Monday, August 01, 2011

Forever was too long a wait

I’m not going to be one of those reviewers who feel they have some sense of entitlement to “the best game ever” in Duke Nukem Forever. This was a wholly unrealistic expectation to have for a game that took 14 years to develop. Due to it changing entire design teams, developers and even engines over the years, the project had to reset and start from scratch on several occasions each with a new level of perseverance and patience. It's predecessor 1996's Duke Nukem 3D was released at a time when games were changing and for the better, Quake began using full polygonal assets and that came out in the same year as Duke 3D, it was the way of the future.

While graphically inferior in every respect, Duke was popular because it did everything differently to Quake. Duke travelled to deserts, cities, alien hives, went underwater and into space, not just dark Gothic dungeons. When playing Duke you had a sense of adventure and of course there was a wealth of interaction with the environment that was arguably never surpassed. It was fun, both in design and execution. It’s safe to say that games evolved to be more like the idea of Duke only with the technology employed by Quake.

There have been hundreds of First Person Shooters [FPS] since then and many of them have surpassed, their progenitors on every way. Halo, Half Life, Crysis, Counter Strike, Thief, Battlefield and Jedi Knight all brought different aspects to the table in terms of story, multiplayer, variety and action and most have more than one entry in their franchise to add to their success. To expect a Duke sequel to be superior not only to itself, but to the other games that have established their ideas over the intervening decade and a half would only lead to a bitter disappointment. So to preserve the sense of nostalgia and love I had for Duke 3D, I went into Duke Nukem Forever with an open mind, lowered expectations and suppressed suppositions. I said I would do my best to regard the game as a simple sequel to something that has gone before and not a reflection of every great idea that has been spawned in FPSs since 1996. Then and only then could my review be as unbiased as possible.

The first thing I want to say is that the game makes a point at each and every turn [many hilarious] how it’s not like other shooters. An EDF soldier offers Duke “power armour” and points to a representation of Master Chief’s armour from Halo, to which Duke responds: “Power armour is for pussies!” However I think he should have taken it because in Duke Forever, Duke has no armour! Every hit he takes damages his “ego” which is like a shield that recharges once it’s not being hit. This is also something that is held over from modern shooters in which you can take a few hits in succession before you succumb to death. Again this is fine in those shooters but here you’re Duke Nukem and as such, he should be able to take far more punishment than he does. I’m not saying he should just stand out in the open and magically absorb every bullet and grenade like on some impromptu "God Mode", but the system in place is so weak that you may not even have time to take down a single target before you have to duck for cover to regenerate – and you may also not be able to take down the enemies quickly enough anyway because you’re not carrying the most effective weapon for that foe because you can only carry two!

That's right - FPSs grounded in some level of reality like the spate of modern military shooters allow the player to carry one or two weapons like a rifle and/or sub machine gun and a sidearm. You may get a few grenades and perhaps a knife if you’re lucky. Of course in these games you can aim for your enemy’s head and he’ll go down in one shot just as you’d expect. Duke Nukem is different however, nothing is grounded in reality and therefore this kind of restriction is meaningless. Duke’s enemies are tough aliens, and similar in strength to those that have appeared in Duke3D. You may need to unload half a machine gun clip into one to drop it and some can even withstand an RPG or two to the face. However even though the enemies won’t drop with one or two shots, the developers have decided to saddle Duke with the same realistic restrictions that the modern shooters employ. Duke is supposed to be the strongest and toughest man in the world, he should be able to carry a pistol, shotgun, machine gun, railgun, a laser rifle, an RPG launcher, Shrink Ray, Freeze Thrower and The Devastator all around on his back with full ammo for each without even breaking a sweat. But no, now Duke can now only carry two weapons in addition to 4 mines and 4 pipebombs at a time!!! This is bullshit!! Duke shouldn’t have to choose what weapons he carry about with him at a given moment! He shouldn’t have to think tactically – he’s Duke Nukem! - he should be able to just blow shit up at will, not scrounge around on the floor for a shotgun when he’s out of ammo for his RPG. This is not fun, it’s frustrating.

It's not all bad. The level of world interaction is extremely impressive. Duke 3D was famous for being able to “activate” and interact with almost everything. Duke could just walk up to anything that wasn’t a wall and if you pressed the spacebar 90% of the time something would happen. Vending machines would dispense products, toilets would flush and he could even proposition strippers to show him their breasts in return for money while suggesting “Shake it Baby!” Those demanding that same interactivity won’t be disappointed, in fact you are encouraged to explore the world [when not being shot at] and in many of the cases where Duke first interacts with an object such as bar bells he gets a boost to his ego permitting him to be able to withstand more damage in combat. Especially rewarding are some mini-games which crop up, these include pool, poker, slot machines and a very well coded air hockey table. Success at these games will win you more ego.

The world the developers have created is actually quite fascinating. It’s as if all America has become “Dukeified”. There is a system of government, a military, a police force and an executive branch led by the president who doesn’t really like Duke, probably because he is more popular than the President. General Graves, the EDF commander pretty much lets Duke go off on his own missions without interference and with any and all resources he sees fit. Duke himself lives in one of the tallest buildings in “the city” in a lavish multi level apartment that is above “The museum of Duke” which contains statues and paintings [all of Duke] as well as many of his artifacts from his past accomplishments like the Cycloid Emperor’s eye he used to kick the field goal with at the end of Duke 3D. Duke also has his own casino, strip club and fast food franchise that you’ll encounter as the game progresses. Everyone on the planet knows who Duke is, every girl wants to screw him, every man thinks he’s awesome and every kid wants his autograph.

This game is far more a trip down memory lane than a competent shooter but it's all sadly perhaps a little too late. The crass toilet humour which was admittedly hilarious to see in a video game when one was in their early 20's is sadly no longer appealing to those now in their mid-30's. As one reviewer pointed out - a significant portion of the guys who were legally old enough to play the original at launch are now are worried about exposing their children to the kind of degenerate humour and blatant degradation of women on display here - and I can see his point. You see Duke may not have evolved, but his audience has.

Final Verdict: Not worth the wait to be honest. 2 or 3 years too old graphically, 10 years to late with everything else. Some very well designed set pieces stocked with nostalgically familiar weapons and enemies can't save this average shooter from vanishing up it's own arse. Buy it on budget if you really must.

Colonel Creedon Rating: 45%

1 comment:

Civilian Overseer said...

You see Duke may not have evolved, but his audience has.

Such hubris, this game is targeted not at the thirty something old farts who played the first version as sixteen year olds but at the current generation of sixteen year olds. Who I'm betting will quite enjoy the kind of degenerate humour and blatant degradation of women on display here

Face it Colonel, you're getting old.