It’s been 10 years since the events of Duke Nukem Forever and things have changed, Duke is no longer seen as the heroic figure he once was, his name has been dragged through the mud because of fans digging too deeply and is now forced to lay low from the public eye. Turns out the whole ordeal was an elaborate smear campaign by the aliens no longer satisfied with just his death. Having tracked down a warehouse containing the beta materials for Duke3D and DNF, this becomes a city wide journey to reclaim those files and clear his name.
Duke has a simple goal located in Alexanderville where he plans to bust into the nearby warehouse, but having caught wind of his appearance in town, the aliens have decided to conclude their little revenge plot and storm the Otterlook Hotel. The level puts focus toward its broader strokes of moment to moment gameplay, so while Duke’s intentions culminates inside the last remaining building, the main scenario leading toward that instead simply boils down to cleaning up the town from an invading force. It’s a quintessential, tightly woven and polished Duke3D experience. SIMPLER TIMES is a large scaled city that manages to feel incredibly dense despite having open spaces and long stretches between locations. What really stands out for me isn’t any individual component, but the sum of all these parts that come together forming an engaging level to explore, fight and wander at the sights. This is a stark contrast to his more technical and puzzle heavy SUBMACHINE, in which Pistol solves some of my earlier concerns by ensuring there is a visual clarity that helps with navigating to distinct locales and a gameplay style that better suits the scenario unfolding.
There’s a well realised sense of being in a busy city central here, split between two sides of a river with a large bridge connecting the two halves. Visuals pack quite the punch no matter from which angle I choose to look, every step is a moments desire to mash that screenshot key as if I’m an urban photographer. Due to its sheer scale and complexity, the engine can start throwing a fit causing some sprite constructs to disappear from certain angles. Pistol is already cutting it close to exceeding the sprite limitations which makes it all the more surprising how well the level holds up without crashing. Attention to detail is always apparent, most furnishings remain bulky to serve as cover while smaller decorations like chairs have their blocking properties removed to keep movement in these areas smooth. Alexanderville contains a rich history of locations from a modern hotel with an interior style similar to the ending lobby of SUBMACHINE, to an old castle tour exhibit. Even down to the micro degree there’s some excellent combination and usage of the vanilla assets assisted with slope sprites to cover everything a city would typically have. Yet even these have been approached with a clean sensibility despite picking odd tiles, like bullet casings, knives or explosion sprites and somehow making them work to represent railings or trees without standing out like a sore thumb.
There’s too many elements to choose any particular favourites but the fair grounds with balloon and lemonade stands were fun to take a closer look at. The jewellery store is a unique addition for the city theme, looking at each piece of merchandise to see how they’ve been put together. Shops crafted like this in Build got me nostalgic of my earliest times messing with the editor just creating long streets and dozens of specialised shops for the fun of it. Decoration doesn’t always just exist in a vacuum and either involve some moving parts or interactive elements to bring meaning to their placement beyond just looking pretty. It’s a highly regarded aspect of Duke3D at its time of release that can often be forgotten about when focusing too hard on the fundamental level structure and establishing interesting combat. SIMPLER TIMES involves a blend of ideas to encourage examining the environment, little moments to satisfy curiosity from trying to open safes, ringing door bells and digging through waste bins yielding bonus goodies. Other interactions that got a laugh out of me involve Duke making comment on some nasty toys in his image and pumping iron at the gym. Other notable pieces include raising a vehicle in the garage or turning on a floor fan to reach higher elevations. Then there’s bigger set pieces during normal progression that has a pizza van crashing into a door and a yacht cruising down river after opening the dam to raise the water level.
All these areas have been designed to serve fights well, so that smooth movement both inside and outdoors is unobscured to suit the bigger skirmishes thrown at players, besides the room for raising the water level did seem a bit too tight for the incoming enemy waves. Some of the invaders have taken up new arms to inject variation in their ranks, the most painful for me was a mortar lobbing Pigcop who caused me more deaths and misery than any other foe during my initial two hour run. Freezethrower and Laser variants of Battlelords also make their presence known part way and are relatively easier opponents than our old friend with a minigun. They might be less threatening but vastly more engaging as dance partners and their rocket launchers remain a concern. While infighting isn’t much of a mechanic in Duke3D, taking any opportunity for collateral damage by causing enemies to fire in the line of their allies never gets old, many of the enemy placements are begging to exploit this tactic. Commanders are especially useful to clear groups of Octabrains, while Protectors can shrink the heavier classes to save on ammo usage. Weapon choices are abundant to tackle these encounters as desired, while scavenging for hidden caches and secrets to build up a surplus of munitions becomes an important factor for higher difficulties. While ammo may seem plentiful early on, resources start to dwindle that soon leaves an impact for the final challenge.
Progression from start to finish is a linear series of tasks that has been masked well because of the many distractions and detours available. Saving babes is one feature side quest to embark on, very reminiscent in how Duke64 made that a possibility. The mechanic is a little similar to hunting down components as in SUBMACHINE except there’s now a failure state attached; if any of them die the quest is no longer completable. I do have two small issues that aren’t quite deal breakers; One is how easily enemy splash damage can catch one of them, especially during an encounter beyond the yellow locks. The second is the awkward precise position to trigger saving them. While from a mapping perspective the feature is an impressive implementation, new coding would allow for more reliable outcomes especially seeing as coding tweaks and additions have already been included. Hunting down keys is otherwise a more traditional loop with a clear divide between where lock and key are located. One end of the bridge houses all the locked buildings while two of the coloured keys can be retrieved at the opposite side, involving a specific flow back and forth between the level’s two halves. The last key is then grabbed from the central river as if the city has now been conquered and the opponents remaining are just dregs to sweep up. Each milestone could easily have been a smaller level in among themselves as accessing these locks introduces another significant leg to the journey with their own moment to moment beats. By the time I’ve even found the first key it only then dawns on me how much is left to do up until the final gauntlet considering how much combat drives much of the playtime up.
As the level draws near its conclusion, the city becomes an arena and it’s not quite enough to throw down a solitary boss and just call it a day. Pistol decided an army of Overlords (at least on higher difficulties) is a more befitting adversary and only upon defeating all of them does the level end proper, a frantic battle using every last scrap of ammo remaining and rigging up alternative ways to cause damage. If considered by its own merits the fight doesn’t stand out much but still works as a better improvisation over relying on a single brute with nothing much else attached to it. However the bombastic presentation of many Overlords just marching across the city streets as a spree of rockets slam into everything becomes an appealing alternative to a bog standard clash, a conclusion that utilises the open space just one last time. These type of encounters for me only further reinforces that Duke3D’s base roster of boss enemies have low performance by lacking versatility and too easily defeated to create engaging scenarios with them as they currently exist. Compare them to DOOM’s Cyberdemon which can perform roles such as turret, denial and pressure without any need to modify him. It’s commendable that any effort is made to give Duke3D bosses change the formula in user maps. In retrospect giving the Overlords some new firearms similar to the Battlelord variants may have provided that extra flavour to distinguish its finale but not an issue I’m going to hold against it because of everything else leading up to this point.
A tightly woven experience with engaging exploration, paced well so that each milestone has significance to the journey. SIMPLER TIMES takes a step back from Pistol’s prior work to put focus on Duke3D’s core aspects that make it’s gameplay tick. These range from solid combat setups and moment to moment flow, to interactive environments and larger set pieces that create change during the level. Traversing the city just to take in the sights and gawk at the spritework is also enjoyable enough on it’s own too, it’s a gorgeous piece of work where each component has its place.