Duke Nukem: Forever review
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Duke's back, but it would appear that 15 years of development has been wasted...
The near 15 year on again, off again development cycle of Duke Nukem Forever is stuff of legend. The game was taken on, dropped, re-taken on and cancelled entirely – numerous times – before Gearbox Software took on the mantle of bringing Duke Nukem Forever to life last year.
At a special event at BAFTA last month, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford revealed reviving Duke Nukem Forever was in large part, a personal quest having cut his teeth at 3D Realms working on Duke Nukem 3D in the late 1990s. It came across as if it was his personal mission to bring Duke Nukem Forever to life after all those years in development hell.
Ever since we discovered Duke Nukem Forever was finally going to be released, Pitchford has banged the hype drum telling us how awesome it’ll be, how the game will be completely different to other first person shooters, how it’ll be a breath of fresh air. Well, the release of Duke Nukem Forever certainly brought hype in the form of a lavish launch party in Soho, but would the game live up to all those years of expectation?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Duke Nukem Forever isn’t the amazing redefinition Pitchford claimed it’d be - it isn’t even a mediocre title - and it’s a poorly put together game that perhaps should never have seen the light of day at all.
Let’s start with the basics; for a modern Triple A title, Duke Nukem Forever looks terrible, with some of the very first games of this generation able to lay claim to being nicer to look at. In the first scene of the game you look in the mirror and see Duke, a mess of polygons with jagged edges. Jump or move and you see a poorly animated mess. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better here on in.
Want to read the posters plastered across the walls? Tough luck, as the textures might as well be from the late 1990s, they're that unreadable. Want to chat to NPCs? You can...but they move and emote like corpses. Midway through the game you get a lap dance from a stripper. If you can somehow get turned on by a poorly animated topless woman then there’s something wrong with you.
As for the environments, they mostly come in the form of bland, or very bland with browns and greys forming most of the colour pallet. For one of the most high profile releases of 2011, Duke Nukem Forever looks embarrassingly poor.
In the 10-12 hours it took to complete Duke Nukem Forever, it became abundantly evident that many original concepts were drawn up in the late 1990’s, but in 2011 the final result is less than satisfying. Not only does the gameplay fail to live up to the standards of a modern shooter, it feels dated when compared to even 2004’s classic Half-Life 2. Hell, the original Half-Life and Gearbox Software’s own Half-Life expansion - Opposing Force - provided much, much more satisfying experiences than Duke Nukem Forever. So what’s wrong with it?
Well, for the most part it’s just badly designed. Starting with the basics, the controls are sluggish at best. Duke moves with the urgency of a lethargic fat man being told to get up from a comfy chair, while aiming a gun – one of the most important elements of the game – is just as unresponsive. Combine these controls with the regular, enemy heavy shooting sections and there’s a problem. Poor aiming mechanics added to regular sections with enemies that can almost kill Duke with one hit tend to reduce Duke Nukem Forever’s shooting to quick bursts of fire - hopefully in the direction of the enemy - before hiding behind cover to reload or regenerate health.
Now, while in Duke Nukem 3D if you ran out of ammo, you could use a wide variety of other weapons, Duke Nukem Forever limits you to just two. While this may have been implemented to imitate the likes of Call of Duty and Killzone, it just doesn’t work correctly in this instance. For example, are you carrying only the Freeze Ray and the RPG? Well, you won’t have much chance against the flying octopus which can throw rockets at you.
This and the sheer number of enemies – which are just redesigns of the enemies of old - in some sections mean repeatedly regenerating until you’ve memorised where all the foes come from. The basic selection of the Shotgun and Ripper get most jobs done, but both feel somewhat unfulfilling to use. The Destroyer and Shrinking ray are a little more fun to use, but neither appear until the second half of the game. By that point, if the mostly uninspired shooting hasn’t put you off, the tedious jumping puzzles will do.
For what’s advertised as an old school shooter, Duke Nukem Forever features a lot of jumping puzzles. Now, jumping sections are highly enjoyable affairs in third person titles – mainly because you’re able to see exactly where you’re supposed to jump, you can take a run up and if needed, grab a ledge at the last moment. Yet in Duke Nukem Forever the last two aren't even t possible, and the first regularly becomes confusing. For an all-guns-blazing ultimate action hero, Duke isn’t very good at jumping and can only clear small gaps.
Remember the poor movement controls above? They’re exactly the same when it comes to the jumping sections of the game. The imprecise controls often lead to failing jumps and having to restart that particular section of the game after Duke falls to his death. Why Gearbox Software decided to include so many tedious jumping puzzles is really a mystery; even the FPS-father, Half Life, fell down when it came to the Xen level jumping challenges...and that was back in 1998.
Both the jumping and combat of Duke Nukem Forever can be quite tough – during my play through I had to reload multiple sections, multiple times, thanks - no doubt - to a number of odd difficulty spikes. Unfortunately, things aren’t helped by the infrequent nature of checkpoints – if you die, there's a good chance you'll have to repeat the same five to 10 minutes you’ve just played. While we of course don’t want games being too easy, the strange placement of checkpoints – i.e. not immediately before tough sections – means replaying the same sections over and over; further adding to the tedious nature of the title.
You’ll die. You’ll die a lot. But what's worse is the inexcusably long time you’ll spend waiting for the game to load saves. On more than one occasion I was left waiting over a minute for the relatively small segments of the game to load. Again (and I'm starting to feel like I'm repeating myself) this is something that we may - may being the operable word - put up with a decade ago, but in 2011, when so many games load instantly, Duke Nukem Forever’s loading times are just unacceptable.
Story and Game Design
With this being Duke Nukem Forever, the story was never going to be anything near Half-Life or Bioshock good, but it serves enough of a purpose for the player to know why they’re shooting aliens in the face. Basically, Duke is 12 years into his retirement having defeated the aliens of his previous instalments (Remember that?), but the aliens have come back for Earth’s women – including Dukes own ‘Holsom’ twins – and that’s enough for him to slip on his holster and lock and load once more.
During his pursuit of these babe-snatching extraterrestrials, Duke travels through a variety of locations; some are good and feel innovative, while others feel like they’ve been ripped straight from shooters of old - and I mean old. All in all, it’s easy to tell that Duke Nukem Forever was developed over a long period of time because the different sections that constitute the final release feel as if they have been forced together, patched together from old ideas that had been left lying around.
There are some very entertaining sections, such as a road-trip across the desert...in a monster truck...whilst driving over Pig Cops (typical Nukem ey?) and these are, god forbid, entertaining. Furthermore, these driving sections are interspersed with short trips to find gas, during which time combat is short, sharp, not too tricky and overall rather satisfying.
Other more enjoyable sections of the game come where Duke is shrunk down to the size of an action figure and suddenly regular rooms become tricky death traps for the mini-Duke. Perhaps the most memorable mini-Duke section comes in a Kitchen where he’s running behind jars and bottles while taking out mini-Pig Cops. The whole experience is somewhat let down by the need for yet more jumping puzzles, but at least jumping from burger to burger on a stove is different from doing it on yet another high building.
However, for every enjoyable part of this release, there are many more frustrating ones, thanks in part to the consistently difficult spikes and boss battles. Both of these come together in ‘The Hive’ section of the game, where jumping puzzles, annoying small enemies and larger, deadlier ones - capable of one hit kills - make it frustrating. To finish, the boss battle combines the frustrating enemies with a gigantic boss and the need to precisely (see above for how ‘precise’ aiming is) throw Pipe Bombs at him. It's like they want to rub salt in the wounds.
Yet the tipping point as it were has to be the gratuitous use of women throughout. Levels are full of women – topless women – essentially being raped by aliens, seemingly moaning with pleasure while crying. It’s downright disturbing and doesn’t add much to the game, especially with Duke’s nonchalant attitudes towards them. OK, so Duke Nukem games have always had a misogyny about them, but this, well, just feels wrong.
While the other levels may be dull and poorly designed, at least they don’t sink to the lows of the above. Instead, they consist of bland indoor areas and, towards the end of the game, a tedious underwater section made all the more so by the poor controls. You know it's bad when Duke regularly gets stuck in doorways, which consequently leads to drowning.
The boring levels are semi-regularly interspersed with boss battles that require repeating the same tactics over and over again, yet fluctuate wildly in difficulty. OK, while the tactics do vary to some extent – in that you can only either use an RPG or a turret – the battles get incredibly tedious, leaving you bored and praying for an end.
The worst offender of this is ‘Queen Bitch’, a giant alien whose only weakness are pipebombs. Oh, and if your limited weapon choice wasn't enough, damage can only be done at certain occasions - fantastic. Yet again, we are frustrated by poor controls and aiming mechanics, and then even more so by the bosses cheap knock down attacks which reduce Duke to almost no health – and therefore easy prey for the minions. This singular battle was arguably the most difficult – and frustrating – of the game, and oddly came around a third of the way in. In contrast, the final boss battle was relatively simple.
Duke Nukem as a character in the 21st Century
Duke Nukem came to be as a parody of all action film heroes of the 1980s. The concept continued to work into the 1990s, but now Duke’s ‘Kick ass and chew gum’ attitude seems as old fashioned as sitting down to watch the God awful Black and White Minstrel show. Ok, so maybe it’s actually a nice innovation that instead of Duke having a traditional health bar, he has an Ego metre. He’ll die if the Ego gets reduced to zero. It can be recharged in combat if Duke does one of two things – execute an enemy or...er, avoid taking damage through hiding. Now excuse me if that doesn’t sound like a very brave attitude to take. Duke you coward.
You can also permanently increase Duke’s ego by interacting with in-world objects in Duke like ways. Drink a beer for the first time? Gain Ego. Look at pictures of naked ladies? Gain ego. Win a pinball or air hockey mini game? Gain Ego. Unfortunately you’re unlikely to want to receive the ego boost from the mini-games as they’re not much fun to play.
It’s also not much fun to play as Duke the character. While he may possess a few witty references to pop culture, Duke Nukem really does come across as an out and out dick. For example, in the Hive sections mentioned above, Duke finds ‘his girls’ have also been essentially raped by the tentacle beasts and intends to make them suffer for it. However, his response - in a somewhat smug fashion - of "Looks like you’re fucked " made me want to vomit. The Duke of Duke Nukem Forever is an unlikeable douche that doesn’t fit into the modern world.
Duke Nukem Forever’s multiplayer is barely worth bothering with. Again, like most areas of gameplay, it isn’t any more advanced than the multiplayer of games in the late 90s. For a start, each of the game modes can only cater for a maximum of eight people, a paltry number when you consider that 32 player combat has become a norm amongst modern FPS'.
Unfortunately, this heavily slimmed down action doesn’t make the multiplayer better in any of the three modes. Duke Match and Team Duke Match are traditional death match modes, while Hail to the King is a team based King of the Hill style mode. Capture the Babe is just capture the flag with a scantily clad woman - who players occasionally have to spank - replacing the flag. None of the modes offer much enjoyment thanks to lag and the poor controls.
In an effort to keep people playing, Duke Nukem Forever’s multiplayer offers rewards for completing challenges in the form of hats and alternate outfits for your multiplayer combatant, while levelling up sees you gain more items for a custom pad. Of course, this includes babes, but why put all that effort into acquiring different virtual women when there’s a whole internet out there with choice images to look at? Basically, the multiplayer adds nothing to the overall experience of the game, and certainly won’t keep players hooked beyond its campaign.
Perhaps after all those years in development Hell, Duke Nukem Forever was never going to live up to expectations, even if it was a good game. Truth is, Forever marks a very poor shooter that both looks, and feels, far too dated. The controls are poor, the levels are mostly dull and the difficulty seems to spike at random intervals.
While there are a few enjoyable sections - and the game does raise the occasional smile - for the most part it’s a relic of a bygone age. They say you should never meet your heroes, and if Duke was one of your gaming icons of the 1990s, do yourself a favour - give this one a miss. Otherwise, you will be forced to watch a once iconic character reduced to an empty shell, a mere snippet of his former greatness. The awful ‘you’re fucked’ comment in The Hive just cements this.
Want some tongue in cheek action fun? Play Bulletstorm. Hell, even play one of the classic Duke Nukem titles. Just don’t put yourself through playing this poorly put together relic of yesteryear.
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