Better Late Than Never: Duke Nukem Forever
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Did we ever think that this day would come? It's been FOURTEEN YEARS since we first heard about Duke Nukem Forever, and yes the long story of the poster child of vaporware and "development hell" is well documented. We thought that when 3D Realms laid off their staff in 2009, the long sad story would come to an end. But that wasn't the case when I attended MAGFest 9, and Duke Nukem himself Jon St. John said he couldn't speak on the subject of Duke Nukem Forever, only hinting for attendees to "read between the lines."
Those lines were opened at PAX 2010 when the first publicly playable build of Duke Nukem Forever was shown, and there was even a "guaranteed" launch date of May 3rd, 2011. Of course, I never trust guaranteed launch dates, and once again I wasn't left disappointed: the game was delayed once more to June 14th. (Ironically it was Flag Day, and go figure the DNF title graphic prominently features an American flag. Coincidence?)
So now I'm ready to play Duke Nukem Forever, and had some hopes the game would turn out well. That was until I started seeing the reviews posted by the so-called "professionals." I won't go into detail on them but it did put a slight damper on my waiting for the game to arrive, but considering the way some of those review sites work, I thought maybe they were being too harsh in their reviews.
So I played Duke Nukem Forever, and after completing the approximate 10-12 hour campaign, I did come to the conclusion that these reviewers were way too harsh in their scores. Is Duke Nukem Forever a great game? No, but it is a good game: a fun, enjoyable action romp full of pop culture references and toilet humor voiced by the one man who can make it sound great: Jon St. John himself.
Right off the bat the game makes fun of the development cycle, with Duke in front of a urinal stating his bathroom break is "taking forever...time to stop p*ssing around and get back into action." We find out the first part of the game is actually a flashback to the final battle against the Cycloid in Duke Nukem 3D...
Or is it? Duke is actually playing a game (with an awesome 360 style pad I would give anything to purchase) while two twins are giving him special favors. Turns out in the 12 years after the events of Duke 3D, Duke has become a celebrity. He owns a Vegas museum and casino called The LadyKiller, which even hosts a talk show called "Damn, I'm Late." Another obvious reference to the game's delay cycle. We also notice a huge mothership hovering over the Strip, and the aliens that Duke defeated before are running about. However, when Duke gets into his hidden "Duke Cave" based in the depths of the LadyKiller, he gets a videoconference call from the President, who demands that Duke not get involved while he tries diplomatic negotiations with the Cycloid Emperor. Of course this is all for not as the casino is attacked, and the aliens take that which Duke holds dear....his women!
Oh and there's that matter of the aliens using the power of the Hoover Dam to create a portal to Earth. But as Duke says to him commanding officer, General Graves, "Screw the dam. Where are they taking my chicks?"
So the whole plot turns out to be one part revenge story, one part stop the invasion and save the world.
Yeah the story is not much but then again, the original Duke Nukem 3D did not have much of a story either. I think this is the biggest problem that Forever has. It feels like it is still stuck in 1999 but does several elements to adapt the game for a modern world. For one, Duke can carry only two guns at once, and switch between them back and forth a la Halo or Call of Duty. There have been many people who have complained about this matter, but I'm not one who minds it. Duke is also able to carry up to 4 pipe bombs and 4 trip mines that can be used in conjunction with his guns.
During the game's development, one of the biggest features that was mentioned prominently was being able to interface with everything. This is pretty much true. Duke can scribble on whiteboards, purchase from vending machines, shoot baskets, play air hockey, even play his pinball machine (which he couldn't in 3D, but resulting in a pretty funny pun back then.) Matter of fact, these actions are strongly encouraged, as it is the way to build up Duke's Ego (his health.) I even spent a lot of time playing the pinball machine just to earn an achievement for scoring a million points, which is not easy.
Sadly the interaction also resulted in some challenging puzzles. One of which is even done as a rip against Valve Software, where Duke actually says "I hate Valve puzzles" when opening valves to move pipes and extinguish alien blockades. Some of the puzzles even involve Duke shrinking down to a small size, requiring some precise platforming to get through them. They can be a bit confusing at times and I'm hoping that should another Duke game come out it will be more action based.
But I will want to keep some of the vehicle stages because they do add a bit to the game. Even though the later one (involving a monster truck named Mighty Foot,) felt a bit like the boat stages in Half Life 2, except the vehicle loves to lose gas way too quickly. It makes me wonder why Duke only recovers one gas can from a found stash, when there are multiple tanks there ready to be acquired. Would have saved him a lot of hassle.
When I am doing run and gun action and hearing some of Duke's trademark one-liners, I was really enjoying myself. But there were some stages near the end of the game that made me want to throw my controller in frustration. Most of the water based stages were just maddening, as Duke loses oxygen way too fast, and the only way to recover it is to find bubble spouts to breathe in a la Sonic. They can be hard to access, especially when you got aquatic enemies attacking your Ego. Another stage near the end of the game which has unofficial ties to Donkey Kong that was downright frustrating, and took me 20 attempts to complete. Thankfully the final battle turned out to be a load of fun, but only to leads to a somewhat disappointing ending.
Aside from the previously mentioned self deprecating humor about the delays, Duke Nukem Forever features a ton of pop culture references ranging from the early announcement ("I'm from Las Vegas, and I say Kill 'em All." - taken from Starship Troopers) all the way up to an actor doing a near dead on rip of Christian Bale's Terminator Salvation rave out. Some of them are very funny, especially when it comes from Duke's own mouth. Need I even mention how funny Jon St. John is as Duke? Sadly the rest of the voice cast is pretty average, and some NPC's tend to repeat the same thing over and over again. A possible exception might be for the President who always blows a gasket every time Duke causes more destruction, but that's what he does best.
Duke Nukem Forever runs on a modified Unreal Engine version 2.5, which I'm guessing explains the subpar looking graphics. Everything does look a touch last gen, and there are some moments of slowdown that can hamper gameplay. I wonder what would have happened if Gearbox decided to make the game run on Unreal Engine 3, aside from another delay of course.
Depsite all the issues I had with Duke Nukem Forever, it didn't reach the point of being unplayable and I still had a lot of fun with the game. I'm hoping I don't have to wait another 12 years for another sequel but I do hope that Gearbox will help make up for the delay and release another Duke sequel that will make the other shooters cower in fear, up to the point where other games will be delayed because of its launch. Don't let the professionals fool you because Duke Nukem Forever is at least a solid rental.
Pros: It's FINALLY out! Jon St. John, as always, is awesome and hilarious as Duke. 10-12 hour campaign. All the classic weapons from Duke 3D are back. Tons of pop culture references and self deprecating humor, especially in regards to the long development cycle.
Cons: It's a 1999 game trapped in a 2011 world. Graphics are subpar, and feature a lot of frame rate drops. Some stages can be very frustrating, especially the water levels. Would have liked more action and less puzzles. Somewhat disappointing ending, but hopefully it will mean an improved sequel.
Todd Hargosh is GiN's Product Testing Manager. He enjoys any game that gets his adrenaline pumping. Todd can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.