Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Duke Nukem Forever

Platform: PS3 (Also on Xbox 360/PC)

Developer(s): Gearbox/Piranha/Tryptych/3D Realms

# of Players 1 (online 2-)

Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: B-

With an on and off development cycle lasting over a decade through a few different studios, when all is said and done it's pretty much the Duke Nukem sequel many die-hard fans were expecting. On the other hand, In terms of gameplay it's also so intentionally nostalgic that its more vocal critics will feel it really should have been in stores over a decade ago. If you're in the proper frame of mind with a decently twisted sense of humor, it's both a backhanded compliment as well as a recommendation. At the end of the day, your full enjoyment of Duke Nukem Forever revolves VERY highly on whether or not you've played and enjoyed Duke Nukem 3D and can set your expectations to hover around a reasonable enough level. Pretend it's been a year or two later and not fourteen and the game will be a decent amout of fun. On the other hand, if you're expecting DNF to be some sort of benchmark for gameplay, visuals and storytelling, you'll more likely than not be pretty disappointed.

If you're new to Duke's world and/or have never heard of nor played any Duke game in its PC or console iterations, the combination of supremely crude humor (the game REALLY isn't for kids, period), straightforward shooting action and maps packed with intentionally old-school cheap enemies will probably wear you down before you're done with the campaign. On the other hand, if you're like me and recall replaying the original game multiple times trying to find every last secret while barely avoiding death (or in the case of DNF, dying multiple times as you get into the groove the game sets up), you'll have a near-total blast with this guilty pleasure. While the amount of hidden areas has been scaled back considerably, there are other secrets to find that add a bit of extra fun to some levels.

With that score above, I absolutely know I'm tip-toeing on eggshells here in this era of automatically highly rated yearly me-too AAA shooters with flashier engines, fancier weapons, much better AI and more solid multiplayer modes, but bear with me for a bit. I'm also one of that seemingly dwindling number of ancient gamers who simply doesn't apply "today's standards" to EVERY new game I play. Especially one that's so dead set on capturing the look and feel of the original with a few cool visual and gameplay bits that don't advance the genre at all (and clearly don't intend to). Big deal, I say. DNF's campaign works for me because it templates the stuff that made DN3D so cool, but doesn't try to be "innovative" just to score a few bullet points with the more jaded types out there looking for a game to blow them away in every single level.

There's a story here that's thin as a rail, but as you can probably guess the game is less about epic pretensions and more about you hopping into the mighty boots of Duke and kicking alien ass as only he can. The "plot" more or less picks up with Duke, now a successful entrepreneur/world traveler/casino owner having to deal with the return of the same alien scum he took down in DN3D after they invade again and swipe his twin blonde lady friends. There's more, but you won't be keeping hand-written notes or checking any pause menu journals for mission updates, that's for sure. Sure, it's not Half-Life 2 (hell, even the original Unreal had more of a story), but there are some moments during levels and some cut scenes where you'll probably bust out laughing IF you're played DN3D to death and have that twisted enough sense of humor I mentioned above.

Speaking of twisted, one issue some of the more moral gamer types will have a problem with is the overall tone of the game. From Duke's 90's era bad-ass attitude, the hilarious amount of cursing from most of the speaking characters to the disposable manner in which many NPC's (male and female) are treated, this isn't a game for those easily offended. However, if you're going to be "outraged" or "offended" by what's here but somehow excuse games such as the new Mortal Kombat, the Saints Row and God of War series, GTA IV, Bayonetta and other M-rated titles because they're better technically or whatever else you can yank out of a hat, you're a bit of a hypocrite. The tone and level of vile content in DNF works FOR the game because this is Duke's world and you're just dropping in for a visit. Attempting to arbitrarily add the same level of morality you'd find in a differently rated game (or one in a completely different genre) or complaining about the game "going too far" is a bit bizarre.

That M rating descriptor on the back of the box needs to be heeded with the extra caveat that the developers most likely decided to go much further with the crude content BECAUSE they're making a game for adults who can tell the difference between parody and reality. Still, I find it a bit bizarre in this day and age of Jerry Springer, Snooki, UFC, and other "real-life" train wreck TV that sucks in millions with their bread and circuses sideshow routines that some people are SO offended that a game with fake characters dares to cross some sort of arbitrary line they've set up in their heads. Bottom line for those gamers: play the demo and if you don't like it (the pissing scene at the start should be a good enough barometer of the game's LESS offensive humor), don't buy the game. I'd still suggest renting it or watching a friend who owns it play through portions so you can see that it's NOT quite as outrageous as you're reading elsewhere.

As for the gameplay, it's tried and true Duke Nukem with only a handful of concessions to modern gaming. Duke's life bar, or Ego, recharges if you find cover, you're limited to carrying two weapons at a time and there are useful gun emplacements in stages that are quite helpful when the hordes appear. While some old-school Duke fans will miss the ability to pack multiple heat, familiar stuff like steroids and beer, trip mines, the Shrink Ray and HoloDuke are all in for the ride. Enemy AI tends to be like the original game, popping or dropping in from set points to bum-rush you in groups, camp out and snipe away or a mixture of both. You're introduced to those really annoying teleporting jet pack aliens early on enough that you'll learn to listen for that telltale sound of them in the distance. All of the Pigs can be frustrating to deal with on any difficulty if you let yourself get swarmed and in general, if you're not taking down enemies using everything you can, you're Duke Deadmeat before you know it.

If you're not learning how to deal with the basic enemies by the end of Duke's trip though and outside his over-sized casino complex, you're in for a world of frustration when faster moving and more dangerous foes start popping up later on. That and bosses of any size will be a total pain in the ass if you're not making the best use of the environments and whatever weapons are around. In some areas, unlimited ammo caches make things easier, but you still need to make every shot count. Duke says "Power Armor is for pussies", but in the game, so are iron sights, auto aiming useful ally AI and a few other things a lot of FPS fans take for granted. Most firefights in the game are pure survival sessions with enemies coming at you with lasers, shotguns, missiles and even physical attacks. Also, don't expect anything resembling co-op, which makes sense as who the hell would you be playing as (there's only one Duke Nukem, right?) and it would make some of the puzzle elements less interesting.

Still, the pacing of some sections of the game may be a bit odd if you're more used to the near-constant action some other shooters provide. Levels mix simple exploration, simple to very tricky puzzle-solving and straight up blasting, often independently of each other. This gives some parts of levels a strangely empty feeling as you navigate a series of jumping or mechanical puzzles here, a mined set of rooms there and so forth and so on. Much of this is all calm before the storm stuff, as once the action kicks in, you're pretty busy dealing and dodging death from all sides. A lot of the extended battles are quite thrilling as you get busy with the strafing, pop a beer and/or 'roids to beat down Piggies up close and personal before the boosts wear off, then hoof it to a safe spot to throw pipe bombs and puree a few alien pests before they have the chance to waste Duke.

The biggest complaints some FPS junkies will most likely have with the weapons are the selection not being "exciting" enough and how most are less powerful than they'd expect based on guns in other shooters they've played. I'd agree to some extent, however, I'd also say the game is rather broadly suggesting that Duke can kick all sorts of ass with whatever the hell is around. Given all the items he can chuck around for quick kills, you're encouraged to be highly constructive in your killing ways. Granted, games such as Bulletstorm and even the older Serious Sam and Painkiller series show more modern (and more creatively amusing) ways to dispose of baddies. But again, DNF is playing more to those who didn't mind emptying half a M-1911 clip into a PigCop's face before executing the bastard with a finisher or zapping an alien with that Shrink Ray before stomping it to a bloody smear.

As for the presentation, again, it's a case of whether or not you've played and enjoyed DN3D and can see what the dev teams have done here over your expectations of a game shipping in 2011 to look. DNF's visuals manage to mimic the color palette of DN3D while beefing up the visuals a bit. Yes, there are some stages where you're looking at a blurry mess for a few seconds until the textures pop in, but overall the game has a solid "real world" sensibility to it. Of course, the many enticing but blocked off areas and spots Duke can't quite jump to give some of the larger looking levels a pretty linear feel to them (par for the course in many shooters or action games). On the other hand, there are a few large set piece maps where some of the more intense battles take place that give you enough room to move about while figuring out the best way to not die so quickly.

As for multplayer, from what I was able to try out, it's functional and fun, but not hugely innovative. You've got your old school Deathmatch stuff and blah and blah, but the "controversial" Capture the Babe mode seems to be what some want to go wild over with claims of sexism and such. Get over it. It's silly, mindless shooting fun and it won't encourage any real-life behavior unless someone is really stupid or intentionally recreating what's here for some YouTube hijinks. I don't play many games online for longer than a half hour anyway, so I can't throw any gripes toward the game's multiplayer other than some issues getting into a game on occasion.

Overall, while DNF is a fun throwback to the days of when shooters were actually challenging even on the easiest settings, what the game really needed (particularly for those new to Duke), was the original Duke Nukem 3D beefed up in HD and added to the package. The mistake many modern versions of certain older games make is to assume EVERY gamer will automatically understand where it fits in gaming history and will add that perspective into their minds as they play. While this might work for a genre where not much has changed in the last decade, for many FPS fans, what's here will seem boring and stiff rather than nostalgic and funny.

That said, it's also a shame that some folks don't understand that Gearbox (and many other developers) make DIFFERENT types of games within the same genre. If you loved Brothers In Arms, Borderlands, or even the conversion of Half-Life back on the PS2 and were expecting DNF to play like these games, you'll be in for a shock when you find it's SUPPOSED to play like (and remind you of) a much older PC game. Yes, it feels dated when stacked up to faster, better looking games and yes, it's absolutely not for every gamer out there, but the damn game was finally completed and deserves at least a play through with the knowledge that it's trying to copy what made if great the first time around and was a wee bit too good at replicating elements left in the dust by many shooters since.

Bouquets may be few and brickbats many, but I have the distinct feeling that this isn't the last we'll be seeing of Duke Nukem. The sheer polarizing nature of the dude along with the sorts of things that can be done with him under the proper hands (and with the right balance of crudity) is enough to get me thinking up a few ideas myself. Of course, the next game better not take so damn long to complete and be a lot more friendly to gamers expecting more of some things and less of others. Bottom line: rent it if you're on the fence (or hell, try the free demo), buy it if you're already a fan who doesn't care what the critics (even this one) has to say.

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