorly-delivered punchline after 15 years of build-up. Even prior attempts to update his most fondly beloved adventure, Duke Nukem 3D, have still ended up feeling more concerned with looking backward than moving ahead.
Gearbox is attempting to fix one of those problems with the upcoming Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour, which brings a swath of updates and new features to the aging classic. I played an hour of Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour's old and new levels and I found myself conflicted. Duke Nukem 3D's gunplay and level design feels as fresh, exciting, and inventive as ever, on par with the gleefully gib-laden thrills of all those games I mentioned earlier. Its less savory bits, though, remain as much a part of their era as they've ever been, and they're increasingly more difficult to ignore.
The most obvious change is its graphical overhaul. Duke Nukem 3D was never truly three-dimensional, but instead used some deft tricks of the era to give it the impression that it was being rendered as such. In the original, you were able to see some of the seams when you tried to look at the top the game's various skyscrapers, only to be met with textures that stretched out until they fill the screen. Now, the environments have been fully rendered in actual 3D textures, complete with new lighting, and you can switch between both modes on the fly.
The update in graphical style brings a whole lot of smaller, less noticeable changes. The frame rate is smoother and faster, video output is in true 1080p widescreen, and tweaks to the auto-aim bring the shooting in-line with modern games, making Duke Nukem 3D a greater test of skill than its 'aim in the general direction and shoot' counterparts of yore. On their own, these tweaks don't sound like much, but when you combine them all, Duke suddenly has a flow that feels how you imagined Duke played decades ago, just kicked up several notches. Duke now seems to glide as he strafes around corners, taking out mooks with his shotgun or kicking them with the heel of his boot. Additional upgrades, like the rewind function previously added to the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, all but removes whatever archaic frustration existed in Duke's original design, giving you a chance to try, try again without starting all the way back at the most recent checkpoint.
What hasn't changed is everything else. Duke Nukem 3D's tone toes the line between ironic glee and sincere adoration of everything it's sending up, and in 2016, it's even more noticeably contradictory. Some of it, like its cartoonish hyper-violence and John St. John's ridiculous ego-fueled delivery of stolen action movie one-liners, still feels cheeky and fun, like staring at a rack of old '90s video cassettes and wondering what you're going to watch next. Other bits, like the parts where you can hit the interact button to throw money at strippers for health power-ups (as well as a little, ahem, extra) feel alienating and awkward today, a 12-year-old's idea of a joke told twenty years too late.
It's unfortunate, because underneath Duke Nukem's macho exterior and casual sexism lies a design filled with creative touches and secrets off the beaten path, and all of the original levels from the base campaign have made it over intact - now with a ton of developer commentary to sift through, if you want to dig deeper into the game's creation. In addition to those original chapters, you'll also get a whole new set of levels by Allen H. Blum III and Richard "Levelord" Grey, two of Duke Nukem 3D's original designers, created specifically for the 20th Anniversary Edition. The stage I got to play during my hands-on session felt like it was always meant to be there, a lost level plucked out of time and attached to the original game.
Set in Amsterdam, the first level of the World Tour chapter has you traipsing around a pot store (because of course it does), taking out aliens with rockets in the wide open spaces of the sleepy city streets and the claustrophobic rooms of this shop's successful grow operation. It begins fairly typically for a Duke level, until you stumble on an open area with a giant water fountain in the middle. As you circle around the fountain, you'll notice the walls changing, weapons appearing next to park benches and enemies warping in that clearly weren't there before. Continue to strafe around while dodging enemy fire, and you'll stumble on a switch in a room tucked into the middle of the fountain, seemingly appearing out of thin air. It's a room that bends the very logic of 3D space, thrown into the middle of a Duke level as if it were a trifle. It's that kind of playfulness in design that Duke Nukem 3D's always been known for, and seeing its original creators using the original tools to build a stage that feels as much a part of its time as it is up-to-date with its contemporaries brings Duke to a place that he hasn't been in a long, long time.
But then there's everything else. I've always wondered if Duke Nukem was a relic of his era, if Duke's brand of attitude and game design is played out in the 21st century. Turns out the game part is as fun - if not more fun - than it's ever been; the rest of him just needs to catch up.
Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary Edition World Tour hits PS4, Xbox One, and PC on October 11.