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5th of March 2023

Blast Radius by Aymeric "MRCK" Nocus

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Blast Radius is MRCK's long-awaited, ambitious 14-map episode that takes Duke across the world. The author's recent usermap output has focused mostly on "wacky", convention-breaking themes, so I was slightly worried I'd get an overdose of such maps here. Luckily a lot of the maps in Blast Radius are, while not exactly conventional, more down to earth. I'm gonna zip through the maps one by one, so brace yourself. (I have marked my map completion times in parentheses next to the map names.)

Sunset Suicide (20 minutes) is the most conventional map of the bunch; you could almost expect it to drop as a usermap release. The map takes place on Sunset Boulevard in LA. It features a few typical urban locations but also some more exotic ones, including a car wash and the Directors Guild of America building. The latter in particular is a sign of things to come, as you'll come across many buildings throughout the episode based on real-life locations. Overall a fun map with rather typical but balanced gameplay.

Duke then leaves LA and heads north to San Francisco in Embarco's Most Blasted (45 minutes). This is the map where I realized the episode will at least occasionally exceed my expectations considerably, as the author has done a terrific job in recreating some of the city's landmarks. The map is wide open with plenty of eye-catching details, including the San Francisco port building, a weird piece of artwork that looks absolutely fantastic in the Build engine and plenty of small kiosks and newsstands scattered across the streets. The map is vivid and rich in colors but they all blend in so nicely together that it's a real feast on the eyes. Gameplay is for the most part enjoyable, but some Battlelord minibosses were positioned rather annoyingly in elevated positions, often even a considerable distance from your position so as to give them the element of surprise. (This is a running problem throughout the episode.) There were also some massive Trooper respawns, but these were actually quite satisfying to take down with the pistol.

Big Apple Smoke Toke (46 minutes) is one of not many Duke3D maps set in New York. The physical setting is close to the East River, so you're treated to a nice view of the Brooklyn Bridge (or what's left of it anyway) and a skyline of the borough across the river. The map is one of the more compartmentalized in the episode, being segmented into two larger street areas both with a whole bunch of indoor shops, apartments & such. Of course, it wouldn't be New York without a subway system. There's also a short sewer section with a totally radical easter egg for us kids of the TMNT generation. I had small issues with navigation and didn't much care for the miniboss-infested park but otherwise this is one of the better maps in the episode.

Duke boards a chopper at the end of the previous map and ends up somewhere in South America. Incapernaum (85 minutes) is one of the largest maps in the game, not just in length but also in scale. (The only bigger ones can be found in Trequonia.) It is basically one huge outdoor area. There are plenty of opportunities for the map to suck, but it's actually been pretty effectively segmented so as to make navigation relatively simple and keep the concurrent number of enemies in check. To be sure, there are some annoyances such as enemies in elevated positions sending rockets your way and vegetation that has a habit of getting between you and the enemy, plus there are plenty of tough battles along the way, but it never really gets as annoying as it could. There's variety too, as after the natural terrain of the first segment you find yourself in a city with a soccer stadium, then climbing some mountains to reach a native temple site. Still, memorable in scale or not, the map overstays its welcome and for the last 20-30 minutes I basically forced myself to finish the map.

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Duke then crosses the ocean aboard an airplane bearing his name in High High High (24 minutes). It seems that train, boat and plane maps have a habit of being good, and this one is no exception. The plane is comfortably roomy, kinda reminding me of the "space plane" we see a bit of in the 5th Element (although the passenger cabins in that one seemed as "cramped" as MRCK's early maps). Due to the map's structure, getting lost is not a terribly relevant concern. Everything you'd expect to find from a plane is there, plus you'll get to visit the skies as well in one of the episode's most memorable moments. The map also serves an important role in terms of pacing, being a relatively relaxing reprieve after the previous map.

Having crossed the pond, Duke finds himself in what I initially thought was Rome (because of the "colosseum") but is actually Croatia. Koj Stil Borac (28 minutes) is a more traditional MRCK city map in that it has an open-ended layout. This provides freedom of navigation but can lead to mindless wandering. Also, as you start the map without any items, picking a "bad" route may have you running around the map being chased by a dozen monsters with not much to fight them with. Most places seemed optional and you find yourself flying around the map's edges to find something, a gameplay style I don't much care for. Still, while gameplay-wise my experience wasn't all that good, architecture here truly shines, especially the Roman amphitheatre and a church standing next to it. The place has a sunny, popular tourist destination vibe written all over it, and it's all been achieved with stock textures; developers of World Tour should take note!

Lights, Camera, Revolution (38 minutes) follows with a similarly open-ended layout involving a lot of "mindless wandering", but I did enjoy this one more; at least this time around I was properly stocked up on items at the start and thus didn't feel like I was being punished for taking the "wrong" turn. You can take some considerable shortcuts with the jetpack, and I actually ended up "sequence breaking" the map despite my attempts not to (I missed something semi-hidden that was "required" for progression), so I skipped a smaller bit which I wasn't aware of at the time. Aside from some nasty miniboss snipers near the end, gameplay is quite enjoyable with a good mix of regular monsters and minibosses. The map makes good use of colors against its vibrant and weird sky, has one of the better city skylines in the episode; and especially the museum of modern art, the map's centerpiece, is worth visiting for its exhibits. Only the side streets were a bit dull in comparison.

After taking off in Paris, Duke's chopper ends up crashing over Mordor Moscow in Norilsk No-Reward (41 minutes). With huge avenues and imposing buildings where it's hard to imagine any human activity taking place, the map's looks capture the state-centric, anti-life coldness of Russia. There are no cozy indoors here, only never-ending streets and rooftops. The first puzzle of the map is finding that one spot that takes you to the roofs. Unfortunately, while the map's looks serve its atmosphere, they don't serve its gameplay. Steroids are scattered everywhere by the dozens in acknowledgement of the fact that there's just too much tedious walking. Furthermore, I had frequent crashes (mostly around the rooftop sections) that further soured the mood. The map's second part consists of a factory section. It looks good with its smokestacks and large industrial structures, but again there's just too much legwork involved. Between constant walking/running, game crashes and sounds of explosion caused by enemies you failed to kill, this was the lowpoint of the episode so far.

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Nakano Nightmare (34 minutes) is a good, balanced serving after the last map's disappointment. This "special ward" of Tokyo has plenty of colorful (but not too much so) streets full of neon signs and tall buildings with plenty of variety in their exteriors. A quick googling reveals the central building is based on a real-life location, the Nakano Sunplaza hotel. Again, there's too much "drifting while chased by monsters" at first in the streets; gameplay here consists of stumbling upon things rather than following a clear objective. It gets more logical and enjoyable once you reach the hotel and start climbing it (the hotel even has its own bowling alley), but I was growing slightly weary by this point. Combat felt well balanced throughout the map, but the mortar throwers on the streets were a bit annoying and the red emperor miniboss in the theater littered with obstacles and narrow lanes was a pain to fight against.

Postmortem (45 minutes), a rare space map in MRCK's impressive catalogue, is a missed opportunity to alleviate pacing issues for the episode's final stretch. A relatively relaxing 20-minute map akin to High High High, the fifth map, could have worked wonders here, preparing you mentally for the sheer torture ahead. Instead, you're thrown into a map that, while very competently made, suffers from what feels like length-padding with a bit of miniboss spam thrown in precisely at the wrong time. The map in itself isn't bad at all. The scale of this alien spaceship feels "right" in the sense that you could imagine it accommodating all those minibosses going about their business around the ship, a detail not many pay attention to. The map also makes good use of both two-way and regular trains, neither of which felt shoehorned. There's a sequence near the end that was now almost as impressive as a similar one in Starlite Project many years ago. The place is also colorful and vibrant but never offendingly so. But the map's final third is too much navigation-wise with unnecessary locked doors and long distances to cover for backtracing that just give the impression of length-padding. So you're already getting pissed off by the time the next map kicks in...

(Between these two maps, there's a VERY cool "cutscene" map; but I won't spoil it further.)

In a true avant-garde fashion, MRCK has saved the map that's BY FAR the worst in the episode for the penultimate experience. Zarathustra (87 minutes) is absolutely miserable in every way, committing every sin in the how-not-to-design-a-level playbook. Sure, this weird alien location has got SCALE and looks rather nice and original with a lot to compliment the author for with its tall towers and spires sticking out from the lava, but its gameplay is purely TOXIC. The first part has you jumping on a "stair" of sprite platforms weaponless while chased by drones and shot at by commanders. Then you get a jetpack (there are many scattered around the map) but don't really know when you're "sequence breaking" or doing what the author "intended", so you're just drifting, AGAIN, and the distances are long and require both the jetpack and boots to keep you alive. The "safest" way across the map is a long and boring "underwater" tunnel that's easy to miss because you're expected to jump into a pool of burning hot LAVA (and that's not the only time you're expected to jump into what appears to be hazardous liquid). Otherwise, navigation between the map's parts is perilous and tedious, involving flying or platforming over purple lava (i.e., the kind that hurts even if you're not touching it). Oh, and don't place enemies on sloped surfaces; neither the engine nor the player likes it.

Closure (16 minutes) must be one of the weirdest boss battles ever, taking place on a Monopoly board. It's an icon-of-sin type of battle against a "wall" that shoots rockets at you; to beat it you must solve a "puzzle", that is, to run and swim around the map without any items while avoiding the boss and various minibosses, slowly picking up enough stuff to fight back, press a few buttons and then win the game. This involves lots of underwater action too, but in order to even be viable you need to locate, through sheer trial & error, some scubagear first, then boots, all the while getting shot at by Battlelords with hitscan expanders and Queens with their "dodge this" attack. Yes, it is tedious and not fun at all. The boss itself looks kinda cool though.

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A few general points are in order. Most maps in Blast Radius offer plenty of opportunities for shortcuts if you happen to be carrying the jetpack. Sometimes a jetpack is given so plainly that you're unsure if you're meant to use it or not. I found this distracting, as I wanted to finish the maps "properly", without the use of any shortcuts. There are new variations of old monsters. Luckily, these tend to have the same health values as the originals so as not to throw you off too much, and their attacks can often be logically deduced from their skin color (green = shrinker, blue = freezer, and so on). The later maps rely almost exclusively on these variants. This isn't a problem as they're largely well used and fit in well, but a few of the variants are rather annoying, with some being equipped with the expander and others with some bouncing balls that almost always insta-kill upon hitting. While it's okay to have some stronger enemies out there, these could often have been better positioned. Commanders have a nasty habit of being annoying in MRCK's maps, often firing rockets your way from distant corners, but in Blast Radius their variants, with the exception of one, are actually less annoying due to their weaponry. There's also a surprise enemy that appears in the penultimate map. I found its behavior and sound effects just perfectly "robotic". The so-called Scorpion Tanks are also used extensively; they're deadly but almost exclusively appear on streets and other open locations rather than in narrow corridors.
There are no new textures, which is rather impressive considering the variety of the levels. MRCK has always exprimented with various texture and color combinations, and here they seem to have found the perfect balance. We've come a long way from the days when such experiments had results that could best be described as messy. In the city maps the streets are always teeming with ads, curious details, cars, street lights and so on. The episode's music selection is a mixed bunch; nothing really stood out and a few I just had to turn off. There are some new sound effects, used sparingly but effectively, but I found some maps a bit too noisy due to the amount of explosions and such caused by stray enemies.

As a final note, MRCK has been actively updating the mod ever since I started playing it. The maps I played were from three different versions, a result of him having updated the mod while I spent two weeks or so playing it. So, many of the complaints here may no longer be relevant by the time you get to play the mod.

Conclusion: Blast Radius is a highly ambitious episode packed full of impressive content. It was four years in the making, which is actually a remarkably short period of time considering the size and quality of the maps. The episode has you traveling all over the world, visiting famous landmarks and killing thousands of aliens in the process. The maps' scale occasionally overwhelms, and they're packed full of interesting visual details. Furthermore, they look and feel fresh despite relying on nothing but stock assets. Blast Radius also throws some fresh spice into the mix with its new enemy variants that have found the perfect home within these maps. The maps also manage to avoid a lot of the problems MRCK's recent experimental maps have been having with combat. Navigation could be more focused though, as now with some of the maps you just end up drifting aimlessly until you come across something of relevance. But the biggest problem really is ignoring the age-old wisdom that says you should always save the best for last. In Blast Radius pacing begins to deteriorate as you enter its final third, and by the end of it you're no longer having much fun.

Score: 8½
Download: Download
Version: 1.4, 1.5
Author: Aymeric "MRCK" Nocus

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