Return Of The Duke
Once in a while a game comes along that brings something fresh to the medium. And of these, only a handful resonate so well that everything else is held to a higher standard. For example, Far Cry showed us what a graphically-stunning sandbox shooter could be. The original Half-Life set a new benchmark for storytelling interwoven with game play. Doom opened our eyes to the first-person shooter experience.
What did Duke Nukem 3D do? It let you pee in urinals, hand money to topless dancing girls, and a bunch of other stuff that has no bearing whatsoever on the actual story.
That hardly sounds like a quality worthy of praise in 2011. But to wrap your head around the hype, you have to imagine what it was like in 1996. Doom cast the die of the standard first-person shooter, and copycats were everywhere: run, shoot, hit a switch, unlock a new area, and repeat. But Duke Nukem 3D gave us something completely new, and for the first time we tasted the possibility of a truly interactive game world. See a payphone? Use it and hear a busy signal. See a pool table? Try a round of snooker. Watch a show in the theater. Play an arcade game. The first time I played Duke Nukem 3D, it was magical. I saw the boundaries of interactivity being pushed. Every area held the promise of discovery, and I saw potential that I never previously considered. In this light, causing Duke to hand money to a topless dancer and say “Shake it, baby!” was a lot more impactful and funny than you’d imagine after 15 years of the genre continually evolving. Despite that passage of time, the memory of my first foray into Duke’s 3D realm (pun intended) is forever burned into my memory.
A lot has happened in the first person shooter genre since then, but interactivity with game worlds isn't all that much better. A lot of objects are destructible, granted, and there’s a good chance that small items like boxes and bottles will shatter or move when you shoot them. You might even open a locker for extra gear, and walk by a radio that you can turn on or off. But that’s usually only the case if it has some material impact on the story.
This makes sense from a financial standpoint; adding easter eggs adds development time, and that costs money. People don’t play Call of Duty to see if they can eat a banana lying on a table, so the developer isn’t going to invest in enabling actions that don't directly impact the experience it's trying to create.
But Duke Nukem Forever was in development for 14 years. Surely the various hands that touched its code used that time to assemble the most fleshed out, incredibly interactive video game world we’ve ever seen. That’s a lot of years to brainstorm, come up with ideas, and masterfully craft an experience able to take first-person shooter comedic interactivity to a place that forever changes the expectation of what a video game can be. Right?
Unfortunately, that's just not in the cards for Duke Nukem Forever. Most of the interactive bits are re-hashed from the original, just enhanced with modern graphics. You can still pee in the urinals, but now you can also grab a turd from the toilet. You can pay a game of pool, and a game of pinball. You can shoot a basketball through a hoop. But there are no memorable moments that take interactivity to a new level, and I think the developers missed the boat in that regard. I truly believe that the magic could have been captured again, if they upped the expectation of what an interactive game world could be in 2011.
Instead, they decided to add PC geek comedy to the formula: Internet meme references and the lampooning of other successful game franchises are the bread and butter of Duke Nukem Forever’s humor. That'd be more funny if the game was as polished as you’d expect it to be after 14 years of development. However, it's not nearly as slick as many titles developed over a fraction of the time.
Aside from those critiques, how fun is the game to play? Enemies are devoid of intelligence, as far as I can tell, doomed to walk on pre-programmed paths or to simply charge the player. Any difficulty added is the result of armor, as almost every adversary requires more than one bullet to take down. There are some unique mechanics thrown in for the tougher bosses, of course. But for the most part, you can run and gun without too much concern. Call it old-school or call it cheesy, but it's certainly not fulfilling.
One updated aspect of the game is its health paradigm, now based on an Ego meter. I was almost looking forward to the old health pack system that was so prominently part of the early first-person shooter genre. But like a lot of newer games, Ego simply recharges when you're out of battle. Duke’s maximum level can be increased by playing with many of the game world’s items, which is a good way to get folks to look for new interactions. If you're in trouble, the Ego meter is instantly restored to its peak if you execute a beat-down enemy.
To be frank, Duke Nukem Forever offers a few laughs, but its core concept is outdated. It's playable enough for the sake of nostalgia and the next witty joke. Without those two qualities, though, you’d probably never play it past the first level.
Since we did play it past that first level, let's get into how the game performs using some of the latest hardware available.