Back in Business Episode

by Alex Pistol

(553) views since December 2020

Released: 2020-12-14
Mode: SP
Difficulty Settings: Yes
Featuring: 1.4+, EDuke32
Sound/music: Music, Sound
New Art: Yes
New Cons: Yes
Score: 96

Review by ck3D on 16 December 2020

Back In Business as a title bears a double entendre as this original fan Duke 3D episode also marks the return of its author, the Poland-based Alex/Aleks Pistol to the community after a long hiatus, only to release this considerable piece of work on the very seventeenth anniversary of the drop of his classic user map AlexCity 1: Bank Heist, a much celebrated one in the early naughts (to the point of being cultivated by some as emblematic of that time period).
AlexCity 1 (and only, for nearly two decades, till today) featured a rather unique approach to both design and gameplay, involving nifty, smart sector- and sprite-based constructions and effects in the player's progression. That niche principle resulted in a level that could be a bit of a head scratcher to begin figuring out in some parts but, as a result, conquering for the first time felt not only satisfying but also like just the start of the fun - the replay value greatly benefiting from the user's newly acquired intel and better grasp of all the little functionalities of the map.

Essentially, the exact same could be said about Back In Business. The episode is a succession of mission-based levels where you'll have to keep an eye out for detail and clues, and is bound to have you spend at least some time figuring out not where to go next (as special care has been put always indicating that fairly well with constant messages, viewscreens and efficient respawns), but how to actually get there.
Every map's structure is coherent (Aleks also doubling up as a civil engineer, which really shows) and thus test the limits of your (Build game) logic in a rarely unfair manner.
It is also worth noting that although the first levels in the set are historically much older than the last, the author has constantly been refreshing them over the years and in the end, they all share comparable qualities both in the progression patterns and the high-quality design (again with top notch sprite and shadow work, clever sector construction, impressive engine manipulation, particularly close attention to detail and even some new .art that manages not to clash against the original Duke 3D universe).

The first level is a short (and timed) rush through a small but beautiful and well-constructed casino-themed city level where you have objectives to complete in any order before you can automatically lose against the watch.
While it's rather unlikely that your first attempt will be a success, it should definitely suffice to get a solid grasp on the map so that the second will be a no-brainer (and it's indeed easy to get sidetracked by staring at the surrounding eye-candy, or level of interactivity with the props).
A computer is there in the starting room to guide you through this little journey with hints that keep updating themselves; chances are you won't be going back there after you leave it if you're focused on making it on time, still it exists, representing how the experience here really depends on your constant judgement and choices as the player.
There is one elevator that may or may not malfunction if operated improperly, which may lead you to spend a few precious minutes making it out should you ever get stuck, but it's doable and - in a way - hilariously realistic.

Second and third level are both base maps with, again, objectives to complete.
The first one of the duo, Mutant Mayhem, is an average-length romp through a facility where experiments are being conducted on aliens, in labs you're charged to sabotage. The general mood is actually pretty dark (and complete with Lost Highway references), but the level plays well with a straightforward layout and some original Build tricks on display when destroying the experiments.
Ambition-wise, it's quite reminiscent of the typical user map of the 2000's which makes sense as it was built pre-1024+ sector limit originally, so in terms of scope but also of general feel.
The next map, Freezing Fear is a personal favorite and partially takes place in more open spaces with great visibility relying on white textures and strongly contrasted lighting.
While its navigation may be slightly confusing at first if you don't know what the personal assistant type of devices you're supposed to find look like (it doesn't help that they are small objects situated at floor level and some of them don't have a practical purpose but one of welcome comedic relief), once the clue picked up, the layout and its flow should become crystal clear.
The map makes good use of vertical terrain variation, and the final fight sequence consisting in several waves of enemy assault culminating in some engine mindfuckery is especially amazing.

The fourth map is called Piggish Prison and the most ambitious (and recent) one of the whole lot.
Your objective here is a lot more explicit and won't rely on scripted tasks as much (at least past your escape, itself an adventure of its own) and instead way more on exploration.
Once out in the open, there are vast amounts of space to comb through and navigate in between firefights that easily could have gone the slaughter map route in the hands on a less experienced mapper due to the available room, but actually take a very wise route instead relying on scientific monster positioning and choice, as well as top notch use of respawns and savantly partitioned and orchestrated action sequences.
The environments are credible and so is the constant feeling of adventure rampaging through the prison ward and the surrounding cliffs, riding a motor boat, looking through binoculars.
The progression itself is sequenced around different zones the player has to explore in succession, solving the occasional Zelda-flavored puzzle and witnessing some great sights on the way, and leads to an ending scene you really should have seen coming but probably thought couldn't be done in Build.

To sum things up, Back in Business is a very original piece of work and take on the Duke 3D universe, with lots of passion and care put into its own niche specificities, making for some occasionally unorthodox and disorienting gameplay but also a brand of fun of its own.
While it may tickle your traditional reflexes as a seasoned Duke player, the experience presents quite the fresh challenge; some practical issues can be addressed, but the remarkable quality and structural coherence of the overall design undoubtedly suffice to make this episode worth your time.
Seventeen years after AlexCity, the author has only been cultivating and refining his trademark style, of which Back In Business so far is the apex - and also as a whole, in itself, quite the Space Oddity.

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Other maps by this author:

AlexCity 1: Bank Heist
Released: 2003-12-06
Score: 93
Mode: SP, COOP
Review: AlexCity 1: Bank Heist

Der Zorn Gottes
Released: 2023-10-18
Score: 0
Mode: SP, DM, COOP
Review: Der Zorn Gottes
Simpler Times
Released: 2023-12-23
Score: 0
Mode: SP
Review: Simpler Times
Released: 2021-05-01
Score: 98
Mode: SP
Review: Submachine
The Conundrum
Released: 2022-01-15
Score: 0
Mode: SP
Review: The Conundrum

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