Steve Pendlebury of Game Rant reviews Duke Nukem Forever
I must admit there was a tangible sense of anxiety as I loaded up Duke Nukem Forever for the first time. Until last Tuesday the name itself was synonymous with the term ‘vaporware,’ and rightly so. I was an avid fan of Duke Nukem 3D, and could talk to you at length about how it marked one of the biggest breakthroughs in interactive gameplay history and changed the FPS gaming world forever.
Following in the trails blazed by Duke Nukem 3D, developer 3D Realms rapidly began working on Duke Nukem Forever. That was April 1997. Since that time, Duke Nukem Forever has undergone several engine changes and endured feature-creep the likes of which only a handful of other games have seen. The development time was so unnaturally long that 3D Realms actually went bankrupt and the rights to the game were sold. Gearbox software, most recently of Borderlands fame, picked up the rights to Duke Nukem Forever, and vowed to finish the game once and for all, closing the lid on this 14 year long odyssey.
But was the wait worth it? The short answer is no. It should come as no surprise that a game that spent 14 years in developmental chaos popped out on the other side a fragmented mess of half-realized ideas, thematically disjointed level design, and visuals of widely-varying quality. Though it pains me to say it, after 14 years, Duke Nukem Forever is still not ready.
On the surface, DNF contains many gaming staples we are familiar with. These chunks work well in isolated bursts but fall apart when played in extended stretches. The standard run and gun combat that operates as the filler in between mission way-points and event triggers is competent and at times a lot of fun, and yet at other times is completely ruined by bad enemy encounter-design and attack patterns that are more annoying than challenging. The feral pig cops are a good example of this — they are unarmed, but will charge at you just out of range, only to jump past the player and melee your back at the last moment, dealing huge amounts of damage. In open areas where you can maneuver around these attacks easily, these encounters can be challenging and fun, but put several of the creatures in a darkened, enclosed room with you, and gameplay devolves into a flailing mess of confusion and blind firing, and the difference between death and success is more about luck than skill.
The world is filled with NPC’s that serve to propel Duke through the levels, though they are badly voiced and hold themselves in the unconvincing (i.e. static) way we saw in games 10 years ago. Trigger points are obvious and there is no real drama anywhere. Every event is strictly-scripted, and happens in isolation. There is a very real sense of moving from one modular, compartmentalized gameplay chunk to the next, and leaves you feeling very unsatisfied.
Usually book-ending the action FPS segments are obvious transition segments, placed specifically to stop gameplay and segway into another area. These take the form of platforming sections and physics puzzles that will have you hurling a controller more often than scratching your noodle. They are often too simple and uninspired, serving only to break up the gameplay by road-blocking you in an obtuse way. Mostly relying on hidden solutions, they don’t serve to flex your thinking muscles, and in fact most of the time just require you to search for the hidden button or explosive barrel that was deliberately obfuscated from view. They feel cheap and thoughtless — as antagonistic barriers rather than devious challenges.
The weapons from Duke 3D make a comeback, with a few new additions, and are just as fun to use now as they were then – with the exception of pipe bombs. The riot shotgun is back and the sensation of knocking bad guys down with the weapon is great. Also the handgun and bizarre 3-barrel machine gun are a lot of fun to carry into battle. On the more heavy-hitter end of the spectrum, some of the alien weapons look powerful but are surprisingly weak, and the railgun looks to have been ripped wholesale from Quake 2. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable weapons in Duke Nukem 3D was the pipe bomb. This was a strategic instrument whose uses truly made any encounter a strategic joy to manipulate. I can’t quite put my finger on why they don’t work as well here, but I found myself using them as grenades to get out of a jam – rather than strategic crowd-control as I did in Duke Nukem 3D.
Of course, all of this gameplay is punctuated — a little too frequently — by Duke’s horrible one-liners. This used to be his calling-card, and in prior games were always regarded as funny asides, something he did to brighten the mood occasionally – and reinforce his braggadocio. To hear them here, in this game, on top of all other problems, and with much more frequency is simply too much. Not one of his lines is remotely funny — not in reality or ironically. At some point, the iconography of Duke Nukem took over the game design in Duke Nukem Forever and led them down a path of Duke-centric ideas, rather than interesting and compelling ones.
Duke Nukem 3D was primarily an excellently-designed FPS game, that had many new and interesting ideas, and executed them with flair and skill. The fact that Duke was a ridiculous movie-referencing chauvinist was secondary to everything else. His persona only helped reinforce the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere and storyline of Duke Nukem 3D. Somewhere along the way, the development team thought that this was the only aspect of the game that anyone cared about, and subsequently spent too much time and effort in adding game content specifically around Duke himself. If this was all they did, and instead pitched Duke as a relic of yesteryear, in a world where everyone else had matured and moved away from his sexist, macho behavior, this might make for a more interesting and compelling narrative. But they didn’t. This is a story about how awesome Duke is and how everyone still loves his machismo – even though he is quite possibly the least-likable person on planet Earth.
There is an odd dichotomy at play in Duke Nukem Forever that is hard to reconcile. His character, his world and his story are all relics of early computer gaming. And yet, every facet of the game’s production shows modern gaming tropes – just not executed well. There are touches of excellent and unique ideas here and there, though, that serve to highlight that distinct form of creative brilliance that once gave us Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a crying shame that so many of these ideas flounder and are not fully-realized – due to the stifling blandness that permeates the game around them.
Duke has a regenerating health bar now (actually an “ego” bar) the capacity for which can be permanently increased by performing acts that boost his ego, such as lifting weights and checking himself out in mirrors. Unfortunately this is not clearly-defined by the bland GUI, and the feedback given to the player indicating how much damage is being taken, and from where, is vague and hard to read.
The shrinking gel, which shrinks Duke whenever he steps into it, makes a welcome comeback here, and would be an excellent inclusion to liven up gameplay, is instead used to propel Duke through laborious platform segments. Set pieces depicting epic scenes and impossibly large structures occur at key points in the narrative, and yet are very often a mixture of exceptionally-detailed texturing on the key items, extremely low-resolution secondary items, and mishandled depth-of-field blur, that make everything look comically disproportionate. Vehicle sections are here too, and are in fact some of the more enjoyable parts of the game, but they too take place in very linearly-designed levels.
Ultimately, Duke Nukem Forever is the only thing it could be. It is the victim of a 14 year development cycle, in which the framework stuck to the course – but the technology and gaming conventions wrapped around it were in constant flux. The eleventh-hour change in developers, from 3D Realms to Gearbox, is very obvious in the game’s overall lack of cohesion and polish. Indeed, it is apparent when playing through the game that some sections were artificially prolonged by having the player retread steps after a tedious journey through miles of corridor.
As mentioned before, in other sections, the environments contain both dull textures and sharp, normal-mapped ones – often on the same objects and sometimes on the same creatures. The depth-of-field blur is so badly-implemented that in many of the outdoor areas, the distant objects have been reduced to muddy shapes, whereas the immediate play area is crisp and vivid. Instead of realism, we are left with something akin to a stage play, where the set is there, but the background is a cardboard cutout. The world fades to black to mark the end of a level without a warning of any kind. There is very little in the way of increasing tension or building drama to key-in and know when the level may end or, indeed, what might happen next.
It should come as no surprise, too, that the multiplayer portion of Duke Nukem Forever is a decidedly average experience, albeit with a hefty Duke-injection. To whit; Deathmatch is Dukematch, Team Deathmatch is Team Dukematch, Capture the Flag is, unfortunately, Capture the Babe, and King of the Hill is now Hail to the King. The tropes you’d expect from modern-day multiplayer gaming experiences are included, though – such as an XP leveling system and awards which, when earned, can be placed in Duke’s mansion for you to look at if the mood takes you.
The multiplayer options are rather generous, however. As well as the four game modes mentioned above, there are ten maps in total and also a series of mutators that change the weapon loadouts available in each match. It’s more than adequate for an ‘aside’ multiplayer module, but by no means is it robust enough to stand on its own – in the same way as Halo: Reach or Call of Duty: Black Ops. Far from it. In Duke Nukem Forever, the multiplayer serves as a nice occasional distraction to the slog of the single player story.
Duke Nukem Forever shows signs of greatness, but ultimately falls short in almost every way. It will be played by many, but specifically it will be the fans of Duke Nukem 3D who will perhaps get the most out of it. The self-references come thick and fast, and I daresay the game needs them, to remind fans what game they are playing – as much as for the game to retain its sense of individuality. The gameplay, graphics and sound are the most derivitive and uninspiring examples within the genre. It is only the Duke-isms, as jarring as they are, that make this product stand out at all.
Fail to the king, baby.
Duke Nukem Forever is out now for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and OnLive.