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28th of August 2018

Alien Armageddon by Alien Armageddon Team

Release 1.0 - New Invasions
Release 2.0 - Caribbean and DC
Release 3.0 - Space Gladiators
Release 4.5 - Resistance

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Alien Armageddon has its genesis in a user "sebabdukeboss20" posting a whole bunch of his 8-bit spritework, mostly enemies and NPC sprites, for all the world to see. The material was so good that you could have expected to see these as enemies in an official Duke3D expansion. The quality was enough to prompt DeeperThought to provide code for the new characters and a small team of mappers to come up with a small episode of five-plus-one maps. The episode starts off like any Duke3D release; the aliens attack and Duke must fight off the invasion. However, this time Duke finally gets to team up with Bombshell, an opportunity we were denied in both Duke Nukem Forever and the recent Bombshell "Build" game.

There are some big names behind the new episode: William Gee, the Oostrum bros and James Stanfield. The first map is a bit hard to navigate due to its highly open-ended and interconnected layout, but otherwise this is a rewarding map with plenty of exploration (including some epic easter eggs) and a very comfortable length to get you used to fighting the new enemies and playing as Bombshell. The second map is like the Flood Zone but on a much larger scale, conveying a sense of a city utterly obliterated by the alien scum. It strikes a good balance between its underwater and topside segments while preparing you for what's to come. The third map takes place in a sunken city where Duke chases air bubbles to survive. This mechanic takes you away from the comfort zone of navigating underwater areas with a Scuba Gear. It's nothing new of course, having been done before in games such as Sonic and, who could forget, Duke Nukem Forever, but the experience here is far less clunky, and killing underwater troopers is satisfying as their bodies are left hanging suspended in water with their heads cracked open by bullets. (In all fairness it needs to be noted that my first experience of this map was marred by a severely malfunctioning autoaim, so for now turn your autoaim OFF for the entire duration of the third map.) The last two maps take place in an underground base located in a gigantic cavern. In these maps (which easily could have been combined into one bigger map) James shows off his proficiency at handling large areas, filling them with impressive lighting and massive architecture, a skill he has picked up during the development of the AMC TC. There's also a slightly gimmicky secret map, but I'll leave that as a surprise.

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You start off the episode playing as Duke, but once Bombshell makes her entrance, you're given the option to switch between the characters. Beyond this point there's little reason to stick with the old alien-ass-kicker; all the new guns belong to Bombshell. The new arsenal is functionally pretty close to the original, but the new weapons are satisfying to use and there are a few real gems, my favorite being a small pipebomb-replacing turret that does a great job attacking enemies: I only wish the railgun were a bit more adept at turning its victims into gibs. There's also a new crosshair system that felt just slightly annoying but mostly just pointless in not being an obvious or a needed improvement over the old system.
The sidekick (whichever) does a pretty good job at following you and shooting aliens, but he/she has a nasty habit of wanting to get up close and personal with the enemy while getting shot in the back by you in the process, making the use of explosives especially risky. Quite frankly I'd have simply disabled friendly fire and improved the AI's ability to circle strafe: near the end of the episode as battles become more hectic you'll be spending a lot of time reviving your sidekick, a task that drains a bit of your own health each time. There's also a problem-solving aspect to using the sidekick system, but it hardly gets utilized in the episode. Bombshell's voice acting is pretty good with a "tone" fitting for the character, but a few lines could have used another take and the oneliners are pretty forgettable. Also, NPCs seem to always assume you're playing as Duke.

Sebabdukeboss20 has done a tremendous job in designing the new characters. The new enemies look like they belong in the same alien race as the originals, although it felt like the colors were a bit more all over the place compared to the originals' consistency. The new enemies include a weak but deadly accurate railgun trooper, miniboss variants of Enforcers and Pig Cops and the "Dukerminator" seen in the DNF trailer (and our brilliant, path-breaking and enormously influential DNF2013 mod, of which many tales still are told), but these mentions merely scratch the surface of what Alien Armageddon has got to offer. Considering the shortish length of the episode, a lot of these new monsters are thrown at you in the very first map (while some, such as the new Protector Drone type enemy, are left under-utilized), but you should be able to pick up their AI patterns quite fast and dispense with them accordingly. Still, a longer episode would have allowed the enemies to be introduced in a more controlled fashion.

As an icing on the cake, the mod's presentation is great. There are new graphics for the menus and the stat screen and new intro and outro cutscenes (no animation; just still images). Furthermore, the old episodes can be played with the sidekick system (including in solo mode as Bombshell) with the added benefit of some new cutscenes. However, I only took a very quick peek at this, as it'd take a bit more of an incentive to make me replay the old episodes for the billionth time.

Alien Armageddon 2.0

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Duke and his lady sidekick (or am I being sexist in assuming it's not the other way around?) Bombshell are back at it again, this time bringing mayhem and alien ass-kicking all over Washington, DC, and the warm waters of the Caribbean. The second major release of Alien Armageddon retains the mod's core gameplay elements without any major changes. There are a few new enemies (including bosses) and weapons, but the main selling point is the inclusion of the two good Duke3D mission packs, Duke It Out in DC and Caribbean: Life's a Beach. Design-wise the maps are the same as before, but their presentation is more vivid and modern with the inclusion of civilians, new sprites, staged battles and cutscenes. The DC episode also has a cool Doom-like intermission screen that shows your progress across the district. One of my favorite additions is a brand new soundtrack for DC; the original release merely recycled tracks from the base game, which gave the whole thing a bit of a cheap, dull atmosphere. I don't know if the tracks were specifically made for the corresponding maps, but they fit in really well.

These being old maps, there's less space to move around. The sidekick getting between you and the enemy is quite a perennial issue, especially in Caribbean. While it's less noticeable in some of the more open DC maps, you might be better off disabling the second character altogether (although I can see this going against the whole spirit of the mod). This wasn't such a big issue in the Alien Armageddon episode with its custom-made maps and their more generous layouts, but it's definitely more noticeable here in the '90s maps. There were also instances where it felt the corridors aren't large enough to accommodate all the frenetic action, particularly when larger monsters and explosions were involved. As for other complaints, the slide kick is still more trouble than it's worth and it'd be better if the game's autoaim didn't target civilians or the sidekick.

Whether you're gonna enjoy 2.0 depends on how much the gameplay of Alien Armageddon was your thing and whether that gameplay is good enough a reason to replay the mission packs for what could be the millionth time. I personally was at a point where I wasn't looking forward to going through the same set of maps again, but there are probably many who haven't had the chance to play the mission packs at all. And, to be sure, this isn't just a lazy update with a few Alien Armageddon monsters thrown in for flavor. The cutscenes, the new monsters and weapons, and the more up-to-date pop culture references were enough to keep me well entertained despite the few gameplay-related annoyances. As a sidenote, the latest version includes upscaled sprites. These use one of those fancy new algorithms that study pixels, look at their surroundings and fill in the blanks with impressive accuracy.

Alien Armageddon 3.0 - Space Gladiators

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Duke and Bombshell got sucked into space or something, and are now forced to compete in an intergalatic deathmatch tournament (kinda like in that early TMNT comic book, or the recent Thor movie; there are probably many more that have recycled this concept over the years). Space Gladiators abandons the traditional, linear single-player experience and goes for the Unreal Tournament/Quake 3 Arena concept where the player plays a series of offline matches against bots in various gamemodes. Not many have done this with Duke3D; DeeperThought's own Duke Nukem Arena comes to mind, not to mention my own, path-breaking and immensely revolutionary Duke Tournament. But if there's one guy to code a pseudo-multiplayer mod for the game, it's DeeperThought.

The difficulty level hits you in the face in the very first match, where it's Duke and Bombshell against two Skaarj-like warriors. It's really the shock of transitioning from traditional single-player enemies to something resembling human players. However, once you get used to the pace, your troubles more or less evaporate. CTF and Domination matches are much too easy, as the enemy has a hard time catching you once you manage to run away with the enemy flag, resulting in lopsided 1000-200 wins. But maybe that's the whole point, that the game remains a two-terran show while providing a semblance of challenge. Being able to choose a difficulty level prior to starting a match would be a welcome addition still, maybe via the replacement of cannon fodder with the more human-like "Skaarjs".
Besides the mixed difficulty level, there are a few other snags worth a mention. Often it's hard to distinguish between friends and foes, an issue exacerbated by occasionally poor visibility and the fact that friendly fire is a thing, which is unusual for an arena-type shooter (because of the speed and chaos of these gamemodes). There are also two weapons - one that shoots laser beams, another that shoots electric arcs - in the game that tank my framerate upon use. Hitboxes are a bit frustrating at times, as rockets seem to fly right through some of the bigger enemies. Oh, and the slide kick still sucks.

All the new maps are well designed, featuring not only top-notch lighting, texturing and architecture but also plenty of awe-inspiring sights of both familiar and alien landscapes, reminiscent of the AMC TC in their epicness and oldskool Unreal Tournament in their variety. A few of the maps are old releases recycled for Space Gladiators, including Alejandro's Space Showdown, still one of the best-looking maps out there, but the rest are brand new. These include gems such as a gigantic ancient battleground, a remake of Duke Nukem Forever's Sausage Factory and a final map taking place on the streets of the alien planet. One issue that I kept running into is that some of the maps have rather low visibility; there's no reason why the otherwise well-designed Gladitorium should conceal everything beyond five meters in such a thick black shroud. Luckily the actual battle arenas have better visibility.

Despite the multiplayer-like structure, there's a lot of lore built into the episode and story elements that carry you foward as you keep advancing in the ranks. You'll get a kick out of running into vanilla Duke3D enemies just minding their own business at the Gladitorium. You can chat with fellow combatants between matches and even complete a few fetch quests for them. This is a good start, but unfortunately the aliens run out of things to say after the first time you interact with them, so exploring the Gladitorium becomes pointless (aside from story-related necessities) if you checked everything out on your first visit there. (But you better keep coming back to the vendors, as they sell stuff that's very useful down the line. ) The sense of being a participant in a grand tournament is enhanced by new art from the pencil of sebabdukeboss20 and all-around solid voice acting that breathes life into a diverse set of silly Star Wars type characters. Unfortunately, at the very end of the episode it seems that I was hit with a bug, as after a battle on the streets of the alien planet I found myself back at the Gladitorium with nowhere to go. Despite that anticlimax, Space Gladiators is a successful adaptation of UT-like gameplay into Duke3D.

Alien Armageddon 4.5 - Resistance

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With Duke and Bombshell entangled in an intergalactic gladiator tournament lightyears away, it's up to Blade Wes Wolf to make sure the streets of Earth are safe for all earthlings. That is the premise for Resistance, a brand new 5-level episode for Alien Armageddon. It's all single-player rather than a faux-multiplayer like the preceding episode, Space Gladiators. For this episode the central "gimmick" of Alien Armageddon, that of having a sidekick by your side, is abandoned in favor of a more traditional experience. To compensate for that, Wes has got a few new moves under his belt, namely a self-shrink and the ability to glide.

The first map, Blade of Justice, is a sprawling urban area where you travel through a futuristic city center and ultimately end up in a downbeat industrial district. The city section is teeming with neon signs, flying cars and civilian life, but you'll spend only a few minutes here, getting acquainted with your new abilities. The industrial district is where the map truly shines; you can almost smell the stench of toxic fumes emanating from radioactive pools and leaking chemical containers. There's plenty of combat here to familiarize yourself with the mod's satisfying weapon selection. Like before, you gain credits by killing enemies. The vendor has quite a few tempting items for sale, but you never have too much money, so think twice before buying anything. A few complaints about the map: There was one part near the end involving jump pads where I thought I had gotten stuck for good, as I couldn't figure out a way to get off the final jump pad without losing health. (Ultimately I found some extra health and made it out alive.) The final area with the warehouses also threw me off, as the thought of interacting with the warehouses doors hadn't crossed my mind; those familiar with how Build works understand why. At 45 minutes this is the biggest map of the bunch and a great way to introduce you to what Resistance's got to offer.

At 30 minutes long, Rosario 5 is only a slightly shorter map. It's mostly focused on rooftop action; here your new glide ability is put to good use. I've always kinda liked the idea of a rooftop-focused map; I even made one myself a long time ago (unreleased as far as I can remember) and have occasionally flirted with the idea of remaking it. The section is quite linear for obvious reasons, and includes a lengthy journey back where you get to rely on jump pads for ease of travel. I thought this section injected some much-needed variety into all the regular action, and none of the jumping and gliding ever got irritating. Design is impressive; the author is very good at detailing buildings' exteriors. You can tell the influence of real-life locations in pretty much everything you come across. There are plenty of decorative details too, especially at street level, but there's a downside to all this; all the colors and decorative sprites make for visuals that can seem too distracting and "busy" to the point that it's often hard to spot enemies until you start getting hit. Aside from that, gameplay is pretty well balanced so that switching weapons becomes essential. A motorcycle makes an appearance too, but it felt like a useless gimmick.

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From the top of the world you sink to the very bottom. Slum City One is, at 17 minutes, the shortest map in Resistance. The slums are expectedly dark, which enables lighting effects to shine; the map makes particularly good use of colored lighting, and all those neon signs look good here against dark backgrounds. This is the episode at its most dystopian, as you get to witness the dark underbelly of society with its strip joints and dark alleys. If you rank Blade Runner among your favorite movies, this map should make you feel right at home. Combat suffers a bit due to the persistent darkness (but not as much as you'd expect), and a lot of the map is built around narrow corridors where cover is not always immediately available, compelling you to rely on quick reflexes instead. There were also a few nasty ambushes, with enemies dropping in unexpectedly. Despite your constrained surroundings, the map treats you to quite a few visual surprises along the way.

Smithsonian 2 is an interesting map, being a quite liberal remake of the Smithsonian Terror from Duke It out In DC. The reputation of the original is of one that's well designed but a pain to navigate, but in the "remake" the latter aspect is largely missing. Even so, this is still a lengthy map at around 40 minutes, and gameplay-wise it offers everything from darkened storage rooms to huge outdoor areas. The map has a very strong start with a wide open outdoor area where you're treated to some truly impressive views of the city and the museum's gigantic exteriors. The museum itself is all about the exhibits, and there's plenty of eyecandy and easter eggs there, including a secret babe exhibit that I'm sure you'll want to get inside of (which I couldn't do without cheating).

In the final map, WG Dracula, Wes finds himself in another dimension, trying to prevent the aliens from harnessing the dark forces there for their war against mankind. You emerge from the ruins of an old fort and start a slow journey up toward a gigantic castle, sitting ominously atop of a mountain. The sight of the castle in the distance, surrounded by lightning and thunder, makes for a hellofa impression throughout the fist section. Action picks up pace as you approach the castle, and you won't get inside without going through a few tough battles first. The castle's interiors are epic in scale with tall pillars and stained-glass windows surrounding you. The final battle is both fast and tough, as the boss not only has plenty of health but also a few really nasty attacks (one that's hard to avoid, another that sinks the framerate to below 10) in his arsenal. This is William Gee firing on all cylinders for sure. However, there were some jump sequences scattered around the map that I didn't much care for; the second map did a much better job with the jump pads. The map has quite a few secrets, btw; the ending hit me at 42 minutes, and by then I had found only 4 secrets out of more than twenty. Still, ammo balance was fine, but I was definitely running low during the final battle.

Conclusion: Overall this is Alien Armageddon at its finest. Wes is a cool new character with good voice acting (but he definitely could have used a few more oneliners). The upgrade/vendor system works well, forcing you to make some tough choices between better shields and other upgrades. Items that can really help you out of trouble, like the RPG and the summoning item, are scarce and better saved for when you truly need them. All the new art is top-notch quality, and I had plenty of fun with the weapons. The new abilities, however, were used rather sparingly, their existence largely forgotten after the second map. There were also a few annoyances. Upon running out of ammo, the game would habitually revert to weapons with no ammo in them. Also, for some reason the automap zoom in/zoom out function no longer works, which was particularly annoying in Smithsonian 2.

Score: 9

Conclusion (release 1.0): Alien Armageddon is a very solid "modern" Duke3D mod, bringing in a bunch of refreshing new features all the while preserving everything that made the original game so good. It has the presentation and the ambition of an official release but lacks the length that could better accommodate all the new stuff. Having someone, especially Bombshell, fight by your side is a rare sight in a Duke3D mod and I especially enjoyed playing as Bombshell, but the sidekick mechanics could use some more tweaking; in all the best games with a sidekick or a co-combatant (Bioshock Infinite, Half-Life 2, Mass Effect 3) the NPC is never allowed to become a burden. Still, Alien Armageddon is mostly top-notch work from everyone involved and I found myself enthusiastically replaying it almost instantly, which is something I almost never do.

Score: 8½
Download: Mirror
Version: 1.4, 1.5
Author: Alien Armageddon Team

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