Thursday 22 September 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

Because I'm sure you want to read another opinion on this one!

I'm a long time fan of Duke Nukem, so even though this long awaited legend has been almost universally panned by critics for one reason or another, I figured at some point I'd be playing it. And that time is now.

Before I blurt out my views on the subject of Duke Nukem Forever, it's worth analysing the current situation. Metacritic, one of the more reliable ways for rating a game these days, currently lists the Xbox 360 copy at a whopping 49 points out of 100 - one point below "average". Of course, not many people buy bad games, so to many, "average" is "horrible", hence the secondary label stating that the score is "generally unfavourable".

But are bad games good? The best film I've seen this year without a doubt is probably Mega Python vs. Gateroid (39% on Rotten Tomatoes!), because even though it pretends 1980s teenage pop sensation Tiffany can act, it has giant, badly animated alligators who kill people. The poor scripting and digital effects is what makes it hilarious, and thus entertaining, so I often wonder if the same can be applied to video games.

And the Duke Nukem series is probably the best case for such an experiment. On paper, many things are broken, but despite its numerous, numerous flaws, it still manages to entertain, surely suggesting it's a decent video game. Though the average score is 49, the individual ratings used to calculate that score range from 0 to 78, suggesting you can't decisively say that the world will find this game god-awful or near-perfect. It requires the user to come to that decision on their own.

Duke Nukem Forever started production in 1996 - straight after the revolutionary FPS that was Duke Nukem 3D. Fourteen years later, DNF hit the shelves, following a development cycle riddled with problems leading to countless failed attempts at bringing this game to market. It has never been revealed publicly how many Duke Nukem Forevers exist in 3D Realms' archives, but there's at least five, and we've got the last.

For all we know, many games may have these troubles, but unlike almost every game on the planet, details about Duke Nukem Forever made it out the door every few years, complete with empty promises that it would be released "soon". This means that when the product was finally released, people went into the game expecting far more than they would get. But it's unfair to judge the game as fifteen years worth of work - it's not like a book where the medium stays the same - the video game world, particularly first person shooters, is a rapidly developing area and you need to make huge investments to stay on top.

It would be interesting to know where the responsibilities lie in the development of Duke Nukem Forever. The game gets off to a good start but it quickly deteriorates, first turning into something awkward, then into something mundane and finally something dingy and dull. It's not a broken game, but the general consensus is that Duke Nukem Forever feels outdated. The wait failed to pay off, not because it wasn't a revolutionary FPS for the modern age like we were promised, but because in areas it plays worse than games made ten years ago. Fundementally it's a lesser game than Duke Nukem 3D.

DNF is heavily inspired by other shooters. Most say 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved was the driving influence, but I vote it was 1998's Half-Life. It's forced to take a few pointers from more recent games as it's built with Unreal Engine 3, but it's clear that Duke Nukem Forever hasn't been paying attention to its close competition in recent years. Many of the early 2000s spin-offs (built as "hold-overs" for this game) are much better, even though much of their content was derived from earlier builds of Forever. Of special note is Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes for the PlayStation - that one's great.

Forever feels eerily similar to Duke 3D as we're fighting the same enemies as we did in 1995 with the same array weapons in often similar settings. It doesn't follow the tradition of Duke fighting new threats in new ways, and in fact could even be seen as a "remake" of Duke 3D rather than a fully-fledged sequel. It's a linear adventure which takes you from Las Vagas to the Hoover Dam, though there's a lot of walking around in circles along the way.

It takes place ten years after 3D, in a world where Duke is rich, famous and loved by all. Predictably, aliens come by for revenge against Duke, stealing ladies and forcing a response. It's a generic, minimalistic story that's clearly been watered down from previous iterations. It is effectively a carbon copy of Duke 3D, except instead of going to space you go to Duke Burger. All the new characters shown in the E3 videos have gone.

And in their place... slappable wall boobs! Forever likes to push boundaries, though it raises questions as to why boundaries needed to be pushed. You can pick up turds from the toilet and throw them at people. There's a level in which you relax in a strip club. Aliens spawn from the bodies of tied up hookers. Sex has always struggled in video games, because unlike violence, poorly textured polygons don't tend to get the message across. I didn't find myself offended by these features (unlike others), but they did raise eyebrows - these things aren't remotely real, and even if they were, I came here to shoot things, not be turned on by someone's work in 3ds Max.

However, I see nothing inherently wrong with the gameplay side of Duke Nukem Forever, only that it's a generation behind the rest of the pack, much like myself. DNF is a mixture of shooting, platforming, driving and time wasting - few levels play exactly the same and to give them credit, it does lead to a more varied experience. Some features are better than others - the console controls are clunky, but most of the time things work fine. It's more stable than I expected it to be.

Duke has an ego meter in the place of health. Nothing new if you've been following the spin-offs, but in this game, it re-charges when not under fire, Halo style. You can increase the ego meter by partaking in minigames and interacting with the scenery - not a terrible feature but I'm not overly sure it makes much of a difference.

One thing that does bother me is the pinball table, one of the more broken features. Back in 1998-ish Apogee Software created the Pinball Wizards label, specifically designed to deal with pinball games (similar to how 3D Realms dealt with 3D games). It may have only released one game under this name, Balls of Steel, but this is besides the point - in the studios of 3D Realms lay programmers specifically employed to deal with pinball, yet in DNF, the pinball sucks. Oddly it seems to suck less in the E3 2001 trailer. Don't you love regressions?

I'm not feeling the issues with driving or physics that others have complained about, but one thing is for sure - Duke's inability to hold more than two weapons is a bad move. It appears to add nothing but tedium to the core gameplay, and since you can't afford to drop your rocket launcher thanks to the impregnable bosses, it effectively equates to having just one gun to play with. Again, it's not a completely broken concept, but I fail to see the reason for offering Duke handguns later in the game. Who would exchange a shotgun for one?

The biggest issue by far is the horrendous loading times. They're possibly the worst I've seen in years, and every time you're killed you'll be treated to one. Clearly things haven't been optimised (I'm told it's better on the PC), but one of the many testers should have noticed that taking one minute to load a level is not a good thing. Especially if you've loaded that level just seconds before.

The embarrassing thing is that half the time, the textures won't have loaded properly when the screen finishes. Detailed textures can take several seconds of extra loading after you've started playing, and in rare occasions this goes wrong, leading to an entire level being littered with little black squares. It's not as bad as your average Grand Theft Auto release, in which you have completely empty streets for the first thirty seconds or so (as the computer slowly loads in cars and pedestrians), but the concern is that you've just sat through a long, drawn-out loading screen only to be told not everything has loaded. Why is the game wasting my time?

Forever takes a massive dip in terms of quality about two thirds into the game - around the time of the desert levels. From this point onwards you're treated to bland, ugly scenery which looks as if it were recycled from Duke Nukem Forevers of years long past. The game stops being attractive - you get many drab corridors and a Doom 3 Xbox vibe, which although may have been great for 2003, doesn't paint the modern consoles in a good light. The visuals are generally mixed - often it dips to below Nintendo 64 quality, but at other times it looks fantastic.

One of the more annoying aspects of this game is that you always find yourself fighting the same array of monsters. Namely pig cops - the enemies we've been fighting in every Duke game to date since 1995. There's at least three or four different types of pig cop in Duke Nukem Forever, paired with other Duke 3D enemies, most of whom behave the same as they did fifteen years ago. You also find yourself fighting the same bosses, and even though it's a fairly lengthy single player campaign, it's an incredibly easy one. You just have to make sure you don't die, else you'll have to sit through another loading screen for half a day.

It's not all bad news - Duke is still an entertaining character, referencing various video games and commenting on the lack of weapons he gets to use. I also like the James Bond-style introduction, and more surprisingly, the shrink-ray bits which I thought I'd hate. It's got some very well designed levels and it's refreshing to see some of the mid-1990s FPS ideas making a comeback. It's primarily the load times that stain the product, but I can't stand here and say the entire experience was terrible, because it wasn't. In many ways it brings a smile to my face - Apogee Software entertained me in my childhood and they've not been seen much as of late.

But I think in the end the wrong line was taken with Duke Nukem Forever. The game should have been released back in the early 2000s - it would have done wonders for the Sega Dreamcast and this also happened to be the period where Duke Nukem Forever looked truly cutting edge. There was no way the game could have been expected to beat the competition of today. It needed something more unique - perhaps 3D Realms should have thrown in levels from old Duke Nukem Forevers. It doesn't matter if the graphics suck - the story is supposed to be the same and it would certainly have put the game on the map if nothing else. It would be fun to have Duke comment on people's blocky heads.

Overall I can't complain about DNF. I enjoyed it despite its flaws, and though I wouldn't put this near my top ten games of all time, it's nowhere near as bad as others made it out to be. I would claim the game is just above average, because although it isn't groundbreaking, it entertains, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. Just bring on the patches that quench those loading screens.

1 comment:

  1. I can agree with a lot of things you mention here my friend. Overall though, DNF was just ok. Certainly funny, but just ok. Still, I enjoyed reading your review. Perhaps if you get the chance you'd like to read mine. ^_^