The Build Engine may not get as much attention as the splinters from the Doom Engine, but it was, out of the box, a pretty great 2.5D ray-casting engine. It became best known for being the foundation of Duke Nukem 3D, but it was also used for a number of less notable games. Duke Nukem 3D came bundled with a suite of editing tools, so a strong modding community sprang up around it.
Unfortunately, Extreme Paintbrawl came out during a very awkward time in terms of compatibility. That is to say, it was during that point when Microsoft was trying to bury DOS under Windows, which is, anecdotally, the hardest era of games to get working on new hardware. It either works or it doesn’t, and despite my best efforts, Extreme Paintbrawl doesn’t. EDuke32 doesn’t seem to support it, nor can I find any offshoot that does. I’m not done trying to find solutions, but for now, I’m out of luck.
Thankfully, it was hardly the only bad game built on the shoulders of Duke Nukem 3D, so let’s take a look at 1998’s Nam.
War never changes
As the name implies, Nam is set during the Vietnam War. With all the wars going on in the present, I’m pretty exhausted on the subject. However, if you’re unfamiliar, it was a war between Communist North Vietnam and the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. This was during the Cold War, so the U.S. went to great lengths to try and stop the spread of Communism.
It was disastrous. Not just politically but also for the soldiers involved and the citizens of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, who, to this day, need to deal with extensive environmental damage and buried unexploded munitions.
Phew, okay that’s out of the way.
Nam began its life as a mod for Duke Nukem 3D before GT Interactive picked it up to publish. Despite the publisher backing and retail release, it still feels like a mod. There are still a tonne of assets left over from Duke Nukem 3D. That’s not to say that Nam doesn’t do its own thing. It’s just that most of what it does is unfortunate.
Nam is a game about shooting at bushes, stepping on mines, and getting killed by friendly fire. From the sounds of it, that makes it an accurate portrayal of the war itself. The only difference is that you have a quicksave key, and you will be making extensive use of it.
While Duke Nukem 3D but in Vietnam doesn’t sound like a bad idea, the developers tried reaching for realism. Making things more realistic was a common carrot chased by developers in the day. First-person shooters were new, and they made it feel like video games were converging with reality. But while a lot of developers knew when to pull their punches and sacrifice realism for the sake of fun, modders would push the mechanics as close to reality as possible.
So, Nam takes place in a jungle, and it’s surprisingly well done for being built on the bones of Duke Nukem 3D. It’s ugly, sure. You can easily see all the shortcomings of the 2.5D engine. However, you can tell it’s a jungle. There are lots of pillars that look similar to trees and numerous sprites lining the ground to give the impression of undergrowth. An actual 3D engine from the time period would struggle with this (see: Jurassic Park Trespasser), so, in a lot of ways, it’s an impressive effort.
Watch your step
On the other hand, it really sucks. Enemies can see you through the foliage long before you can see them. Even when you do see them, you’re often left guessing whether whatever obstacle is between you will block bullets or not, because it’s never clear. Even at the best of times, enemies are often set at a larger range than you’d ever really see in Duke 3D, but like in Duke 3D, your weapons aren’t very accurate. This is fine in close-range situations, but those are rather rare in Nam. Even if you fire in short bursts, you can’t improve your accuracy, so you’re kind of stuck.
Despite you character’s difficulty aiming, explosive weapons have perfect accuracy. The grenade launcher, for example, doesn’t arc like you’d expect. It behaves like the RPG in Duke Nukem 3D. Because it is.
However, that’s not the worst part about Nam. Where it really hits the skids is with all its instant and unavoidable death. This is often due to friendly fire, since in order to simulate a battlefield, bombs and artillery constantly rain down from the sky. The problem is, there’s no way to know where or when all that will land. So, you might just be walking through the jungle, and suddenly, your torso has departed from your legs.
Then, to compound the issue, the ground is littered with mines, which are hard to spot through the undergrowth. To offset this, you’re given a mine detector, which will beep when you’re close to the mine. However, you have to be paying close attention to even realize you have it. It appears as a crate in your inventory, and when you scroll over it, it reads “Inventory Item.” So, that’s pretty unhelpful.
Getting in the way
The music is also bizarrely unsuitable for the theme. Most levels start with you getting briefed on your mission, but when your commanding officer starts talking is usually when the music kicks into high gear, completely drowning him out. It doesn’t matter anyway. You’re often just required to reach the extraction point
The game is currently sold bundled with DOSbox, which provides a pretty excruciating control scheme. Thankfully you can run it using the Eduke32 source port which, among other things, gives it modern controls. Unfortunately, it’s not Eduke32’s job to fix the friendly fire, so you’ll need to make good use of the quicksave if you want to survive to see the Fall of Saigon. That’s actually that last mission, I’m not kidding.
There are two campaigns that are roughly seven missions long. Then there are two multiplayer campaigns, but they aren’t really campaigns. They’re just various competitive stages.
Perfectly preserved kusoge
The developers went on to create another game after Nam called World War II G.I, which was also on the Build Engine. I’ll be looking at that next week, but I can only hope that there’s less friendly fire. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.
The funny thing about Nam is that, even though it is a pretty awful game, it exemplifies the modding scene at the time. There was a tonne of ambition and a dearth of experience. A lot of standards, especially around the first-person shooter genre, were still being set, so people were essentially making things up as they went along. The modding community was where a lot of experimentation happened, and experimentation inevitably leads to some failures.
This is the sort of thing that Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengeance of the Slayer tried to evoke. It felt like there was a chance that your mod would be the next big thing, if only you could get your idea to fit within the confines of technical limitations. Oftentimes, this pursuit was misguided, and that’s how we ended up with Nam.