Duke Nukem: Critical Mass - first look

At this point, we’re doubtful that developer 3D Realms will ever actually release the perpetually in-development Duke Nukem Forever. But that hasn’t stopped classic shareware developer Apogee Software (now separated from 3D Realms) from crafting a trilogy of new handheld Duke Nukem games for the DS and PSP. The first of these is Duke Nukem: Critical Mass.

Not to make this preview too much like a history lesson, but forgive us if we pause for a moment to show you something awesome: the announcement trailer for Duke Nukem: Critical Mass and its eventual sequels. Which contains, you must understand, not one single frame of gameplay.

You can imagine that after this buttrock-and-clip-art-heavy trailer, we were a little cautious as we accepted an appointment to finally see Duke Nukem: Critical Mass in action. Would the game live up to the so-bad-it's-hilarious nature of the trailer? Or could it actually be good?

Well, to begin with, the DS and PSP versions of Critical Mass are actually two different games. They both star Duke and have him running around similar environments and going through the same storyline, but the gameplay is not the same. The DS version makes strong use of nostalgia with old-school sidescrolling as its main gameplay type. You'll guide Duke through graffiti-filled streets and dilapidated buildings with one button devoted to shooting and another to close-up melee attacks. Using these, you'll take out hordes of Duke's classic space pig enemies and rescue scantily-clad ladies.

While Apogee certainly wants you to remember the classic sidescroller feeling, they also don't want us thinking that's all they know, so Critical Mass's levels will also be filled with brief forays into several other game modes. Push up against an alleyway corner and you'll suddenly be in a third-person shooter, jumping out from cover to headshot your enemies. Find a sniper rifle and you'll go into a short first-person shooting minigame where you must hold your breath and take careful aim. There's also a top-down shooter mode where Duke wears a jetpack, and bosses will apparently have their own gametype as well, though we didn't get a chance to see this.

Comparatively, the PSP version seems kind of simple, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. The main gameplay here is over-the-shoulder third-person shooting, including the now common camera zoom when you hold down the aim button. Think of it as a handheld take on the same shooting style found in Gears of War or Resident Evil. The environments are in full 3D and look better than the DS game, of course, but they're still fairly low in detail, with paths blocked off by ridiculous-looking wreckage. Then again, Duke and his adversaries are quite well-defined. Movement was a bit slow and the graphics stuttered during large explosions, but Apogee assured us that the game is still early and these issues will be ironed out.

Besides the straight-up shooting, Critical Mass for PSP has jetpack levels as well, and you'll have a bit more control than in the DS version. These levels are in full 3D, and although they resemble a shoot-em-up when a large group of jetpack-equipped pigs are swarming in front of you, Duke has full control over where he flies. It's not fully-implemented yet, but Apogee is promising that this part of the game will be more of a sandbox than the on-foot sections, allowing Duke to explore larger portions of the city.

Both the DS and PSP versions of Critical Mass will also feature multiplayer modes, though these too will be different. For the DS, Apogee is focusing on a co-op experience, and though we didn't get to see it, we're imagining something akin to Contra co-op. The PSP game, on the other hand, will get competitive multiplayer modes including deathmatch and unrevealed mode unique to Duke Nukem.

Critical Mass is the first in the planned Duke Nukem trilogy of handheld games, but it also takes place at the furthest point in the timeline. Confusing? Blame time travel. Critical Mass finds Duke in a dystopian future where he must figure out how the aliens took over. The subsequent games will send him (in order) to the present day and then back to World War 2 in his quest to set things right. Could Duke be due for a Wolfenstein crossover or a one-on-one battle with Hitler? We can only hope.

As for Critical Mass itself, it's hard to tell if the game will be a return to form for the long-defunct Apogee Software or simply an unwanted blast from the past. One thing is certain though: The game doesn't contain nearly as much clip art as the trailer, and that's a damned shame.

Mar 31, 2009