Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: "Duke Nukem Forever"

Return of the King
review for Duke Nukem Forever (Xbox 360), 1 to 8-player first-person shooter, out now

"Duke, you're a relic from a different era," says the President. "This is a new age for humanity. We can't afford to shoot first and ask questions later, just because we suspect they still have WMDs! I'm in diplomatic discussions with the Cycloid Emperor for the peaceful co-existence of our species. You are not required. Do not get involved." Duke knows as well as us: fuck that.

Here's a realization you might have made - Duke Nukem Forever wasn't worth the wait. Hilariously enough, every professional game critic, from IGN to Destructoid, to the Escapist to Kotaku has said - more or less - "this game wasn't worth the wait." And, they're right. What's hilarious about it, though, is that absolutely no comment of "this wasn't worth waiting fifteen years" is preceded by, "of course." So let me say it - of fucking course, Duke Nukem Forever was not "worth the wait".

To say Duke Nukem Forever wasn't worth fifteen years of publishers fucking us about with release dates and game details is a cheap shot. Not because it's not the truth, but because even the most hardcore of Duke Nukem 3D fans pretty much knew this to be reality around 2003. So, let it be warned. If you go into Duke Nukem Forever expecting it to live up to fifteen years of hype, you won't just be disappointed - you'll be enraged, pretty much. It is maddeningly not the culmination of fifteen years of hard work and polish. After being announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever feels like a two-year-old game.

While we're on what's terrible. Duke Nukem Forever is almost definitely not Gearbox's project, and it shows. When Gearbox picked up Duke, they evidently - and admittedly - just stitched together 3D Realm's pieces. And thus, it feels like a 3D Realms game. Some people have said Duke is like the bastard child of Half-Life 2 and Halo, but I dare say it feels more like Serious Sam meets Prey than anything else. It even has the same plot as Prey, minus the whole spiritual and character arc sections that made that game more than just a stock-standard first-person shooter with portals in it. It borrows a large chunk of assets from old engines that 3D Realms favoured, to the point where it feels sometimes like a cobbled together Frankenstein's monster of a title.

This feels like a 2006 project through and through. The graphics vary from "would have been freaking awesome two years ago" to just plain ugly, especially in the Xbox 360 build I played, where the Unreal 2.5 engine would appear to stop halfway between loading some textures. The game also suffers from slowdown and lag frequently, with frame-rates approaching Power Point Presentation-level choppy in some of the more intensive bits. Couple this with deadly long load times between, not just level transitions, but after every death, and you get possibly the least well-optimized console game of 2011.

The gameplay itself, despite being poured into the typical run-and-gun sort of mid-90s mould, suffers from the same things I hated Bulletstorm for - modern-day FPS tropes are poured over the top. Between killing ludicrous and insanely well-designed enemy aliens with overpowered guns and explosives, you'll be hiding behind cover while your health recharges, and running towards a replacement weapon because you only have a two-slot loadout. However, despite these... odd design decisions, the game handles its shooting with a deft and persistent charm. It's not perfect, but it has to be said, it works. 3D Realms know how to make shooters, as do Gearbox. Technically competent while somewhat illogical, the first-person shooting of Duke Nukem Forever is one of its many highlights.

So, now we're on to what's good about the game. Duke Nukem himself remains as insufferably cocky and self-centered as we all remember, to the point where the world he lives in truly does revolve around him. Living in Vegas, Duke is something of an entrepreneurial millionaire secret agent ass-kicking name-taking badass casino owner... dude. He also owns several burger chains. And his very own Batcave. At the start of the game, there's an almost Half-Life-esque "calm before the storm" sequence in which Duke Nukem lives an evening of his life as an amazing and well-respected superstar, signing books for small children who want to grow up to be just like him, attending popular talk shows, and receiving conference calls from the United States President. Everything really draws you in to show that Duke is the most important person on the planet. And it's hilarious.

Every line of dialog, every visual pun, is executed so tongue-in-cheek that it's impossible not to smile. Even the nudity in the strip club of Duke's dreams (...really) is played out like a joke of itself. It's offensive, it's crude, but it's an elaborate kind of double-double-bluff that keeps a wry smile on your face almost all of the time. It's like that it's offensive is the joke - "that joke was offensive, and crude, and childish!" ...well, that was the joke, that the joke was crude and offensive and childish. You can slap wall-boobs. You can pick up turds from the toilet and throw them around. It's not funny of itself, but in itself, I found it possibly the best use of self-satire since The Simpsons Game.

It's also self-referential up the asshole. Duke starts the game playing the demo of a Duke Nukem videogame. ("Was it any good?" "After 12 fucking years it should be.") When you do pick up said turd in toilet, Duke says (to the player), "...why am I doing this??" When you go to lift weights that has an unbalanced mass on each end, Duke exclaims, "it's uneven, stupid!" Jon St John, Duke's talented and handsome voice actor, is easily what makes a good chunk of the majority of the game's humour work, the ham layed on so thick it'd probably clog your arteries just by looking at it. ...and I guess at that point I should talk about the ego-enhancing system.

Basically (and more than a little redundantly, often), the gameworld is littered with interactive tidbits and challenges, like weights you can lift, mirrors you can admire yourself in, even full minigames like pinball, slots, air hockey and whack-a-mole. Aside from being fun distractions from some of the intense killy-shooting, they also give Duke an "ego boost," which adds significant amount of length to Duke's ego (read: shield) bar. It works really well, and forces exploration - it makes the game a little less linear, and a little more alive.

The visual design, also, is really really neat. The visual aesthetic is almost like a comic book, and the creatures, boss monsters, weapons, and locations, are all wildly varied and entertaining to look at and be around. The game is varied at every turn - one minute you're punching aliens in air vents, the next you're flying the jetpack of a dead alien (still attached to the jetpack), then you're shrunk to the size of a doll and riding an RC car around an exploding casino... there's never an uninteresting moment, and even if the section you're in lacks finesse and polish, you can bet around the next corner there'll be something fresh to hold your attention. Like I said earlier, the game feels a like cobbled together Frankenstein's monster, some levels feeling disjointed from each other (in particular, a level spent in limbo which has no bearing on either what goes before or after it). But this almost works in the game's favour - it's a sight-seeing tour through a lot of wild and crazy set-piece environments, and it works very, very well, as far as I'm concerned. I especially love the levels when Duke is shrunk - seeing the world from such a viewpoint opens up a lot of cool exploration opportunities. Just look out for those giant, regular-sized enemies... oh dears, Duke smears. Aheh.

The game has to be taken with a grain of salt. Duke Nukem Forever isn't the culmination of fifteen years of hard work - more like fifteen years of 3D Realms waiting idle at the hands of publishers throwing away investments and engine licenses. It isn't the return of Duke Nukem that the fans ultimately wanted to have, either. I've seen some people complain it's too much like the original Duke Nukem 3D - outdated and out of place - while others say it's not enough like Duke Nukem 3D, utilizing modern tropes like a geeky kid trying to keep up with his older, cooler, brothers. Alas, that the game fails to strike a middleground for the most part, is cause for concern.

But, here's a word for you - "fun". I found Duke Nukem Forever a ton of a lot of fun. However, most of this was due to the game being funny. And humour is a bitch to base a recommendation on - it's possibly the most subjective taste any of us have, our sense of humours, and whether or not Duke Nukem Forever hits that humour spot for you, atop of you being able to cope with the decidedly illogical design of the shooting mechanics, will affect adversely your ability to enjoy this game. Me? Duke Nukem Forever made me smile, and laugh. I thought the writing and the depth of the parody that is Duke Nukem himself to be really clever, just dry enough that it wins the ironic crowd over, without being arty enough that it discourages the frat crowd to laugh at the dick and poop jokes.

I kind of hope Duke Nukem Forever picks up steam and becomes some kind of cult classic, and with more content promised for (America's?) summer, it's obviously Duke is only just getting started, for better or worse (...mostly better). The game isn't objectively "good" - I have a lot to say against it, and if you read one of those negative reviews I mentioned, you'll be hard pressed to argue against their infallible logic. But I enjoyed Duke. I thought it was an explosive rollercoaster thrill-ride, hitting high points and low points with equal amounts of childish glee. It isn't perfect. But, hey, it's good enough for Duke.

Duke Nukem Forever is like Duke himself. It's sloppy, it's old-fashioned, it's too cool for its own damn good. But at the same time, it's an absolute riot to be around, if your patience and taste allows for it. I won't defend Duke Nukem Forever by saying that the negative comments aimed at the game aren't valid. I will say this though: for my type - and if you read this blog, you'll know what is "my type" - it hits the sweet spot. It wasn't worth the wait, but it might just be worth your attention.
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