Forget all the earthquakes, wars, global warming, and Harold Camping. Duke Nukem Forever finally coming out is the true sign of the Apocalypse.
The game with the most storied history in the industry finally sees a release
In the interest of giving a fair and balanced review, I played the game all the way through before writing this, as I do with most of the titles I write about. Some of the game developers expressed frustration over how poor some early reviews were, and given the amount of work that went into this game, I frankly don’t blame them. There was a certain school of thought among the gamer population before Duke Nukem Forevers release that the game wouldn’t be any good because it had spent so long in development (a school of thought that ironically flies in the face current thinking, since most gamers have stated in various polls that they’d rather have a delayed game than one that was hastily produced), and it seems to have colored the game’s reception. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. One just can’t review this game without going into its storied history; it truly is one of the legends of the gaming industry, for richer or for poorer.
ID Software created the First Person Shooter. Their developers were responsible for the original Wolfenstien 3D and later on Doom. When Doom became widely popular among the college bound computer gaming set of the early 90’s, ID Software and 3D Realms teamed up to follow through with another game aimed at mature gamers that upped the ante in just about every aspect. This game was Duke Nukem 3D, the third game in 3D Realms (formerly Apogee Software) Duke Nukem series (the other two were side scrolling shooters). Duke 3D came out in 1996 and immediately began turning heads, becoming another landmark title in the budding FPS genre. It was noted for its interactive environment, being one of the first games in which you could destroy background objects if you couldn’t shoot straight, or regain health by drinking from fountains or using the toilet. The game was known for its crude humor and borderline adult style, with Duke Nukem dishing out one-liners, causing aliens to crap themselves and tipping strippers he met while on his way to save the world. Yes, the game had strippers. It was revolutionary for being the first video game (made by American developers) to cater exclusively to a mature audience and it became an early flashpoint in the anti-video game movement which would later lead to Jack Thompson. But back then, video games didn’t have ratings either, and were commonly marketed as toys more than entertainment…though ID Software/3D Realms were instrumental in getting games recognized as more than just toys through releases like this. It was a big game with some big popularity and a bit of controversy. A sequel seemed to be a given and one was announced…in 1997. This is where things went horribly, horribly wrong.
With nearly two decades spent in development, the game became infamous as vaporware
The lead developer for the fourth Duke Nukem game must have felt like he was on top of the world, working with such an influential and anticipated franchise title. Understandably, he wanted this next game to push the envelope of what gamers thought was possible. He wouldn’t settle for anything less than a landmark release that blew all the other competition out of the water. While most game developers should probably strive for this level of excellence, it became a problem when the development team failed to predict just how quickly the market for First Person Shooters would take off. They began developing the game with their own in-house engine, built from scratch to utilize the environmental effects Duke 3D became known for. Far enough along in the development to release screenshots and details to gaming magazines, the development team discovered another developer had made an engine that was better, and decided to start over from scratch using that engine. They wanted to be the first to have drivable vehicles, but were beaten to that punch as well, causing another “back to the drawing board” for the development team. As time went on, more and more revolutionary FPS titles hit the market, causing more consternation for the development team until the recession hit in 2006, and the team currently at work on the game found themselves laid off three years later, causing a lawsuit from the game’s publisher Take-Two Interactive for failure to finish the title. Just when it seemed like the game had finally officially died, developers in Gearbox and 2k Games, known for their runaway hit Bioshock, successfully lobbied for the rights to the game, and received all the materials that had been done for it up to that point. Apparently, some developers in these houses had worked on the game before, and were unwilling to see Duke vanish from the gaming landscape. Come hell and high water, they promised to finish the game, and they did.
Duke Nukem Forever finally went gold on May 24, 2011, after nearly two decades spent in development. People have literally been born and died since the game was first announced, it had been featured as an “upcoming release” at least three times in gaming magazines, some poor fools famously lost money on the game’s first pre-release sale, and the game is the only one to date to win the Lifetime Achievement Award in Vaporware. The story of the game’s development is the story of the development of the FPS genre post Doom. It is the story of a self-deluded game developer and the revolving door of programmer teams who believed in his product. The only reason we have this game now is because of that belief, so we should really thank the people at Gearbox and 2K Games for seeing this through. Regardless as to how you feel about the final product, I think they deserve some recognition for that.
A truly epic game that delivers more of the adult humor that made the previous title stand out
Each of the Duke Nukem titles, including the first two, are direct sequels to each other and this one is no different. (Note: During the game’s protracted development, 3D Realms licensed the franchise out to other developers to keep the franchise from disappearing completely while they worked on the game. This resulted in such titles as Land of the Babes, Manhattan Project, and Zero Hour, and it is clear in this game that none of those made it into ‘official’ canon.) In Duke 3D, Nukem returned from his adventures in space tracking the fugitive Dr. Proton to discover that the Earth had been invaded by aliens while he was away. Aside from completely taking over, they were using the Earth’s women as incubators for alien spawn, which made things personal for the womanizing Duke. Taking an arsenal of potent weapons and one-liners to the streets of Los Angeles, he battled his way into the epicenter of the alien invasion, eventually confronting the alien Cycloid Emperor inside a massive football stadium, famously defeating him in front of a national audience and ending the alien invasion for good. Duke Nukem Forever takes place 12 years after that. We see Duke as a national icon, famous for kicking the alien scum off planet Earth so many years ago. He’s used his fame for success since that battle, operating his own casino The Lady Killer, and surrounding himself with babes who are all irresistibly drawn to him, especially the pop star “Holson Twins”, his live-in girlfriends. He’s franchised steroids, started his own fitness and weightlifting club, and has his likeness plastered all over Vegas, with pinball machines, video games, and more to his namesake. He even has a date that very night with “Lenoman” to discuss a recent release of his on the Late Show. But on his way down to the studio, he receives word that the Aliens have returned. Surprisingly, they aren’t invading, and even seem to be there peacefully in spite of the ominous mother ship hanging in the sky above the Vegas strip. Finding his interview with Lenoman canceled in favor of coverage of the alien’s return, he retreats to his secret lair to find messages waiting for him from The President and his old friend General Graves. The President announces that he is in negotiations with the new Cycloid Emperor, and orders Duke not to get involved since the aliens are not interested in stirring up trouble. It all turns out to be a sham, however, when an alien assassination squad infiltrates the hotel in an attempt to kill Duke, forcing him to disobey the President’s orders and kicking off his latest butt-kicking, stripper ogling adventure.
Duke Nukem Forever is everything that Duke Nukem 3D was, ramped up to a higher degree. The focus here is on the level of environmental interactivity, which is completely astounding. During the course of the game, you can play working pinball machines, shoot hoops, lift weights, drive vehicles, pick up and throw objects of all kinds, eat, smoke, drink and be merry. Part of the game is actually in finding all the things you can interact with, since the majority of these will boost your Ego, which acts as Duke’s shield or life meter in the game. It will refill automatically if you find some cover for a while to avoid getting hit, though you can also refill it by taking opportunities to specially execute injured enemies and by defeating the game’s bosses. Aside from this, it’s a pretty straightforward First Person Shooter, so it’s not like you’ll feel overwhelmed by frivolities; it’s all optional stuff that make the game more fun and engaging. The game moves along at a good clip too, keeping the action going and even presenting the player with a few puzzles similar to those found in Half-Life and other games (In classic Duke tradition, this game is quick to make fun those other games in the doing). John St. John returns as the voice of Duke Nukem, quipping hilarious one-liners with typical Duke panache. One thing that I need to get straight here and I can’t reiterate this enough: DO NOT go into this game expecting a Battlefield or Modern Warfare. I know those games are popular right now kids, but they don’t define the genre. Duke Nukem is meant to be humorous more than taken seriously, and it shows in just about every aspect of this over-the-top game. It’s the game’s character that makes it fun, and makes it stand out from the cookie-cutter War on Terror games that come out every year.
The game succeeds in some things as a FPS but curiously fails in others
That said, a game with such a long development time has some expectations that it’s going to need to meet, and sadly it does fall short in some categories, especially when compared to its modern kin as well as to its predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D. Gone are the sprawling level designs given in Duke 3D, in favor of a more linear style of gameplay. It feels like there’s less exploration here, fewer secrets to find. It didn’t bother me all that much, but it seems to have rubbed some old Duke Nukem diehards the wrong way. Another puzzling change is that, even though Duke’s full arsenal of butt-kicking weapons are in the game, you are only capable of wielding two at any time. This actually makes the game more of a challenge, since you have fewer fallbacks when you run out of ammunition. There are usually an abundance of weapons laying around though to make up for it, but it’s still a thing that throws you off when you are used to being able to switch from a variety of weapons in other games on the fly. Boss battles feel restricted by the head-scratching caveat that bosses can only be damaged by explosives and turrets. The levels are gloriously designed to be big and bold with next generation graphics, but sometimes when you are under attack it’s easy to lose sight of the aliens in the visual miasma that’s going on in front of you. This is more of a problem in the earlier levels fighting through flashy Vegas than it is in the later ones. Though all those reviewers who say the graphics are bad must be blind, because it looks and feels very current-gen to me in terms of graphic design. I mean, what were you expecting, Final Fantasy? It’s Duke Nukem!
Speaking of which, this game is not for kids. I know it’s pretty much a given seeing as how the previous game had strippers and all, but I wasn’t kidding when I said this game ramps up every aspect of the previous one. Duke Nukem Forever may very well be the “breast” game of 2011 given the eyefuls you’ll get throughout this game. Typical of Duke, it’s over the top to the point of near ridiculousness, but that’s part of the game’s charm. You’ll get a good chuckle out of some of the unexpected things the game throws at you, or perhaps it will leave you feeling a little disturbed. But that’s Duke Nukem for you. If one thing can be said it is that the game is a unique experience, unlike any of the other shooters available right now. If you want something different, aren’t easily offended or inclined to dislike a game just because it isn’t like anything that’s popular right now… you should probably give this a try. But if you do, please do it on the PC. The X-Box 360 version, while I’m sure it doesn’t scrimp on anything, the controls felt a little off…like they were begging for the precision and comfort of the old mouse and keys. In some instances it was difficult to aim in a hurry using the control sticks. Regardless of what the popular opinion of this game is, I found it to be quite a fun ride and a triumphant return for The Duke after such a long absence. The gaming industry has learned a lot from the example of development hell set by this game, and many thought it would never come out, including myself. But I’m glad it did, because now that the elephant is out of the room, the Duke Nukem team can focus on making the next one a better game.
A uniquely fun game, but may not be enough for some players
The Run Down:
Graphics: Nice for a current-gen game. Not breathtakingly spectacular, but who was really expecting Final Fantasy level graphics from Duke Nukem? I mean, come on! It works for the game and does a good job of updating the look while keeping some of the feel.
Gameplay: Admittedly not all that great for a first person shooter. The game's real strengths come in through it's humor and character, which is very persistent throughout the whole of the game. As a shooter, the gameplay is adequate. It's not completely unplayable, but may not feel as satisfying as expected, given the linear level style and Duke's limited carrying capacity. It still changes things up often enough to stay interesting though, featuring interactive environments and vehicle driving levels. One thing I noticed right off was that the game isn't very well suited to the controller. It feels more like it was designed for the PC in terms of how it was meant to be played, though it isn't unplayable on the console.
Sound: The sound in this game...well, sound effects are good but not great. What really shines are Duke's voicing by John St. John and the constant stream of hilarious one-liners Duke has in reaction to what goes on in the game. Other voices are good too. It might have been more fun to hear some of the old sounds from Duke 3D make a comeback, but I suppose we can't have everything. Weirdly, the theme song is done by some unknown band, and sounds conspicuously quiet.
Story: The story is kind of basic. Not a whole lot of thought was put into it aside from finding a way to get Duke back into alien ass-kicking. The aliens try to assassinate Duke in advance of another invasion attempt and fail, leaving the Duke pissed as hell and ready to kick them back off Earth again. It feels like there was a missed opportunity for something greater in the President's warnings and later threats, telling Duke not to retaliate. Nothing ever really comes of it, and there were also a few missed opportunities with Duke's few encounters with Earth's Defense Forces. The focus of the game, however, is on humor above all, so most of what is in here is leading toward a punchline.
Replay Value: The game's pretty linear, so different people's mileage is going to vary. You can get most of the game's achievements on just one or two playthroughs, but there -are- some hidden things you'll need to look for in the game. Also, there is a multiplayer mode, but it feels really generic. You can progress through challenges in multiplayer that will earn you unlocks, usually in the style of hats a-la Team Fortress 2 (I think they were trying to send up that game, but in this case the punchline seems to have fallen flat). There are other unlocks you can get, some for multiplayer and some for "My Digs", which is like Duke's virtual home; a mansion dedicated solely to his massive Ego. I think it's supposed to be a send-up of Playstation Home, but seems kind of unnecessary. There are other extras you unlock for beating the game, like some historical bits about the games development. Particularly interesting are all the different teaser trailers they've had through the years...they all look like completely different games! Perhaps it would be fun to see some of those unused elements in the next title, which is also hinted at.
Duke Nukem Forever
Platforms: PC, X-Box 360, Playstation 3 (version reviewed is for the X-Box 360)
Developers: 3D Realms, Tryptech Games, Gearbox Software, Piranha Games
Publisher: 2K Games
The only game in the industry to win the Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award from a prominent gaming magazine.
With a development time spanning some 15 years of on and off work, Duke Nukem Forever has the longest running development time of any current media project.
The team that finished the game at Gearbox was composed of members who originally worked on the game for 3D Realms before it folded. It was claimed that the game was close to going gold before 3D Realms went under, and all that was needed from the Gearbox team was some polishing.
The game pokes fun of other games that have gained popularity in recent years, including Halo and World Of Warcraft, and Half-Life.