On the Level: The Duke Burger
By: Zach Zimmerman, Contributing Writer
Duke Nukem Forever (DNF) is nowadays more remembered for how unexceptional it was than the fanfare around the forever-ness of its development prior to release.
DNF was released in 2011 and came with a very middling gameplay, awful story, embarrassing and forced dialog and just painfully unintuitive level designs. Considering the legacy and all time high that Duke Nukem 3D managed to bring sixteen years before (1995), it’s hard to digest just how messy of a story DNF turned out to be. However, pound per pound, level by level, were there any redeemable bits worth biting into in the latest Duke Nukem title?
The only real respite amongst DNF’s level list is the twelfth chapter characteristically named The Duke Burger, named after the in-game universe’s fast-food chain which uses Duke Nukem’s likeness.
Along for the ride with Duke, the player finds themselves post-crash, in what has so far been otherwise a forgettable Las Vegas landscape (and one god awful dream sequence) at the front steps of a Duke-Burger restaurant. It seems the franchise has survived well into the twenty-first century alongside Mr. Nukem, for better or worse.
The level is broken into three parts by loading screen. Two of these are very competent in a game that so far has left most players often asking “Who asked for this?” These first two parts do what Duke Nukem as a series was mostly known for: fighting aliens in believable everyday locations and interacting with the space in interesting ways.
Real Duke fans may pick up on some immediate throwback changes. Over the intercom you hear the piping in of the music from the original Duke-Burger level from Duke Nukem 3D. This hits like air conditioning as you enter the house from a hot Vegas day, in a game that is otherwise repetitive or very absent of any memorable music.
The player (Duke) starts in the upper floor lobby and sees the awful alien feng shui which infests the floor and blocks the entrance, making getting your grub on a little more difficult. If players turn around, they’ll find themselves at a small gift shop location where interaction with a cigar and a voicemail can happen. Where the cigar is an ego check, the voicemails are collectibles that contribute to an achievement. These voice messages are mostly terrible but a fun little side gag collectible, something to break up the otherwise awful commentary or weirdly creepy Duke vibes that the game insists on running you over with.
Heading back, Duke will quickly find himself in the bathroom and see the carnage laid out. Shrink and grow pads stand in the middle of the floor and players see a poor part time worker with a severed arm who tried to damage an electrical power surge in what is clearly a violation of OHSA regulations.
Behind the sinks is a maintenance closet and some stalls. In one of these stalls, there is a body of a EDF soldier that regretted upsizing his order and another forgettallectible (a forgettable collectible) porn magazine that somehow manages to be even a lower texture.
Back at the maintenance closet a small grate is open for a tiny Duke to find himself in there. Once inside the player can grow up and responsibly turn off the electrical box. This moment is short lived though, as the player has to shrink down and hop over and through the wall to enter the restaurant. Some people say the wrench at the bottom of the wall space is a nod to 2008’s Prey, which was in part associated with 3D Realms, but I don’t really see it. Duke makes no obnoxious remark about it, which he usually does whenever a reference is made to another game (a fact backed up in this is later in the same level!).
Part 2 of The Duke Burger has the player falling through the ceiling tiles and upsizing to take on some pig-cops with some twists and size difference. The combat is as quick as the service ought to be, the environments are appropriately lit for a grungy nasty restaurant and the Duke Burger theme “Preparation D” squeaks through the speakers.
Jumping the waiting line, Duke Nukem will find himself fighting mano y swino, platforming over the counter and precariously near the drink machine (no free refills this time!).
For once, the pathetically outdated or otherwise embarrassing quips of Duke Nukem seem appropriate in The Duke Burger as he is quick to spout something related to his environment. In the Game Room, Duke clears out some crawling critters and must either take on Assault Troopers by leading them to shrinking pads or just dump ammunition into them to watch them fall in a Dave & Buster’s rendition of David and Goliath.
Those who like the Small Soldiers vibes that are brought out from custom Counter-Strike maps or the Army Men series may get a kick out of the shrink/grow stages of The Duke Burger. Inside the prep closest, it’ll have you navigate past condiments and more Pig Cops to jump into the kitchen. Hopefully all of this is accomplished while avoiding the Ketchup and Mustard splash screens. It’s really hard to say who is going to be cleaning this all up after all of this.
Springing into the kitchen, you find that the floor is lava until you do the thing (usually the thing is flip a switch), a trope a lot of games like to pull at least once from their design decks. You are also met by Girl, an overworked and underpaid employee of Duke Burger. She doesn’t have much to say, which is probably a good thing as Duke Nukem Forever has pretty much made every character’s depth the equivalent of onion skin.
This part is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s a quick sortie through the kitchen to the power junction box that controls the “Kill Me” juices. Duke avoids rats (see ya later, Mickey!) and rat traps, bounces from shelf to shelf using spatulas, toasters and finds himself interacting with many pieces of equipment in the kitchen that serve as hazards and progress checkpoints.
The player jumps, ducks and weaves through the shelves and the cooking stations and finally makes it to the power shutoff facing off with some final platforming and a deep fryer acting as Marauder Shields before the climatic switch flick. Your reward is a chest high water stride to victory, but then it’s on to the next part.
The sugar rush from downing all the fast food is quick to come and go, as was the fun brought by The Duke Burger. The third part results in Duke climbing up to the surface and participating in a painstakingly long fight of aliens and dropships. Ironically, the outdoor air and sunlight does exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from an outdoor area, and completely sucks the energy out from what The Duke Burger restaurant was bringing and willing to throw back to.
The Duke Burger, particularly in Part 2, is an interesting snapshot in good first-person level design. Though it certainly won’t take anything more than just a participation award, it is worth pointing to and acknowledging that a pulse was certainly present when making use of the realistic space of the restaurant floor plan and assets, peaking with the condiment closet and suspiciously clean kitchen.
Although it is merely a contained room to room arena with mixtures of platforming and combat, each room is an iteration of what was just seen or foreshadowed on by the first part. No specific area of The Duke Burger manages to force you to park in the waiting stall as you drive through the level. The pacing is perfect and it’s a decent attempt to throwback to the best of Duke Nukem’s menu. This is something the rest of the base game manages to absolutely waffle on, failing to keep it fresh and just as questionable as the cooking food under the heat lamps.
To compare The Duke Burger without going back to the source would be a little presumptuous. Level two of Episode 4, of Duke Nukem 3D – Duke-Burger is an all time classic and staple of what made Duke Nukem amongst kings for believable level design in the middle and later half of the 1990s.
Duke Nukem finds himself at the doors of Duke Burger, a quaint fast food restaurant somewhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Depending on difficulty selection, the streets are swarmed with L.A.R.D.’s finest and their mechanized variants (don’t forget to press the use on the back of the tanks to enable their self-destruct).
Duke-Burger was quick to make mockery of the fast-food industry in a playful way, from the “0 Burgers Served” spinning sign to the absolutely disgusting interior seating area and kitchen. The interior space is also chalk full of baddies, really working to make the space feel lived in and larger than what the exterior shots would otherwise suggest. Players will find themselves ducking behind seats, throwing pipe bombs back up the serving racks into the back kitchen and mopping up the bathroom of spills and aliens.
A few keys later (Blue and Red) the player finds the source of the restaurant’s meat supply, the Kennel across the street which really puts a new spin on locally sourced meat. Yuck. Though this seems to have no effect on the popularity of the restaurant and particularly the recent alien patronage boom.
The Duke Burger, and its predecessor Duke-Burger are solid candidates for good level staples within the first-person genre. If one considers the level design specifically: layout, lighting interactions and the fast food themes, as well as enemy placement, combat arenas and overall pacing (length of each level) you get a quick romp in a quick service restaurant that by no means is longer than actually visiting such establishments post-game session. This is to the benefit of the player as it does not leave them exhausted, getting lost, frustrated and the worst thing a game could do: be boring.
Duke Nukem 3D served as a pioneer for these environments, as the Build engine it was constructed on, went on to be a foundation for many fantastic releases with memorable level design. (eg. Shadow Warrior and Blood). For DNF, a game blatantly put together with whatever was left in the fridge and living on the Duke Nukem was rather unable to pull off the same engagement with any of its levels outside of The Duke Burger chapter. While both iterations of the Duke Burger restaurant are high points for each respective game, DN3D has much more high points than DNF’s meagre arsenal.
Any way you look at the legacy (or lack thereof) of the Duke Nukem franchise, there can still be some fun found in Duke Nukem Forever, even if it is just one pitiful onion ring amongst a box of cold fries.
What do you think? Does The Duke Burger make the cut for a good level to you? What levels in games out there stick out as good ones in your mind?