Friday, June 17, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever - Always Bet On Duke

Finally, after 15 years worth of development and delays, Duke Nukem has returned to us in the modern gaming world with Duke Nukem Forever. A lot has happened in that time to make Duke seem like a lost cause, but developer Gearbox Software has managed to resurrect a classic icon and make him relevant again. While it's great to meet Duke once more, his greetings need a little improvement.

The story of the game is mostly razor-thin, but it is at least coherent and easy to follow. With Duke Nukem inactive for twelve years, aliens have come to Earth to invade it. However, the President of the United States believes he can negotiate peace and tells Duke to back off. Unsurprisingly, he attacks anyway, starting a chain reaction of events that only he can undo. However, the story is not the important thing here, as Duke himself is used to thin stories. What is important is just about everything else.

When you look at the graphics of Duke Nukem 3D, released originally for PC in 1996, and then look at Duke Nukem Forever, it's truly amazing how far technology has come. The game is visually stunning and there is hardly a thing not worth looking at. The detail is especially impressive on the enemies, who have their own defining features that are really shown off by this game's engine. So much in fact, that you may end up examining their corpses just to see what you missed while killing them. It also showed off how exhilarating an explosion can be when it hits the intended target, making the virtual destruction all the more beautiful.

As for how the environments are built, they are more linear than Duke Nukem 3D which sometimes had multiple ways the players could proceed to the end. This wasn't much of a problem for me, but leads to some questionable level design in some areas. When levels don't provide a thrilling challenge, they could get downright frustrating, as with a particular underwater level the game may have done without. Encounter design is done rather well, but could sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, like the rooftop of the Duke Burger or the first time the player gets to handle a Freeze Ray. Nevertheless, I enjoyed tearing aliens a new one with the variety of weapons available for use.

On that subject, the weapons that Duke can use include the standard FPS weapons, such as a pistol, a combat shotgun, and a rocket launcher. Even with these standards in place, it is also possible to use a Shrink Ray to make your enemies go to miniature size and them simply kill them with a single stomp, which is quite hilarious no matter how many times it's done. As the weapons are also lifted directly from Duke Nukem 3D, it helps them stand out better from the competition, but at the same time they don't handle as well. While the guns work solidly, it can sometimes be difficult to aim at times due to the aiming required for each gun being a little different from guns of the norm. Despite this, it was fun finding the right weapon to use in the appropriate scenario and watching the results come to fruition.

The gameplay of Duke Nukem Forever take cues from modern FPS games, such as regenerating health and the two weapon system, but also has some returning elements from previous Duke Nukem games. The Ego mechanic returns from Land of the Babes and Manhattan Project, but Duke no longer gains health from defeated enemies. Rather, it takes the form of the aforementioned regenerating health with the performance of manly actions, which range from using the toilet to killing bosses or playing pinball, increasing the maximum ego Duke has. The two weapon system is unexpected yet easy to get used to, but it is also possible for Duke to have an inventory of items accessed with the directional buttons. If Duke needs extra strength, he can pop some steroids for more strength or drink a beer for less damage, complete with beer goggles as a result. He can also use night vision to see the unknown, which thankfully has unlimited use, or even bring out a Holoduke in the heat of battle to distract his enemies from the real threat. These items are well implemented into the game and their assistance is needed in certain situations.

As with Duke Nukem 3D, Forever is an FPS but with a platforming element as well. It takes some getting used to, but after a couple of tries the environmental puzzles that use this to its advantage become easier and some stages, such as being shrunk in the Duke Burger, seem more creative, although some are more uninspired. Overall though, the gameplay is well-built for a game that has been rebooted several times during development and more often than not works for the game's advantage.

However, the most important thing about a Duke Nukem game is always the man himself. He keeps his iconic look from previous games and his personality is perfectly intact. Jon St. John continues to provide the perfect voice for the perfectly executed one-liners that Duke manages to churn out through the game, a lot of which are pop culture references. While some are more current, like taking a crack at Master Chief from Halo, the majority are to various 80's and 90's games and movies such as Donkey Kong and Army of Darkness. The game even takes cracks at its own development time and even previous games in the franchise. There is also a lot of variety in what Duke says when he kills an enemy, and it's always funny to hear what he'll say. His actions are also accompanied by a great soundtrack that matches the mood and never really gets old.

Now one thing this game brings back is multiplayer, and it doesn't feel tacked-on at the last minute. In fact, there is a surprisingly deep level system with plenty of ways to kill other Dukes and earn XP. When Duke levels up, it unlocks new items to fill his pad, ranging from paintings and statues to a full working air hockey table. The maps are also small and provide some pretty frantic gameplay no matter what mode you choose. However, any flaws in the gunplay carry over to here which can make the hit detection appear off for some of the weapons. The other deal breaker is the long load times this game has. Every time Duke dies in the main campaign or moves to a new level, the player has to wait about 10 seconds for the game to finish loading, sometimes even longer. In multiplayer, the loading times carry over to loading a match, changing Duke's look, and even going to his pad. It is very unlikely I will touch this mode again anytime soon, although I'd love to see all the rewards unlocked.

And just in case you haven't been keeping score at home the whole time, like me, completing the campaign will enable the player to view the entire development history of the game. This includes an interactive timeline as well as gameplay and E3 videos from previous builds, which is very helpful in seeing how the hype grew in the first place.

Duke Nukem Forever is a hard game to judge. It doesn't do anything significantly different from the heavy hitters in the genre, and the 14-year wait will disappoint those with unrealistically high expectations. Is this a great game? No, but it's not a terrible game either. This game is actually a lot of fun, if a little rough around the edges, and I would recommend it to anyone (17 and above) no matter what they have heard about the game's reception. It's definitely worth a look and is essentially an artifact of gaming itself, as nearly half of the industry's life cycle was spent giving it life. Now let's just hope we don't have to wait another 15 years for his next game (teased after the credits).

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