The Duke Nukem videogame franchise made something of in 2011. Not because of eventual release of Duke Nukem Forever, but with Apogee Software and Deep Silver planning three ‘Multi-Mode’ releases for handheld systems. Effectively the last line of progression to Duke Nukem’s earliest formula – platforming – the first title in this new campaign, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass, launched for Nintendo DS. Unfortunately the rest of the trilogy never saw release. However, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass set the scene for a series of adventures right up the familiar Duke Nukem alley.
Duke Nukem: Critical Mass is the essentially the successor to Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project. The game offered a true 2.5D experience with some additional gameplay mechanics thrown into the mix. This is where that ‘Multi-Mode’ tagline comes into play. Duke Nukem: Critical Mass does go beyond the expected platform game set-up by offering scrolling shoot-‘em-up and combat-orientated sections.
Duke Can Jump
The platform gameplay remains the most prominent component of the game. It plays much as it did in the earlier titles in the franchise. The player generally proceeds from left-to-right, moving across several tiers up-and-down ladders, and jumping between balconies. Combat against basic enemies with a selection of guns and close combat manoeuvres. There are many hidden items to find and ‘babes’ to rescue. So far, so Duke.
Additionally however, there are occasional alleyways that acts as a shooting gallery. Known as ‘Cover Fire’ sections, the player presses press against the wall, then aligns their aim with their aim with the either the D-Pad or touchscreen. They can move 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.
Duke Nukem at Critical Mass
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. Boss Battles meanwhile, 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, 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 too much to contend with. 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.
The Duke is a Pretty Boy
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 its animation. The sound quality is also remarkable, with some of the best voice acting offered on the Nintendo DS format. A two-player mode is also available requiring a Game Card per player. This allows the entire game to be played co-operatively in local LAN.
With a dwindling audience for the misogynistic hero, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass was 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 on the will to continue beyond the first few levels. But as the first in a planned trilogy of Multi-Mode releases, there was always going to be some kinks. If 2011 truly was the year when the Duke Nukem franchise was laid to rest, Duke Nukem: Critical Mass stands as a powerful argument against abandonment.