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Duke Nukem Forever. After fourteen years of teases and trailers, for someone that remembers hours spent playing Duke Nukem 3D, it's an almost eerie thing to see it on a shelf.
It's not entirely unbelievable to think that some gamers won't have any idea how he was, or how important he had been to the FPS genre back in the nineties following giants such as Doom, Rise of the Triad, and Descent. To us, Duke's strippers and ultra-violence pushed both controversy and conversation on what games could actually get away with. The debate between games and art wasn't even as prolific as it is now – people just wanted to blow shit up. How things change!
If you really don't know who this guy is, Duke was the kind of no-nonsense superhero who shot aliens first and took time to visit the strip clubs afterwards. One-liners monogrammed his bullets and his blood was colored with testosterone attitude. Duke Nukem 3D was an adventure crammed with explosions, gore, wild weapons, and Duke's killing boot making it an FPS darling that left an indelible impression on a growing genre. Success like that demanded a sequel. Only no one said that it would be timely. Like the devs of old often said, the old adage of “when it's done” held sway above and beyond petty shareholders and milestones.
If it came out, it came out, but I also watched as its absence inspire a body of myth and legend through countless articles, previews, and “leaked” screenshots over the years. It became its own worst enemy. And after playing DNF on the Xbox 360, it's far from the messianic epiphany that rampant speculation raised it up as such. Yet past the hyperbole lie a number of things that few other shooters even bother with anymore.
Classic Styling, New Engine
The first thing that hit me was that DNF comes off as fan service meant for those that remember its glory days. Playing the game is like cracking open a time capsule from the nineties with a few ideas borrowed from today's generation.
Such as the fact that Duke can only carry two weapons at a time now whether it's because of old age or a strange need to crib something hip from today's FPS scene. It does lend a greater sense of being a lot more thoughtful on what you want Duke to carry into the next fight, but like some of the other bits of detail worked into the game, it's a strange contradiction that functions on the surface yet also comes off as more of a token gesture.
The opening stage sets the groundwork for DNF not only with an action packed start that redoes the ending to Duke 3D, but also all of the interactivity that it throws around. From the toilet to the strip club and the action in between, you can usually find switches to flip, lockers to open, pinball machines to play, chairs to spin, and mirrors for Duke to gawk at himself in. You can even pick up a floating log from the porcelain throne for an Achievement to give you an idea of the kind of humor that Duke is all about.
Your training dummy in the opening level isn't happy to see you.
A few puzzles break up the pacing, most of these of the physics kind such as filling up a trough with enough barrels to lower the boom supporting it to use as a walkway to a higher platform. They aren't that hard to figure out, yet not everyone will appreciate having their gun run slowed to a glacial pace by staring at a screen to figure out what's going on. There's no hinting here, either by text or compass which is decidedly old-school. At the very least it offers a break from the killing fields, even though it might not be quite the kind of break that everyone might appreciate.
Duke's health is, appropriately enough, measured in “Ego” which has joined the popular regeneration club. This is also boosted either by beating down boss monsters or interacting with specific items in the game world, such as winning once at a mini-game like slots or grabbing a girly mag that someone had conveniently left for Duke to pick up.
He also delivers a witty bon mot with nearly every kill, though a lot of the B-grade humor comes away feeling like self-parody. Duke pokes fun at pop culture, while at the same time, comes across as the punch line when he cribs from other games that his series had been left behind by. Although Duke doesn't realize it, perhaps that might be the whole point – to poke fun at himself and the cliches that had defined who he still is. Only no one let him in on the joke like they had with Matt Hazard.
DNF also has enough g-strings and sexual innuendo to fill a strip club – which it does later on. Although it should be irreverently humorous and provide a fertile ground for shock value, much of it is so intentionally overboard that it comes across as trying far too hard. Not all of it is as desperate for laughs or as brazen, though, with subtle nods popping up from time to time such as a gallery of Duke Nukem portraits based on his platforming DOS days or the reactions of NPCs when they see him. Nearly everyone is happy to see Duke.
Duke Deja Vu
At least my trigger finger wasn't lonely, though veterans may wonder why nothing has been done to fluff up his arsenal or the cannon fodder feeding it. Foes recycled from Duke Nukem 3D are back in DNF, though after so many years, they might seem fresh to someone that doesn't remember their first encounter with pig cops and flying octabrains.
Even the weapons are literally from the same stock right down to the shrink ray, tripwire mines, freeze ray, and the pipe bombs. New players might get a lot more mileage from these toys and FPS sequels to popular titles haven't done that much to change their own arsenals – though for as long as DNF has been in development, it's hard not to avoid the growing feeling that it's a high-end mod for the Unreal Engine.
Not everything looks this ugly.
Cover is done the old fashioned way – hiding behind objects and then poking out to shoot – and to its credit, the game won't let you go forward without a fight. While it can still be fun to shrink and stomp on baddies, blow them apart with rockets, or freeze and then shatter them into ice cubes, much of it comes off as a rote exercise in basic FPS tactics and in hiding behind cover until your health regens. And when that's not enough, the technical bones beneath the experience pile on the punishment for dying thanks to loads that make it seem as if you were waiting for the next sequel supplying the driving motivation for me to stay alive at any cost. I couldn't fight that with a pipe bomb even if I tried.
Even worse are some of the levels themselves that make up each chapter of Duke's alien killing spree. Aside from the bland textures, jaggies, performance jarring slowdown, and the occasional NPC that talks with their mouths closed, there's nothing here to suggest that any of the years spent in development had helped. Some areas do look better than others, but they're like a pixel oasis amidst everything else. There's enough character to each zone to let you know just where you are though most of the areas are also so small that you're through them and staring at yet another DNF loading screen, bringing back memories of Deus Ex: Invisible War.
Once through with the RC car, and then back as a fully grown Duke. And it won't be the last time you replay a level twice. On the plus side, I thought the driving bit was actually fun.
At the same time, it's also nice to know that there's still a corner in the FPS world where you can take control as opposed to bolting you into a chair and told to shoot stuff. There are still rail sequences, but you'll often be at the steering wheel whenever Duke needs to jump into a vehicle to race across the desert or ramp across canyon-sized gaps. Fun, especially when you can run over a few bad guys along the way to grab another can of gas.
And DNF stretches its creativity into fun directions with levels such as a fast food kitchen where I ran around as a shrunken Duke while avoiding death-by-fryer. Then it kills that with something such as an underwater level where you need to guide our hero from one set of bubbles to the next before he drowns while fighting underwater enemies in a long, drawn out exercise of “Turn the Valve”. Pray you don't have the wrong weapon there like I did.
Always Bet on Dukes
Multiplayer, visually, looks a bit worse than the single-player but it does the job across its ten maps and four gametypes with a bare-bones, blast 'em away experience as long as you can put up with the sporadic lag. The Hollywood MP map is even a remake of the first level from Duke 3D. Even more impressive is that DNF actually has – hold your breath – a game browser! That's right, an actual window that shows you what games are out here and how many people are in any of them. I almost passed out on seeing that.
Unless you're on a PC, DNF's multiplayer doesn't look this good. But at least you can still make out Duke's mug on the labels.
Matches are arranged around 8 players and there are only four modes to play with – Capture the Babe (CTF with a 'babe'), Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch (4 vs. 4), and Hail to the King which teams earn points by standing in control points that move after so long. The action is fast, quick, and dirty with whoever has the most explosive weapons usually the winner. It's about as basic as you can make it.
Even with its experience point ranking, unlockable clothing mods for tailoring your online look, rewards for your own DNF-sized penthouse, and the competition to rip ideas from, this is all that there is to expect from the mode that made Duke Nukem 3D's multiplayer so popular years ago. What is here is a disappointment given what other games have already done better, especially considering that Duke 3D even had co-op.
Say Hello to the New Duke, Same as the Old Duke…Almost
After finishing the campaign at eight or so hours, watching as Duke hints at a sequel, and getting blasted by lag and exploding pipe bombs online, I didn't hate the game nor was it the worst thing I've ever played by far.
It wasn't the greatest thing I've ever played, either, and I remember the original and the mods for it on the PC. As fond as those memories were and as important as Duke 3D is, DNF's rebellious presence sticks out like a neon faced bar that someone had stuck on a corner in between the Bellagio and Caesar's. It's a place that beckons everyone to visit, but when they get there, discover that the bar has only one kind of beer and that the only thing available to gamble on is a slot machine from when Sinatra was still around. And even though the food doesn't taste all that great, it comes with a free glass of water.
But hate it? Actual, seething dislike? There are a few games out there that deserve to be dipped in a cauldron of scorn, but DNF isn't one of those even with its faults.
At least DNF tries to mix things up with a few new experiences
Many of the lessons that Duke 3D had brought to the table in the late nineties were taken in by everyone else since its release and improved upon, game by game, not only in the FPS world but in many other titles outside of the genre that dared to step away from the curb in pushing the envelope and irritating lawyers and politicians alike. Repeating what has already been said everywhere else, it might have stood out years earlier when there wasn't so much else to pick from as there is today from Saint's Row to Modern Warfare.
Perhaps what defines DNF for me is when I think back on when Pierce Brosnan took over the role of James Bond in GoldenEye. Ten years after the last film, his boss had called him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War” which ended a few years earlier. The world had changed. Everyone outside of the film wondered just how relevant Britain's fictional superspy would be.
But Bond did change, especially after Daniel Craig took over in the Casino Royale reboot as a savvy, gadgets-lite parkour pugilist ready to save the world all over again from a secret cadre of smartly dressed and well entrenched villainy. People still knew who he was even if the face was different, but his style and character had managed to slip into a different mold for modern audiences to acquiant themselves with him all over again.
As for Duke, he's still stuck where we had left him as a walking poster boy for irreverent machismo fourteen years ago. And as for his game, it's still in the same place right where the rest of the world had left it behind.