Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Second Look - Duke Nukem Forever + The Doctor Who Cloned Me

If there’s one game that’s managed to remain a running joke for its constant delays throughout half the industry’s life cycle at the time, that would be Duke Nukem Forever. Originally announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever was meant to act as the sequel to the ever-popular Duke Nukem 3D, with the intent that it would be out the door shortly. However, the release date kept getting pushed back until it eventually became the infamous and oft-mocked “When It’s Done,” making one lose hope in the game ever being made a reality. The extensive development history of this particular title has been well-documented, especially in regards to the various changes in content and even graphics engine; the game took so long to develop that there’s an entire website dedicated to documenting major things that happened while Duke Nukem Forever was still in development, and several outlets such as the Penny Arcade webcomic have made a number of jokes about it on par with the “When Hell freezes over” or “When pigs fly” metaphors.

The famous pre-order receipt from a "patient, patient man."

In 2010, things seemed to have finally come to a halt when 3D Realms finally had to abandon development of Duke Nukem Forever, having been forced into bankruptcy by their own game. However, all was not lost as Borderlands developer Gearbox picked up the Duke Nukem IP in order to finish off development of Duke Nukem Forever, resulting in its long-awaited release in 2011, 14 years after the original announcement. Owners of Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition also got a code granting membership to the Duke Nukem Forever First Access Club, which included special content exclusive to Club members, as well as a free copy of the Hail to the Icons Parody Pack DLC.

And if, like me, you bought the Balls of Steel Edition of the game,
you also got a bunch of extra cool stuff.

Five years later, I finally decided to get around to actually playing the game, which I had been meaning to do for the sake of its historical significance (although I wasn't actually among those waiting for the game during its entire 15-year development cycle). While it initially released to no shortage of controversy for a number of reasons (chief among them being some long-time Duke Nukem fans over-hyping the game for themselves), enough time has passed for the dust to have settled and to finally look at this title more objectively. While normally this would be a Second Opinion due to having had a Duke Nukem Forever review already, there’s been so much of a time gap since the original review that this will be labeled a Second Look to determine how well this game has held up after five years since its initial release.

Taking place 12 years after Duke Nukem 3D, the world has been at peace. Duke Nukem has become a celebrity, having an appearance scheduled on a talk show when the aliens invade once again for seemingly personal reasons. Duke seems to not think much of this, though things become personal for him once the aliens kidnap two of his babes, twins, and vows to take the aliens down. Despite Duke’s eagerness however, the President orders him not to go after the aliens; Duke does anyway.

The game starts off with a rematch against the Cycloid Emperor from
the end of Duke Nukem 3D.

This story serves as merely an excuse for the plot to get rolling, which is actually rather typical for a Duke Nukem game. Rather, the gameplay takes center stage while whatever story there is becomes more or less relegated to the background. The core gameplay is similar to Duke Nukem 3D in that it’s a fairly linear first-person shooter with a variety of weaponry and gadgets. However, there is some variety in that there are some elements of platforming and puzzle-solving, as well as a good number of driving sections. The driving sections are a good way to break up gameplay that can otherwise become monotonous, with fairly decent controls and physics to allow traversal across a vast area to reach the next destination.

There’s also the ability to interact with a number of objects within the world, most of which are there to provide a humorous distraction from the main game during a quiet moment. Their main purpose, however, is to provide a boost to Duke’s Ego, the health system introduced in the spin-off game Land of the Babes and improved upon in Manhattan Project, the first time they are interacted with. Such activities include, among others, throwing a paper airplane, admiring yourself, and getting a high score in pinball (though the pinball physics themselves leave something to be desired). Ego regenerates over time when you are not taking damage, though performing an execution on an enemy will fill it back up completely.

You can even sign a copy of Duke's book, Why I'm So Great,
from Duke Nukem II.

Likely a byproduct of the game’s rather lengthy development time, the graphics are a little sub-par, as though mildly unfinished, not helped by the presence of texture loading that usually takes a couple seconds. The loading times themselves between each level can also take a couple minutes, so it can take a while to get back into the action if you die at any time before reaching a checkpoint. There’s also the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time (unless you play the PC port, which I did not), although I was able to get by with only two by playing on Easy/Piece of Cake (you also earn a Trophy/Achievement for carrying the starting golden pistol with you the whole time).

The game contains a plethora of pop culture and internet references, many of which are evident of the game’s development cycle. Pop culture references include jabs at the games Dead Space, Halo and Half-Life among others, as well as references to movies such as Robocop, while an example of nodding to internet culture would be to memes such as Leroy Jenkins and one that stemmed from a misquote of South Park. References of the sort are not new to Duke Nukem, though at least unlike Duke Nukem 3D these are not required knowledge to advance the game; on that note, Keycards are no longer necessary to get to the next area, which helps everything go more smoothly.

While the game can be easy to get through if you know what you’re doing, the Boss fights at the end of some stages are actually rather difficult, particularly if it is a multi-stage fight; dying once means you have to start the entire battle over again, and multi-stage fights are no exception. The most difficult of them is the Octaking, especially since it can spawn Octabrains to attack you, forcing you to have to either multi-task or try to take the Boss down as quickly as possible before being overrun by Octabrains. Though the Bosses can be difficult, the Ego boost you get for defeating one is worth it in the end.

A positive about the game is the music, consisting mostly of the main theme “Grabbag” and numerous remixes, since it worked well with whatever was going on, though there are moments where it worked not to have ambient music. Some bits I particularly liked were the music that played during puzzle sections, as well as the sound that plays when an enemy encounter is over. The voice acting is pretty decent all around, but the best performance comes from Jon St. John as Duke Nukem himself, his experience voicing the character shining through as his delivery helps pull off the one-liners and pop culture references Duke spouts.

A few months after the release of Duke Nukem Forever, a new bit of single-player DLC was released expanding on the game’s story, called The Doctor Who Cloned Me. This DLC brings back Dr. Proton, the villain of the original Duke Nukem game, who plans to use an army of Duke Nukem clones to try and defeat the alien menace on the moon. Notably, The Doctor Who Cloned Me feels more story-driven than the base game, though what probably helps is that it didn’t take 15 years to make, thus feeling generally more focused.

The music in this add-on content is still good, though I noticed that some of whatever was in the main game had either been cut or altered; for example, the puzzle music is absent in what seemed like a puzzle section and the sound that plays during an Ego boost is a little different. I can only speculate that it may have had to do with original DNF developer 3D Realms in some way, but I can’t say anything for certain. The voice acting is still great, with Jon St. John still providing an excellent performance for Duke Nukem. This is also the first time I’ve heard Dr. Proton speak (I gather he was also voiced in Duke Nukem: Critical Mass for the Nintendo DS), though unfortunately it’s impossible for me to find out who exactly voiced him in this game.

Behold, the return of Dr. Proton.

The graphics quality is similar to that of Duke Nukem Forever, though that’s likely a result of recycling the same engine; there’s even the same issue with loading screens and texture loading, though at least the loading screens contain new messages. The add-on also introduces some new enemies and Ego boosts, plus there’s now a mechanic where you can just let the aliens and Dr. Proton’s forces fight each other, provided you don’t get caught in the crossfire.

I was going to make a quip here about how much longer we’d have to wait before getting another Duke Nukem game, but coincidentally enough a new one was formally announced within the span of my Duke Nukem Forever playthrough, Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour, an HD remake of Duke Nukem 3D. The remake is set to include new music from the original composer, a brand new level designed by the original level designers and new voice recordings and one-liners for Duke Nukem by none other than Jon St. John. This seems like a great way to celebrate the legacy of the franchise, though it appears we’ll still have to wait a bit longer for a proper Duke Nukem 5 (that hopefully won’t take 15 years to develop).

Let's just hope this is good until then.

As a whole, Duke Nukem Forever is an okay game. When you know that it took 15 years to develop, it kind of shows in the end product, though on its own the game is actually pretty enjoyable to varying degrees. It doesn’t really stand apart that much from other games in its genre, but the charisma of the Duke Nukem character and the historical significance of the game are enough to give it a shot.

As for The Doctor Who Cloned Me, it takes many of the better aspects of Duke Nukem Forever and concentrates them into an enjoyable extra campaign that is arguably better than the game itself. I would still recommend playing Duke Nukem Forever first, mainly for historical and story purposes, but generally fans of the original Duke Nukem will find great entertainment in seeing a classic villain return to take center stage in this DLC.

Remember, always bet on Duke.

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