Most people know Duke Nukem only from his 3D adventures. Those who recall the heyday of shareware, however, will remember that Duke got his start in a pair of 2D side scrollers. Sunstorm Interactive, best known for the Deer Hunter games, has returned Duke to his roots. Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project is a traditional side-scrolling action game with modern technical trappings. It's straightforward and good-looking, and its budget price helps make up for the fact that it could have used some more fine-tuning.
Manhattan Project is made up of eight episodes that consist of three levels each. It's a good-sized game, and it ends at just about the time it gets boring. The environments are diverse, and the introduction of new enemies, weapons, and challenges is paced well enough to keep things interesting. Just as the basic gameplay starts to get a little repetitive, the game will throw some new activity your way. For instance, at the end of level three, you'll need to jump your way to the first car of a moving subway, leaping over and ducking under oncoming beams. The final episode takes place on a space station, and the lower gravity means you must readjust your jumping patterns. Manhattan Project could have benefited from more diverse challenges like these, but the few it throws at you are fun.
Your goal is to stop a madman named Mech Morphix, who is infecting New York City with a radioactive substance called GLOPP. In addition to imprisoning the Big Apple's exotic dancers, Morphix is causing the roaches and rats (as well as the alligators of urban legend) to change into huge, weapon-wielding beasts. Duke will also face his old adversaries, the pig cops.
Each episode takes place in a distinct environment. You'll run across the roofs of skyscrapers, through the streets of Chinatown, go down into the subway tunnels, make your way through a sewer, a tanker, and a futuristic factory, before finally ending up on a space station. The levels are huge, and most have several paths you can take. There are plenty of rewards, power-ups, and secret areas if you're willing to explore, and a good deal of the game's fun comes from trying to find the 10 "nuke" symbols in each level, which increase your maximum health and the maximum amount of ammo you can carry.
As with any self-respecting side scroller, each episode of Manhattan Project ends with a boss battle. A few of these are noteworthy. The first, a lengthy battle against a helicopter and its occupants, is a promising start. It has multiple stages, and even if the last stage is a bit too difficult, it promises that each episode will end with something equally epic. Unfortunately, you'll have only two more interesting boss battles, with the final one being the best of the lot. The rest are just straightforward firefights in small areas against enhanced versions of enemies you've been fighting all along.
Duke's selection of seven weapons is interesting, and managing them is simple because Manhattan Project has only three types of ammunition. Actually, only three of the weapons are very useful, and ammo is plentiful enough that you'll hardly ever need to switch from your favorite. The primary weapons you'll use are the rocket launcher, the shotgun, and the assault rifle. Other weapons include pipe bombs, a pistol, a GLOPP gun, and a pulse cannon. The GLOPP gun is a neat idea--it counteracts the effects of mutation on enemies, reducing them to a helpless insects or rodents, which can then be squashed with your foot. The pulse cannon is your typical first-person shooter superweapon, and it needs to be charged for a few seconds to reach full strength. Unfortunately, you'll rarely need to use it, because combat is usually over with a shot or two.
Manhattan Project features a cinematic camera that switches angles and perspectives to keep things visually interesting. It usually works, and if nothing else, the game looks great. The levels are full of interesting details, and the effective use of dynamic lighting helps considerably. But occasionally, an object in the foreground will block an enemy or an item. At some key moments, foreground objects will become transparent, and so it's strange that the game doesn't use this visual aid more often. And when the camera zooms in close, you won't be able to see enemies that are just ahead, forcing you to fire indiscriminately into the distance as you run around.
The game's use of the Z-axis is equally problematic. Manhattan Project essentially plays like a 2D side scroller, but occasionally, you can move from one linear path to another, and often, Duke's path will curve and turn on its own. It's a nice change from just running side to side (and owes more than a small debt to platformers such as Pandemonium and Klonoa), but it has some problems. If enemies are just ahead of you, but at some point where the path slightly changes, there's no way to shoot at them until you are right next to them. And the points at which you can change linear paths often seem artificial, giving you the sense that you're running through a maze with no walls or blockades of any kind.
Manhattan Project has a few other issues. The controls are occasionally unresponsive. Sometimes, we found that the jump button would not respond at all (using either the keyboard or a gamepad), which is a significant problem in a game that is almost entirely made up of jumping from one thing to the next. And the moving platforms are sometimes randomly timed, so you'll have to wait for long periods to execute some necessary jumps.
With a few tweaks, Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project might have been a truly great game. But even with its minor shortcomings, it provides enough fun to warrant its budget price. Besides, Duke Nukem's wisecracks are funny, if a bit repetitive. It's hard not to laugh when he reaches a locked door and growls "motherf****** key cards!" And the levels are huge and interesting to explore. If you liked classic action games like Blackthorne or Flashback, or even the original Duke Nukem games, then you're sure to enjoy this attempt to make a modern update. Manhattan Project is occasionally frustrating, but when it's good, it's very, very good.