The Build Engine is a fascinating piece of tech. Made by a young Ken Silverman, the engine was made as one of those engines that could rival Doom in features, and was used to great effect with its design, features and most importantly, interactivity. Build brought us some of the coolest mid-90s FPS games: Shadow Warrior, Blood, and of course, the granddaddy himself, Duke Nukem 3D.
With news breaking of someone leaking a work-in-progress build of Duke Nukem Forever from around 2001, I’d be kinda getting an itch to go back to the ‘roided up wisecracker. Problem was finding good Duke-related content.
While Doom’s mod community is well documented and reported upon, I feel the Duke Nukem 3D mod community is talked about a lot less. Granted, there isn’t a whole lot of outstanding mods, and some of the more notable ones like Plunder & Pillage have an unfortunate history behind it. But somehow, I found a modification for Duke Nukem 3D that for a good while was my go-to if I wanted to play a game that wasn’t a Call of Duty title.
Duke Nukem: Alien Armageddon is a modification for Duke Nukem 3D using the eDuke32 source port of Build. At first glance, you’d think this is just a few new levels and maybe a few monsters. Oh, it’s much, much more than that.
Made by a team called “Dukeboss,” the team mostly consists of sebabdukeboss20, a modder known for the AMC Squad for Duke Nukem 3D, and DeeperThought, whose Duke Nukem Attrition mod for Duke Nukem 3D was something I played constantly for years. There’s a myriad of other developers involved, including mappers, artists, even voice actors; but those are the most notable members of team Dukeboss.
Alien Armageddon is a combination of Duke Nukem 3D with a myriad of new items and features. The original episodes from Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition alongside two of the official expansion packs – Duke It Out in D.C. and Duke Caribbean: Life’s a Beach – which add new cutscenes, animated features and even abilities like an RPG system and an AI partner. I’ll get into that more in a bit.
Please note: This article was written in June 2022, which covered version 4.54, the most recent version of the mod at the time of publication. As the mod is often updated to add new content or fix bugs, some of the things mentioned here may differ from a more recent version.
But it’s more than just another gameplay tweak mod. The game comes with three new episodes to play. The first, “New Invasion,” is a new episode that introduces Duke and Bombshell – that lady character that appeared in some concept art and eventually got her own games in the self-titled Bombshell and Ion Fury – as Dr. Proton from past Duke Nukem games returns to exact his revenge.
The second is the most ambitious: “Space Gladiators.” While everything else is fairly straightforward Duke Nukem 3D fare – Kill aliens, grab keycards, find secrets, get out – Space Gladiators is a wholly unique beast.
Taking place after Duke It Out in D.C., Space Gladiators involves Duke and Bombshell being captured and forced to take part of an intergalactic space tournament by a dominating alien race to save Earth. Think like Quake III Arena or Unreal Tournament but with Duke Nukem 3D’s stuff, and with a bit more story.
This episode introduces a hub area for the player to go into, alongside with hidden areas, upgrades, and even NPCs that you can talk to. It’s arguably the most impressive, primarily because of it doing things that the Build engine never really did natively. Or in the case of stuff like William Shatner’s TekWar, really really badly.
The third and most recent – as of this writing – is Resistance, an interquel mission that takes place during Space Gladiators featuring a new character, Wes Wolf, who’s basically a knockoff of Wesley Snipes’ Blade. The episodes can be played in any order, but the mod recommends the order of: Atomic Edition, Duke Caribbean, New Invasion, Duke It Out in D.C., Space Gladiators, Resistance.
Alien Armageddon also boasts a mode called “War of Attrition,” a survival mode where you play random maps – either maps from the various campaigns, or custom levels from the Duke Nukem 3D community – and fight off enemies while leveling up your character and arsenal. This is my favorite part of the mod, a continuation of DeeperThought’s previous “Duke Plus” and “Attrition TC” mods.
Killing enemies will give experience for your character and the weapon you’re using. Enemies drop money that can be used to purchase upgrades. Leveling up your character increases your maximum health, leveling up your weapon unlocks abilities like an “Opening Salvo” which does damage over time when you hit a target, and the “Life Leach” which any damage you give to an enemy gets returned to you as health.
In addition, the player can unlock some passive abilities and upgrades to you and the items you use. In addition to fairly commonplace things like permanently increased maximum health and health regeneration, there’s cool items like automatic turrets that fire for you, faster kicks, no friendly fire, even an “EDF Rescue” that will revive you and have a squad of AI friendlies assist in doing damage. These are all bought with money the player picks up off any enemies eliminated, and any stacks of coins that appear in the area.
Upgrades also apply to weapons, too. Wanna make the default pistol for Duke and Bombshell a fast-firing Glock-18 instead of their stock pistol? You can do that. Make a shotgun semi-automatic, have faster-firing rockets, even convert weapons like the Shrinker into a powerful gun called the “B.M.F.G.,” which clearly took an inspiration from Duke’s distant cousin.
Upgrades can occasionally be found in the wild on some of the expansion maps, but otherwise you’ll have to buy them with the coins found in the area. In most of the episodes this is immediately available by hitting the Backspace key. With the exception of Space Gladiators: You have to eventually earn it as the team makes progress in the campaign, otherwise you have to go to a shopkeeper in-between matches.
While most of the arsenal from Duke Nukem 3D is intact, there are distinct changes. Duke’s pistol looks more like a 1911 now. The laser tripbombs are replaced with more helpful Spider-Mines, which chase enemy targets and explode. (You can change them back to the laser tripbombs if you prefer.)
Bombshell and Wes Wolf get their own unique weapon equivalents: For instance, Duke’s powerful gun is the Freezethrower, whereas Bombshell’s is the Immolator, a fast-firing laser weapon likely inspired by the weapon of the same name in Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour, and Wes Wolf’s is… a Blade Launcher. I mean, it makes sense considering who we’re playing, but I always found his powerful gun to be quite dull.
Having these characters can give a different sort of feel to the core Duke Nukem 3D gameplay. Even when replaying the levels and playing the War of Attrition mode for this article, I kept swapping between the main characters. Though, Wes is locked until you finish Resistance, and there’s two other characters from the Space Gladiators campaign that have been teased that currently aren’t in the mod yet. But they each bring their own unique twist and flavor to the game.
I’ll be honest, War of Attrition was the go-to mode for me for this mod. I loved DeeperThought’s Attrition mod for Duke Nukem 3D because of the random nature of it. The levels are never the same, upgrading things happens at your own pace, and monsters are different from stage to stage. It gives a unique experience with each playthrough. In essence, it’s like if Duke Nukem 3D was turned into a rougelike FPS. I’ve tried Roguelike FPSes before with games like Ziggurat and didn’t really stick with as much as I did War of Attrition here. If you never touch the other stuff – and you should, because the updated levels and new campaigns are pretty solid, pushing eDuke32 to its absolute limits – you should definitely check out the War of Attrition mode.
I will say that in spite of all the new stuff, there were a few things that irked me. One of the posters that was made for the mod is called “SJW Wars,” referencing the kerfuffle nerds had with Star Wars: The Last Jedi a few years back. One custom level took place in a school and had an ableist slur – the r-word – in the “Special Ed.” room. (Granted, that’s a custom level that only appears in the War of Attrition mode and not in any of the new levels proper, so all that really gets is a “yikes” from me.)
Finally, this game does like objectifying women, through Bombshell’s default outfit, to having visible breasts on some of the characters. Thankfully these can be swapped out for something a little more stream-friendly, but it is a bit crass and unnecessary, even for Duke Nukem.
I write about these complaints with a bit of hesitation. The “boomer shooter” community can sometimes foster a bunch of outright assholes, and I was a bit weary about talking about this mod because of this questionable content and the possible backlash. But I figured these are just small blemishes in an otherwise enjoyable mod.
Gameplay wise, it does have some quirks. The auto weapon switch has a bias towards the shotguns, which often were the weapons the mod went to when I ran out of ammo in my more powerful weapons, instead of the other powerful weapons I had. In addition, said weapon switch would sometimes switch me to a weapon with no ammo in it, thus having me fumble around with the mouse wheel or number keys to switch to an actual weapon while slowly dying in combat.
Sometimes while down, my ally would either be stuck somewhere, busy fighting an enemy, or alternating between healing me and attacking. These often forced me to go back to a previous save. When healing occurs, it only lets you revive an ally if they’re at full health, which may come at a cost of your own health if you don’t have a Portable Medkit equipped. These are mostly annoying quibbles to me, and I hope a later revision fixes some of these bugs.
When I think about it, Duke Nukem 3D doesn’t really have the mod that gets people talking about that game again. But I think Alien Armageddon is pretty damn close to being the definitive Duke Nukem 3D mod, much like the “Death Wish” level set for Blood, or – ugh – Brutal Doom. (That’s probably the most praise you’re ever gonna get out of me for Brutal Doom in this day and age.) It’s the best damn Duke Nukem 3D mod I’ve played, that’s for sure.
You can download Alien Armageddon at its ModDB page here. Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition is required, which is available on the Zoom Platform. Any second-hand copy of Atomic Edition will also work. As far as I know, if you owned either Atomic Edition or Megaton Edition before they got delisted off digital storefronts, that should also work; but I can’t vouch if 20th Anniversary World Tour works, as that has its own engine and such under the hood.
Honestly I need to find more Build engine stuff to play. The games that used Build were fun and unique, doing things most games weren’t doing before Half-Life and were just pure fun. The “boomer shooter” community is full of people doing cool things, and I wanna champion that stuff more.