30th of July 2023
MRCK has an ambitious plan to release several dozen more levels in the name of his Blast Radius project. Zero Zone is a six-level "demo" of what's to come. The maps are thematically similar to Blast Radius, being loud, colorful and with plenty of new enemies (mostly old enemies with new stats and attacks), but compared to Blast Radius these ones are shorter and more compact.
Crimson Cataclysm (17 minutes) is a city block painted in red (Duke is firmly out of "our" dimension, so anything crazy is conveniently explained by that). While well-designed overall, nothing in particular stands out save for a few neat neon visuals, but I have to say there's something about red lighting that makes shadows seem more dramatic. Gameplay-wise the map is rather annoying. The constant rocket barrage from some Blast Radius maps is a perennial presence, only this time it's exacerbated by new rocket-shooting Recon Patrol Vehicles that occupy the map's upper reaches and are thus hard to hit because Duke cannot aim straight up. Moreover, due to the scale of the map's outdoors, enemies far away are tough to spot against the red background (while they have no trouble spotting you), and the mountainous area surrounding the city block is a pain to do battle on due to vegetation getting in the way and the engine being a bit wonky with sloped surfaces. Dukebots from Blast Radius reappear and are prominently featured throughout Zero Zone; be mindful that these should be taken down with the Shrinker.
Behold the fire station of the future in Celsius 137 (20 minutes). There was a fire station in the original Duke3D, but since then the theme has barely been properly utilized. MRCK puts a cool spin on the theme with some neon flavor, dramatic scale and the occasional setpiece. But gameplay hits a low point here. Again, it's a constant explosion and projectile hell; if you don't take down every single enemy immediately, the constant explosions become a nagging problem. Again there are wide open areas with pixelated enemies that are often difficult to spot until their projectiles hit you in the face (there's a Battlelord in this image), and the addition of those extremely deadly sun-like projectiles from Blast Radius only increase the punishment for not seeing the enemy right away. Autoaim also seemed a bit iffy against some new targets, and the new Recon Patrol Vehicles sometimes disappear below the floor.
Shrapnel Snorkel (11 minutes) is interesting in that it's a purely underwater map. Is it the first of its kind? Probably not, but I cannot recall playing an exclusively underwater map before. Now, we all know everyone just loves underwater maps (my early gaming memories include numerous drownings in the purple chemical of Sonic 2's Chemical Plant Zone), but this one is actually pretty good. The map relies mostly on sentry drones for enemies, only this time they're armed with rockets and mortars. Oftentimes there isn't a lot of room to manuever, but water slows down the projectiles enough to make the fights more or less fair. You may run out of air if you aren't paying attention, but a fresh Scuba Gear should always be nearby. There's some big, clanking machinery and once you even get to peek at some of the strange but fascinating visuals outside the water-filled base.
In Clogged Bog (13 minutes) Duke fights his way through a crap-processing plant. The visuals are a bit dull and I'm not a big fan of some of the texturing and palette choices, but MRCK excels again with underwater areas and beating, humming and clanking machines: The place is "alive" in a way many other maps aren't, with each part serving a function. Again, there are some annoyances. Most notably, I really could have lived without the sentries hidden in trash cans and the Queen with its impossible-to-evade, infinite-range AoE attack.
Vicious Venom (17 minutes) takes Duke even further into alien terrain. It's perilous to advance, as the terrain is rough and you're surrounded by deadly Assault Trooper variants. Moreover, the map introduces some hazardous versions of the Atomic Health item, so you need to watch where you step. There are also plenty of minibosses, and the map makes good use of some puzzles. I kinda like how the map encourages you to advance carefully, but it can be a bit loud and annoying. The miniboss spawns near the end in particular were a tipping point, so I just ran past them to the final area. In a weird way this is the most visually consistent map in the episode, and I really liked the shipyard near the end: Too many alien maps have just generic stuff rather than locations that serve a particular purpose.
Octastrophe (10 minutes) is the last leg of the journey. You're on an Octabrain-shaped island inhabited by blue Octabrains that shoot projectiles in the shape of Duke's head... You should quickly realize that the situation becomes uncontrollable if you fail to take down every single "active" Octabrain as soon as they appear, for otherwise the area will get filled with Octabrains and a billion of their offspring in a matter of seconds. Again, you're well advised to advance with caution, and I kinda like the idea of forcing the player to approach the map methodically. However, there are several things that needlessly ramp up the annoyance factor: The map starts weaponless (possibly to take away your jetpack, although this could've been achieved with code), the terrain is littered with "bad" Atomic Healths, autoaim doesn't seem to function at all and you need to chase buttons.
Conclusion: This follow-up to Blast Radius is a mixed bag. The maps are noticeably smaller than in Blast Radius, so the player doesn't have to commit so much of his time playing through them, making Zero Zone easier to approach. They're also all well designed and varied; MRCK never stops innovating ways to arrange Duke's stock assets into something new and cool. But at the same time there are just way too many annoyances. Everything is too noisy, combat is plagued by several nagging issues, and stuff such as negative items have no good reason to be in the game (any game, really). Autoaim is also something that needs to work 100% of the time in a game with uncontrollable bullet spread and limited vertical view angles.
Version: 1.4, 1.5
Author: Aymeric "MRCK" Nocus