Duke Nukem Forever: He’s gettin’ too old for this shit
Let it be known that in this year of our Lord two thousand and eleven the impossible has occurred. The king of the vaporware Duke Nukem Forever has finally been released. Gearbox Software has picked up the shattered remains of what many teams tried to build over the past 15 years and like a phoenix from the ashes Duke has arisen. Duke Nukem Forever is one of the first big name title releases that really falls under the mission statement of The Unplayables, a game that while it isn’t great, is not nearly as terrible as the big name reviewers would have you believe.
Duke Nukem Forever tells a simple story about how nobody steals our chicks… and lives. Once again alien invaders have returned to Earth and are kidnapping babes from all over the globe and impregnating them with their alien babies, I guess the main goal here is piss Duke off and get revenge for him handing them their asses during the last invasion. It’s up to Duke to grab his guns and save the world one more time. The story will see Duke surviving the destruction of Las Vegas, traveling to the Hoover Dam, and using his swagger and bravado to nut-punch every alien boss he comes across. While the story is really nothing special, this is one of those cases I think where it didn’t have to be, nor did anyone expect it to be. The plot is essentially the same as Duke Nukem 3D, and well, I don’t hear many people complaining when Zelda pulls that shit, why shouldn’t it be ok for the Duke?
Duke hasn’t done a lot of growing since the last time he saved the world. He’s the same uber-macho action hero stereotype he’s always been. However this may be a case of what worked in 1996 doesn’t really hold up today. When we were all younger less learned men in our youths, playing as the raunchy foul-mouthed Duke was new and interesting. Here though, Duke comes off almost as a parody of himself. Duke is so busy drinking beers, smoking cigars, spouting off one liners stolen from classic action films, and ogling babes that it comes across as trying so hard to be classic Duke that it feels more like a parody of Duke than the actual character. It’s essentially Duke Nukem 3D cranked up to 11. While this idea has already been explored in the not-so-great Matt Hazzard games, you get the feeling that they had some clairvoyance in their portrayal as Duke Nukem in this game comes off feeling exactly as Hazzard did, out of place in his world. Duke makes his typical one liner jokes referencing other games, however when he poked fun at Doom in Duke 3D it worked because Duke 3D was a much better game in every way compared to those he was lampooning. Here Duke is really poking the bear making fun of games like Halo and Modern Warfare when his showing seems trapped in a time vortex.
However I can’t really fault Duke too much for falling into this trap. Of course the game was going to take shots at other genre heavyweights and it almost feels like an unfair fight as Duke is trapped a few years behind the curve, but this actually gives the whole game a strange comedic value to it. Duke is so busy making tired outdated references that you can’t help but laugh. You can almost track the games writing history by the timeliness of Dukes quips, where he’s making fun of the original Halo early in the game, referencing Half-Life mid way through, and then calling out Call of Duty 4 by it’s ending it becomes a strange microcosm of the action game landscape in itself.
Many reviewers have made a very big fuss over DNFs graphics, calling the game out for looking dated and having poor textures and effects. While I can’t sit here and call these claims blatantly false, I can tell you that they are being wildly overblown. There are a few key things to keep in mind when considering the graphics of DNF:
1. Most reviewers played the game on the Xbox 360 for some reason, maybe all the pre-release review copies were only given out on this format… either way this seems like a questionable decision. DNF was conceived as a PC title and lead developed on the PC for years only recently being ported to the 360, it’s no surprise it would suffer from poor porting issues. On the PC the graphics are decent, they’re not cutting edge, but they’re certainly not last gen either. Some of the texture work is a little suspect in its quality but this is more a problem from the next point rather than it’s platform.
2. Duke Nukem Forever is a 3 year old game. This game was not built in 2011 using current technology. The bulk of the single player portion of DNF was built around 2008 – 2009 using Unreal Engine 2.5 and it shows. The game looks like a decent quality title from that time period, which may be slightly dated now that we are spoiled by Battlefield 3 and the like, but it certainly doesn’t make the game unplayable.
Is Duke the prettiest stripper in the club? Of course not. It’s an old game running on old tech that just happened to come out 3 years after it should have. But is any of that really what matters about Duke Nukem? Of course not. If Duke were here now hearing people bitch about graphics like this he’d probably punch them right in the face. That’s the Duke way!
So what have we got so far? A game with a simple plot, an obnoxious main character trapped in the 90’s, and a graphics engine half a decade old, so this game should be really terrible right? Well… not exactly. For all it’s drawbacks and flaws Duke Nukem Forever still maintains the overall qualities that make it inherently… what’s the word… Dukish? What I mean to say is the game feels genuine to its series. Had Duke Nukem Forever come out and completely reworked the formula to be just another modern warfare shooter toning down the over the top antics of Duke it wouldn’t work on any level. Here the ridiculousness of Duke and it’s sophomoric humor actually work in the games favor.
The core gameplay of DNF works as well as any other game, nothing really stands out but nothing is particularly broken either. Duke can carry 2 weapons at a time, has a recharging health meter, and must kill pretty much everything in sight as he walks through each level. The game is split into levels, some of which are split even further into sub-levels usually consisting of two parts. The levels themselves feels small though. Duke is more akin to Half-Life in that it presents it’s levels in a cohesive narrative with a limited set of pre-set enemies, unlike other over the top shooters like Serious Sam or Painkiller where the action is frantic and fast paced, DNF feels almost anemic. Even in the larger battle arenas you will only be facing 4 or so enemies at a time and none of these sections last particularly long.
One thing that struck me with my time playing DNF was how much it seemed like it wanted to be Half-Life. I suppose this is a holdover of when the single player portion of the game was finally solidified. Half-Life 2 would have been the biggest shooter around at that time and it shows here. DNF is filled with these strange platforming sequences and physics puzzles that while they worked in Half-Life 2 just seem like odd breaks from the action in Duke. We should be facing off against pig cops on the streets, shotgun in hand, and movie reference on lips not jumping around the back of Duke Burger with an electrified floor that kills you if you touch it. These platforming segments show up time and time again throughout the whole game and bring it to a screeching halt. It’s not that these sections are broken or hurt the narrative, it just feels more like Duke is trying to be something else. In trying to emulate one of the biggest games of the time Duke actually loses something in translation.
Duke is clearly at his best during the firefights and action packed driving sequences, not jumping around on platforms. To balance out these strange platforming segments there are some truly fun action segments as well. Multiple times throughout the campaign Duke will enter a vehicle and drive through certain levels. Driving in a Duke Nukem themed monster truck down the highway, dodging traffic and explosions is actually one of the best parts of the game. The car controls are a little awkward but you get used to them, however I never dreaded these sections as they were a welcome break from the platforming puzzles.
Bosses also present an interesting challenge as they can only be harmed by turrets or explosives. This presents an interesting challenge as most explosive weapons can only hold 5 rounds meaning Duke will constantly be searching for reloads, be they from ammo caches around the boss arena, or dropped by enemies that must also be killed while fighting the boss. I thought these fights were grand on scale and well done, the added tension arising from the constant need to find ammo supplies really helped these segments stick out.
While Gearbox picked up the rights to DNF and published it, they did not make this game. The main contribution they made was fixing bugs in the single player and making it playable for release, and adding multiplayer.
The multiplayer in DNF is your usual fare, Duke styled variants of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag. However, I feel the Duke license actually makes these modes a lot more fun than their standard shooter counterpart versions. In Dukematch it is the unique weapons that make the mode much more interesting than your Call of Duty matches. Being able to shrink your enemies and stomp on them or freeze them and smash them to bits is incredibly satisfying. I did think the maps were a little small for larger groups, but for 2 on 2 matches they were a good size to keep the action flowing.
The Capture the Babe variant is the multiplayer mode that has been getting a lot of negative press. This is Dukes version of capture the flag, where you must grab the opposing teams babe and carry her back to your base to score a point. Many news outlets cried foul at the fact that you need to “spank the babe”. I found this to be a rather interesting mechanic to the whole ordeal. When you have the babe you are limited to a 1 shot slow reload derringer to defend yourself, the gun can kill in one hit, however if you miss with your shot you’ll probably be killed before you can reload it. The spanking mechanic comes into play while you are carrying the babe she will start to struggle and place her hand in your face blocking your vision. You then spank her to stop this and clear your view, however if you are trying to aim with your one shot pistol and suddenly she has her hand in your face you’re likely to miss your shot. I thought this was a much better system than the standard flag-bearers can’t use guns systems most games employ. Is it insensitive towards women? Probably. But it’s Duke Nukem, if you’re going to get offended by the idea that he spanks a woman you probably shouldn’t play ANY of the single player campaign…
What can really be said about Duke Nukem Forever? The fact that it has been released is reason enough to give the game a try. I think people who will enjoy this game fall into one of two categories:
1. Players who are playing the game simply for the fact that it’s DNF, a game which shouldn’t ever have been released but somehow made it out, and now they are morbidly curious.
2. Longtime fans of Duke. The guys who used to stay up late playing Duke 3D matches on their LAN connections. People who stuck with the series through the piss-poor console games who are just looking for an FPS return to form for Duke.
What you are getting here is a decent shooter that doesn’t betray the Duke license. If you were a fan of Duke 3D, then you’ll be able to appreciate the over the top gross out humor that Duke is presenting here.
If you’re easily offended or don’t find toilet humor funny, then this game absolutely isn’t for you, but you probably already knew that. Does Duke do everything right in this game that he deserves to be heralded as the king of action games? Certainly not, there are a lot of failings here that almost bring this game to parody levels, but it does enough right (and wrong) that it bridges that gap of being bad that it’s so over the top and ridiculous you can’t help but laugh with it.