Duke Nukem: Forever, Or Never?

I spend an hour or two with the Duke.
(note: My impressions don’t really contain much unsuitable for the under-15 crowd, but Duke Nukem Forever certainly does. You have been warned.)

The recent controversy surrounding Duke Nukem Forever (that’s distinct from the will-they-won’t-they-will-they-hey-a-trailer-and-more-promises-it’s-an-industry-joke-oh-it’s-been-cancelled-and-then-surprisingly-revived controversy) and its review scores raised my interest a little.
I’d not seen a review copy (I do some light games journalism these days; at one point I ran the local arm of Gamespot, and I’ve contributed here and there to a number of games publications, but these days it’s mostly occasional sports and miscellaneous console titles for PC User), and from what I understand not too many of them went out, and those that did were sent out suspiciously close to release.
That’s never a good sign, and usually points to a title that the publishers know is going to get a critical slating. Except Duke Nukem Forever didn’t… sort of. Most critics seemed to score it fairly low, but some  scored it relatively high, often with the caveat that they had their retro glasses on. Interesting stuff. And as I’ve got a retro optician on almost permanent speed dial, a game with retro sensibilities and modern visuals should be exactly my kind of thing, even if my humour has evolved a little (if only a little) since the original game. I don’t put much weight in review scores per se — I’d much rather read the words — but when I spotted a rental copy of Duke Nukem Forever (PS3) at my local video store, I was intrigued enough to rent it.
(well, that and the fact that I was in said video store as it’s something of a family birthday tradition to rent a movie, and my kids had asked me if I was going to do so. I couldn’t find anything I actually was in the mood to see on the shelves.)
Short version: The kids got to see Tangled. I spent the same time playing Duke.
I did consider tweeting my observations, but stopped short of that, simply because it’d become something of a flood, and arguably a stale one at that. But these are my, relatively unedited observations going through a few levels.
Note: I do rather like Duke Nukem 3D, the first 3D Duke game that came out more than a dozen years ago. Never had much time for the platform originals — I was playing better, deeper console titles when they were fresh — but DN3D hit me at a time when the jokes reverberated well with me, and the fast paced action was just… fun. I’ve revisited it a few times over the years, and it’s aged pretty well. But what about its sequel?
Warning: If you’ve not played it, here be spoilers. Also, Duke Nukem Forever is rated MA15+ for Strong Violence, Sexual References, Crude Humour and Drug References. This isn’t a game for small children (which is why mine are safely off watching Tangled.). I’m not easily offended, but some folks are. This isn’t much of a poster child for truly adult (as in intelligently mature) gaming in any way.

Duke Nukem Forever. Subtle, it ain't.
Duke Nukem Forever. Subtle, it ain't.

Loading Impressions:
First hurdle: A 29MB update. Of course. I rented the PS3 version. What did I expect?
(29 LONG minutes later. I don’t have a great ADSL connection, but for some reason PS3 downloads always take about thirty times longer than they should)
The attract sequence is long. Not quite as long as it took the game to be made, but close.
Another load screen. “Drink Beer to make yourself tougher” — did Tooheys sponsor that loading screen line? Likewise, tips like “Take less damage to avoid being killed” are cute the first time, but the loading screens are long. I’m spending too long staring at them, in other words!
And then another longer, intro sequence.
The game starts with Duke interacting with a toilet. Just… because. And then into the last bit of Duke Nukem 3D, which was one of the few things I knew was coming.
This rain is not a bad effect, but it’s not really adding anything but shimmer. What did they spend all the money on?
One cyclops-thingy downed.  Game over?  Well, that was short.
And then, a few predictable years later. And while the twins are presumably meant to be alluring, the dodgy models just make them look robotic and weird.
Duke’s mansion is way too glitzy. Needs more chrome.
Load screen. Load screen. Load Screen, load screen, load screen. Perhaps if I say it five times in a row, the Candyman will turn up. No, not that one…
Some of the NPC character models are terrible. Low res graphics I can put up with, but these just feel like lazy hacks.
Signing as Duke is a nice idea. But you can only make him look like a moron. I’d like to be able to do proper script… maybe wingdings…
Eating all the donuts in a Homer moment. Does Duke get fat?
Working pinball table and a callback to Duke3D? Yeah, I’ll pay that. Wish the controls worked better. The gimmick of increasing Duke’s ego (which is his shield) probably sounded cute on paper, but the execution just means tedious tapping minigames for the most part. At least so far.
Drank a beer. Got drunk. Liked the reference better when Rise Of The Triad did it. That was about a dozen years ago, too.
A remote control car mini game. They spent years for this? And why does Duke have a mini car anyway? Wouldn’t he do monster trucks… with real monster trucks? Getting the puzzle solved is hard because the controls are bodgy, not because it’s any kind of mental challenge.
Fighting enemies with my bare hands. And a bugbear of games gone past rears its head. They’re armed, I’ve killed them, and yet I won’t pick up their guns… until the script says so. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
The models for the pigs look… better than the humans. Not that this would be hard. But there’s a weird shiny gloss to them. Makes them look… almost claymation-like.
And now crouching vents, darkened rooms, and only being able to interact with some objects, and not others. Sigh.
And now a driving sequence and a shrunken Duke. I should like this — getting out of the car and fighting the aliens as a tiny duke has a certain boss fight mentality to it — but then Gearbox did driving better in Borderlands. Who finished this off, again, exactly? Oh yeah. Gearbox.
Endless respawing piggy things! Yeah, I’m not a fan of that.
I died due to a crash. And now… A loading screen. A long loading screen.
Back to full size, and the twins who were in Duke’s penthouse (I’ll let you work out why) are kidnapped by Aliens. And this is where the game proper starts.
And where I stop. Because Tangled has just finished. Hey, I never promised you a full review.
My Thoughts: It took me the best part of an hour to get to the point where Duke Nukem Forever starts properly. Whereas in Duke Nukem 3D, Duke’s ride is shot down by the aliens in a text sequence, and within three seconds, I’m into the action.
That difference, is, in itself, very telling.
Despite slightly glitchy graphics, odd choices about what should be interactive and what shouldn’t, that’s my abiding impression of Duke Nukem Forever. There simply isn’t enough action! Duke Nukem Forever is not a bright game, and it’s not even all that witty, given you can make up the Duke script in your head as he goes along, and chances are you’ll pick a line just before he says it. Duke 3D was fun because it was non-stop, arcade style action. Duke Nukem Forever has its moments of action, but nowhere near enough, or intelligently enough handled (at least in the early going; I’ll say again that these are early impressions), and it’s clear to see where a dozen or more ideas — interactive rides, more puzzles and the like — were jostled around for more than a decade, but never firmly implemented in a way that added to the gameplay experience.
Sorry Duke. I do still like Duke 3D, but there’s no way I’d pay full price for Duke Nukem Forever. Maybe when you hit the discount bin.

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