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‘Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project’ Review – The Best Duke Nukem Game Of This Millennium

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I’m not sure if there’s another character in the games industry that has achieved so much fame with so few noteworthy games to his name as Duke Nukem. I’ve got a lot of great memories of Duke, like many of you, I’m sure, but they’re all pretty well exclusively tied to Duke Nukem 3D ($1.99). I mean, I had played Duke Nukem 1 or 2 ($0.99) before that came out, but unfortunately for that version of Duke, I played it around the same time as Wolfenstein 3D ($1.99), and it wasn’t hard to miss the merits of the choppy 2D action platformer in that light. I think I mentally filed the series under the same category as Jill of the Jungle and went back to shooting Nazis on my father’s PC and getting my 2D shooter fix on my SNES and Genesis.

Duke Nukem 3D came out in 1996, and it happened to coincide with me finally getting my very own PC after saving paychecks for ages. I had bought the PC in anticipation of Quake, and to be sure, I enjoyed that game a lot, but it was Duke Nukem that stole my heart and the lion’s share of my PC gaming attention on that new hardware of mine. I loved everything about it. The character was incredibly cool and funny for the 17 year-old I was, the real world feeling of the early game was extremely fresh, the Build engine that powered it was capable of amazing set pieces, the arsenal of weapons and gadgets was mind-boggling, the multiplayer was a dream, and the level editor was pretty easy for anyone to learn.

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Duke Nukem 3D was brash, gorgeous, goofy, and just plain fun. I devoured the single player episodes over and over again, bought every add-on, traded levels with friends, and played multiplayer over a dial-up modem just about every night of my senior year of high school with LAN parties on the weekends. Like everyone else, I waited patiently for the announced sequel, Duke Nukem Forever. I mean, it was even named after that awesome Batman movie that had just come out, the pop culture references were going to be off the charts! While it was being developed, some questionable Tomb Raider-style Duke games were released on the consoles, but while they had the character, they lacked the fun gameplay of Duke 3D. No worries, though, because when Duke Nukem Forever was finished, it was going to bring that high-octane fun back to the franchise.
Of course, Forever quickly became a sad joke when everyone realized it was never coming, and somehow an even sadder joke when it finally did miraculously release in 2011.

Somewhere in that span between silly vaporware and horrible shovelware, Duke Nukem quietly celebrated his 10th birthday in 2001, and 3D Realms decided to honor it with a new game going back to the character’s roots as a 2D action game. Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project ($1.99) was a 2.5D spin-off developed by ARUSH Entertainment for PC, and at the time, it was fairly well-received, partly due to its discount price of $25. Then, because this is Duke’s luck, ARUSH got bought out by a company that went bankrupt, and the game went into legal limbo for several years. Things finally got sorted out a few years ago, likely in connection with Forever‘s last push, and the game was re-released on Xbox Live Arcade to a significantly less enthusiastic response, in spite of it being the same game. What happened?

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Well, it’s been a long time since Manhattan Project first released, and in a lot of ways, time has left Duke behind. The game shows its age, without a doubt. Yet, here I am, playing it on my iPhone for the price of two dollars, and I am having a great time. The virtual controls look like a nightmare, with no less than fifteen virtual buttons on-screen along with a HUD along the top, and yet, I’m running into very few control issues. I’m old enough and sufficiently worldly now to know that most of Duke’s good lines were cribbed from someone else, and what I once perceived as bad-ass is sort of lame and embarrassing in today’s world, and yet I’m smiling at Duke’s wisecracks. This is by no means a perfect game, but on the whole, it’s a very enjoyable one, and for the price, there’s a huge amount of content.

The story is simple enough. The evil Mech Morphix, subbing in for Dr. Proton, has created an evil substance called G.L.O.P.P. which has the power to transform living things into mutants loyal to him alone. He’s distributed G.L.O.P.P. bombs all throughout New York City, attached to kidnapped women. There’s only one guy the city can call to take care of this mess, and he’s still all out of gum. You’ll take control of Duke through 24 levels spanning eight different areas, disarming bombs, collecting key cards, and shooting mutants, all while throwing out Jon St. Jon-voiced one-liners like they’re going out of style. Actually, a lot of them have, I guess.

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While everything is rendered with polygons, you’re restricted to movement along a 2D plane. Sometimes the game will fool around with the camera angle to give extra depth to things, and there are places in stages where you can jump into and out of the background and foreground, but you’re generally restricted to moving forward and backward, as well as up and down. The levels are rather large in places, and some of them have a lot of vertical elements to them, but they’re linear enough that you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding the bomb and key required to exit the level. In true Duke style, there are secrets scattered throughout the game, many of which require the use of a good old pipe bomb to uncover. Each level contains 10 Nuke items to collect which require a lot more exploration to find. It’s worth it, though, because collecting all of them in a stage will increase your EGO (health) and ammo maximums, and finding every single one in the game will unlock some cool bonuses.

It wouldn’t be a Duke Nukem game without an assortment of weapons and items to use, and Manhattan Project doesn’t disappoint. In total, you can find seven guns, pipebombs, a jetpack, and invincibility and damage doubling power-ups. You’ll also occasionally find health pick-ups, though most of your health restoration in the game will come from killing enemies, which restores some energy to your EGO meter. You can also use your trusty boot, which is not only useful for kicking behinds, but also restores some ammo when used to kill a bad guy. Generally speaking, you’ll find a new gun in each new area of the city, and there’s little reason to use older guns once you have newer ones, since the newer weapon is always more powerful and they all draw ammo from the same pool anyway. Still, choices are fun.

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Duke’s got a good variety of abilities in this game. In addition to the aforementioned boot, he can double-jump, fire his guns horizontally and straight above him, hang onto ledges and climb, slide kick, detonate pipe bombs remotely, and interact with background objects such as switches, vending machines, and pay phones. These are all handled via the virtual control scheme I mentioned earlier. To tell the truth, the interface clutters the screen, but Duke stays centered in the play area, so it’s rarely a major problem. There are tons of options for adjusting the size and position of the buttons, so you can set them up as you like. We all know Duke is a fan of playing with his joystick, so if you have an MFi controller, you’ll be all set, and the developer has stated iCade support is on the way as well. I found the virtual controls to be surprisingly decent, though, largely because the game never really calls for a lot of complex maneuvers.

The controls aren’t always great, however. Duke’s double-jump is really finicky, and while it’s not often, the game does sometimes ask you to perform platforming challenges, which can become exercises in frustration thanks to the rigid way Duke moves through the air. This issue was present in all versions of this particular game, though. Collision is sometimes a bit weird too, with bullets not always hitting where you think they might, and enemies touching you when you thought you were in the clear. The least enjoyable parts of this game are when these problems rear their heads, but they don’t come up terribly frequently in the grand scheme of things. Most of the time, it’s clear sailing on the run ‘n’ gun fun.

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While at first you might be worried that the whole game is going to reuse the same city rooftops backdrop, I’m happy to assure you that the eight areas of the game cover quite a variety of locations, from nightclubs to oil tankers to subway stations. At the end of each three-level set in an area, you’ll face off against a boss, which is sometimes just a powered-up version of a regular enemy. As I said before, the levels are sometimes big, but the game auto-saves pretty frequently, so don’t worry if you die or need to stop playing. There are lots of little background elements Duke can mess around with, most of which will elicit a line. Some of them will even restore EGO, so it’s worth checking stuff as you go.

Keeping in mind the game originally came out in 2002, it looks pretty decent. The human characters come out the worst in the deal, with the Duke Nukem Babes composed of a laughably small number of polygons. The stages themselves look nice, though, and though some explosions will cause things to momentarily stutter on even the newest hardware, the game generally runs quite smoothly. Duke’s one-liners are repeated perhaps a bit too often for my liking, which was the style at the time, unfortunately. Still, he often says amusing things, especially against bosses, and the rest of the sound design is great. Besides, what are you going to do, have a mute Duke? That would be awful.

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The game includes multiple difficulty levels, though I found normal difficulty was pretty stress-free most of the time. If easy mode still isn’t easy enough for you, this version of the game allows you to buy weapons using IAPs. All of the weapons can be found in the game (though one is rather difficult to get), and the balance of the game has not changed at all to accommodate the presence of this cheat shop. There are incentives for clearing the game on each difficulty level, so if you’re the type that likes to experience every square pixel of a game, you’ll be rewarded.

For the price, this game is a pretty safe purchase for any fan of Duke or action games. There’s a wealth of content here, matched with relatively good production values and gameplay. The original game’s design somehow suits mobile platforms to a tee. While there are some issues, mostly dealing with the platforming sections, and Duke’s cool factor has kind of blinkered out over the years, Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project is still a kick-ass trip.

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