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Full disclosure: 2K Games paid for my flight and hotel to see Duke Nukem Forever at a preview event in Las Vegas, NV.
The 2K representative asked me what I thought of the 90-minute demo I just played and told me not to sugarcoat my answer. "I don't think you're going to get very high review scores," I replied.
Duke Nukem Forever is no BioShock-killer, looking at it from a critic's perspective. Yet, it's quite possible that DNF might destroy BioShock in terms of popularity and sales. Let's take a look at why this long, long, long overdue shooter — finally scheduled to hit May 3, 2011 on the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 — might succeed or fail.
5 reasons why Duke Nukem Forever will fail:
1. The game shows its age
The consensus seems quite clear amongst the journalists I talked to: Duke Nukem Forever looks, plays, and feels like a shooter made in late '90s. The stages are very linear; many of the enemies are as dynamic as shooting-range targets; and the visuals, while not bad by any means, will certainly not wow many modern gamers. (The very first level — a remake of a classic football-field boss battle from Duke Nukem 3D — might be an exception, however. With the rain, an imposing and detailed stadium, and a full nighttime skyline, this stage is an excellent showcase to show how far graphics have come since the early days of flat first-person shooters.)
Nowadays, we have scripted events that would make Hollywood proud (Modern Warfare's nuke scene), emergent gameplay (creative use of weaponry and plasmid powers in BioShock), cooperative campaigns (Halo: Reach), and truly frightening foes (Big Daddies in BioShock). Ninety minutes of Duke Nukem Forever didn't really reveal any of those things.
2. Gearbox Software didn't do most of the design work
You could almost hear the gamers' collective sigh of relief when 2K announced that Gearbox Software (Brothers in Arms, Borderlands) would take over as the developers on this seemingly doomed project. Many people thought this game might turn out OK after all. Unfortunately, Gearbox inherited somewhat of a mess and is primarily just smoothing out the rougher spots. "When [Duke Nukem Forever] came from [original developer] 3D Realms, there was a full game there," says Melissa Miller, senior producer at 2K Games. "It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. [Gearbox brought in some of the original developers] who had been carrying the vision and the knowledge of where the game was going, to continue to do that work."
That's not to say the folks at Gearbox are completely hands-off. They are first-person-shooter experts, after all. "Gearbox was able to take over a high-level view of the game and say, 'OK, where can we add value?'" says Miller. "There were definitely full-on pieces of content where they said, 'We can figure out a better execution of this,' while keeping the spirit of what was intended for that particular scene."
3. Duke Nukem isn't that relevant anymore
Our buffed-out protagonist is classic action hero…in an age where classic action heroes are a woefully outdated concept. These days, we're used to vulnerable antiheroes (Daniel Craig's James Bond), gray-area vigilantes (Batman), or Jason Statham. The Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone mold died with the last century.
A balls-out, take-no-names kinda guy like Duke just doesn't seem to have a place in modern media except on a purely ironic level, and perhaps this game is going for just that. But knowing the development history of this title, you can just sense that this character was made for a bygone era.
4. It's more puzzle-y than you'd expect
Duke Nukem Forever is no Portal, but it does have a lot more puzzle elements than you'd expect for a testosterone-fueled shooter. In one scene, with no prompting from the game itself (though this is all subject to change, of course, as the product is not finished yet), you have to figure out on your own that you have to steer an RC car through a simple obstacle course to push a key item through a small hole in the wall. While I really appreciated the lack of handholding pop-up tips in the game's more puzzle-y sections — hey, it feels good to figure stuff out on my own! — I wonder if this would just stump a more…uh…simple gamer. You know, the kind who would still heartily laugh at any boob jokes this game spews forth.
5. Bulletstorm might have more balls
Unfortunately for all those involved with this game, it has to compete with Bulletstorm, which might out-Duke Duke in the crudeness department. Hell, Bulletstorm is so evil, it might cause otherwise wholesome Americans to start raping people.
5 reasons why Duke Nukem Forever will succeed
1. It's Duke Nukem, baby
Complete this quote: "It's time to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I'm…"
You know it. I know it. Most gamers over the age of 25 know it. And while the original Duke Nukem 3D didn't invent that quote (that honor goes to Rowdy Roddy Piper in the 1988 flick They Live), just about everyone associates that line (and many others) with the Duke. How many other gaming characters are that famous or memorable? The name alone will translate into many sales.
Duke's lowest of lowbrow humor is still good for the occasional laugh. In some of the less risqué moments, Duke makes fun of a certain shooter star ("Power armor is for pussies!"); the game mocks gamers (loading-screen tip: "If you get stuck, don't forget you can cheat by looking at FAQs online"); and as seen in the most recent trailer (see below), our star acknowledges his own delays (on whether the new game is any good: "Yeah, but after 12 fucking years, it should be.").
I even made myself chuckle by drawing a penis when an in-game fan asked for Duke's autograph, though I don't doubt the developers had thought of that already when they decided to give the player the ability to free-form "write" anything he wanted in this scene.
3. Morbid curiosity
EGMi Senior Editor Patrick Klepek says it best in our upcoming episode of the Mobcast: Gamers are going to check out Duke Nukem Forever out of sheer morbid curiosity. This game has been in development for an unprecedented 300 years, and few have high expectations for it. We all want to see how the final product turns out, though those hoping to experience the gaming equivalent of a humungous car wreck will be disappointed. The game's definitely playable and entertaining, which leads us to…
4. The action's straightforward
One of the game's weaknesses is also a strength. DNF is not going to out-fancy any other shooters out there. While it has some variety (the aforementioned RC car puzzle or an entire level where you're a shrunken Duke driving in the RC car itself), the action's pretty straightforward: Keep on pushing forward and keep on shootin'. While this may sound boring to those weaned on deeper action games (like…well, almost any of them), I imagine a portion of the market can still enjoy a mindless, simple shooter. Not everyone wants to perform fancy combos in Bulletstorm or customize gear in Dead Space 2.
The big unknown is, of course, DNF's multiplayer. It's certainly coming, but 2K and Gearbox are keeping details hidden from the press for now. "When you think about it, it's just going to be a really cool thing," says Miller, giving us a little taste of what's to come. "Think about the arsenal you have in single player and dump that into a multiplayer situation. How fun is it to shrink a pig cop and then step on him? Now imagine being able to do that with your friends."
We did plenty of buddy-squishing back in the late '90s with the original Duke Nukem 3D, thanks to the game's shrink rays. Then we had freeze rays, jet packs, holograms, trip mines, remote-detonated pipe bombs…today, some of us Duke vets still recount unforgettable multiplayer moments from a decade and a half ago. If Duke Nukem Forever's multiplayer can capture any of the same magic, charm, and utter nonsense from the classic — and that's the developer's plan — then the game may end up being well worth the wait.
If you have any questions about what I played in the 90-minute demo of Duke Nukem Forever, please ask in the comments below, and I'll do my best to answer them. Also, check out my Twitter (@bitmobshoe) to see photos from the preview event, which took place in a strip bar that 2K renamed "Titty City."