The concept of Duke Nukem saving Christmas has a lot of potential, as the core ethos of both couldn’t be further apart. This is also, surprisingly, one of the most fully developed Christmas-themed add-ons for any game, with most other attempts relegated to a handful of free and/or bonus levels. Unfortunately, this is also easily the worst of Duke’s expansions, showcasing an ultimate lack of ideas and a product that obviously isn’t finished yet.
Sunstorm Interactive developed the first two Duke expansions, but Nuclear Winter gives Simply Silly Software a turn at the reins. I can’t find any reliable information on them as a group, except that they developed frontends for Doom and Blood that WizardWorks used on their compilation releases. Without knowing how many people worked on this or what talent they held, it’s not fair for me to suggest that they weren’t up to the task. What I can comfortably guess is that with a December 30th release date, they clearly ran out of time.
Nuclear Winter’s plot seems to wander between two or three possible storylines, as if they never decided which one to finally go with. Santa is said to be brainwashed by aliens, but also suggested to have some kind of secret evil plan. The Feminist Elven Militia, whom you will encounter throughout the levels, fight alongside the aliens for reasons unexplained. You’ll face off against – and kill – Santa as the final boss (I ended up blowing him apart with a rocket!), and then accept his hale and hearty congratulations at the final screen. Ultimately, it’s hardly important. This is all just an excuse to fight through a handful of levels based on the North Pole, and a few more with holiday decorations.
Unfortunately, there’s only seven levels total (no secrets) here. That alone should tell you this isn’t going to be worth your time, but embarrassingly, they couldn’t even fulfill that. The first two levels are the same first two levels from the shareware episode, just flipped so you begin at the exit. First person shooters don’t mirror tracks quite as well as a racing game. The point of these levels also seems unfocused – at some points you’re seeing the aftermath of Duke’s original run through them, while at others, the same events (like earthquakes, scripted explosions, and secrets) occur in the same places. Either way, some redesigned rooms and bits of new art can’t cover that you’ve played these two levels before, so now the pack’s down to five.
One level is a sewer level, with barren, green tiled walls that suggest a designer’s first pass that never saw detail added. It may be the North Pole sewers, but good luck telling the difference. If you’re expecting new levels that keep the Christmas theme, now you’re down to four.
The remaining four levels are a mix of occasional inspired areas and a lot of bland filler. “Land of Forgotten Toys” has some cute ideas, like replicating a section of the first level of Doom, or dropping through green warp pipes to find Mario playing Mario Kart, but the level’s connecting hub is a featureless, gray canyon. “Christmas Village” has four distinct areas with clear purposes (elf barracks, Santa’s mailroom), but these are the size of single rooms and can be cleared in a minute. Santa’s HQ has some nice control rooms, a sleigh runway, and an impressive hallway with a reflective floor (a la Shadow Warrior), but the central room is a huge, red-carpeted box.
New enemies are elven reskins of existing shotgun and chaingun guys, but at least their scale is correctly shrunk and they move surprisingly fast to offer a slightly different challenge. Snowmen enemies are the best of the new additions, simply because they explode into satisfying showers of snow clumps when defeated. The rest are Duke’s original foes, altered with Santa hats or reindeer antlers – it’s as lame as it sounds. The final boss fight with Santa is the most impressive, and seems to use third-party bot AI from multiplayer. Santa jumps and ducks just like Duke, and cycles through every weapon you can carry. It’s a tough fight at higher difficulties.
There’s quite a few new textures here, and when they’re actually used, they can complete the scene nicely. Unfortunately, much of the new art is just relegated to shoving a Christmas tree in a corner of an otherwise industrial level, or adding a few sad blinking lights to the porn store cashier counter. But perhaps most maddening is that there’s nothing funny here. There’s no attempt at Duke’s legendary visual puns, pop culture references, or suggesting a darker side of Santa’s operation. There’s more stacked boxes marked “Toys for Rich Kids,” but that’s not really a joke.
For audio, there are no new lines from John St. John (unfortunate, but expected). A few quips from Santa mark the only new sound effects. Elf enemies don’t speak, and snowmen foes repeat the same lines (“Suck it down!”) from the original baddies they replace. Some excellent MIDI versions of classic Christmas themes (“Santa Claus Comes Tonight,” “Frosty the Snowman,” etc) replace all the music, and are honestly the best part of the pack.
Here’s the final gag: WizardWorks was asking $25 for Nuclear Winter. That kind of money for seven levels of anything is lunacy, but as unfinished as this pack is, it was damn near robbery. Now that it’s free, (or bundled in with the Megaton Edition on Steam), I still can’t recommend it; especially when there are much better fan mods and TCs to spend your time on. There was potential here, and more levels, new weapons, a consistent story, some actual gags, and more level polish could have made this an excellent expansion. However, Simply Silly Software simply didn’t have the ideas or the time.
Much of the holiday decoration art is actually nice. Levels look snowy, and the snowfall effect is handled well. Santa’s a spry and unique final boss. Christmas MIDIs are a great touch.
Seven levels isn’t enough value. Quality of those levels feels rushed and incomplete. No level gags?! Even the Caribbean expansion bothered to redraw the weapons.
“So you have found my secret plans! Now you must die!” — Santa Claus