Duke Nukem Forever is one of the gaming industry’s biggest elephants in the room. Stuck in development for over 12 years, it’s been a long and bumpy road for Duke. But an event at a Las Vegas strip club, hosted by 2K Games and developer Gearbox, made us gaming journalists finally come to terms with the fact that Duke Nukem Forever will finally see release in a few short months. This realization happened somewhere between actually touching the game and seeing Gearbox President, Randy Pitchford, grind up and down on a stripper pole (some things you just can’t unsee).
I have to hand it to Gearbox for not letting this dinosaur of a game fade away. Duke Nukem Forever could have very easily disappeared after original developer 3D Realms was downsized in May 2009. But Gearbox took the project in as their baby, aiming to finish development and deliver a product that honored the Duke Nukem name, not only for 3D Realms, but also for the fans that have been patient with this title.
Maybe that’s the best way to approach Duke Nukem Forever: it’s a game made for the established fans – carrying over the same sense of humor and gameplay that was the series’ greatest draw back in the 1990s like a badge of honor. At least, that’s the impression I get after playing a 90-minute build of the title at this Las Vegas event. Duke Nukem Forever feels like the relic it is.
The best way I can describe it is this: Duke Nukem Forever is like that guy from high school who was really cool and funny. But then you reacquaint with him ten years later at the high school reunion and you realize he’s the exact same guy now that he was all those years ago. Nothing has changed.
But developer Gearbox does address Duke’s “man out of time” nature with some instant in-game 4th wall breaking humor. Duke Nukem Forever begins with Duke playing a video game of his life story. When asked if it’s any good, Duke retorts, “It better f**king be, it’s been 12 years.” This introduction to Duke Nukem Forever nicely sets the stage for the humor of the game, while also breaking the ice on Duke Nukem Forever’s infamous development cycle for people in the know.
And Duke doesn’t just poke fun at himself; the entire contemporary gaming industry is the butt-end of jokes in Duke Nukem Forever. When Duke comes across a soldier trying to hand him a set of futuristic space armor that looks exactly like the body armor of Halo’s Master Chief, Duke proclaims, “Green armor is for pussies.” Clearly, Duke is not a fan of Spartans. There’s even an instance where a security shutdown locks Duke out of an area and requests a security code to progress forward. Duke isn’t having any of it and just says, “I don’t need no f**kin’ security code,” followed by the entire door being ripped off its hinges.
Duke Nukem Forever definitely plays off genre tropes for a lot of its humor. However, Duke is still obsessed with piss and poop jokes. These don’t land as smoothly. It was funny when we were young, playing Duke Nukem games when our parents weren’t around. But now, the kids that use to play Duke are now adults and these types of jokes just don’t cut it. They might be crude in typical Duke fashion, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually funny.
So we’ve got this far into this hands-on and I haven’t even touched on the gameplay of Duke Nukem Forever. Maybe I’ve been afraid to bring it up. To put it bluntly, Duke Nukem Forever plays like a game that started its development in 1997. It’s a very straightforward first-person shooter. Enemies drop down from dropships, or bust through doors, and you circle strafe around them while shooting until they’re dead. No cover. No gimmicks. Duke Nukem Forever is very much in the same vain as classic FPS titles like Quake, Doom, and yes, even Duke Nukem.
However, Duke Nukem Forever suffers from some rough framerate issues (at least in the build I played), rendering combat almost unplayable at parts. If more than three enemies popped up on the screen at the same time the framerate would take a massive dive — making it not only hard to target enemies and move, but also to look at the screen because of the excessive tearing and stuttering. Granted, Gearbox still has roughly three months till Duke Nukem Forever ships, so there’s a good chance this issue will be ironed out by launch. But if not, this framerate issue could be what finally kills Duke Nukem.
To spice up the gunplay there are power-ups befitting of Duke himself. You can pop some steroids to boost your punching strength, or drink a beer in order to take more damage. But Duke Nukem Forever isn’t just made up of circle strafe shooting, popping pills and drinking brews.
Duke Nukem Forever does have moments where you get to drive around vehicles. In the demo I played I got to drive around a little kid’s R/C car. The driving mechanics work fine, and the context for the segment was pretty hilarious — Duke is shrunk by the invading aliens. In a lot of ways, this driving sequence reminded me of the driving moments in Half-Life 2; the vehicles might not control perfectly, but the driving segments breaks up the otherwise repetitive gunplay.
Continuing on with the comparison to Half-Life, Duke Nukem Forever actually has a few instances of puzzle solving, something rare for an FPS title these days (unless you’re Half-Life that is). The puzzles are nothing elaborate — controlling a R/C car through a playpen to push a fuel cell out the door, for example — but once again, they add diversity to the gameplay.
Finally, where gameplay is concerned, one of the highlights of Duke Nukem Forever is the game’s interactivity with environmental objects. You can go up to any urinal and take a leak, or any water fountain to grab a drink. Gearbox made the world of Duke Nukem Forever very interactive, which leads to more exploring in the game world to find out what you can actually play around with. My personal favorite was being able to draw on a white board, or sign an autograph. You’re able to change your marker/pen color and scribble away. It isn’t much, but it’s a nice touch by Gearbox to make the world of Duke a little more reactive to gamer’s inputs.
The last area to touch on in this write-up is Duke Nukem Forever’s graphics. This is also a fitting place to end because it brings this write-up full circle with the concept that Duke Nukem Forever is a game that shows its age (however proudly). The game doesn’t look awful, but to go with the theme of the event, Duke Nukem Forever looks like a stripper that’s past her prime. The stretch marks are visible and not that attractive. The character models are bland with muddy texture work, while their facial animations make them feel lifeless. The environment doesn’t fair much better, with flat textures, minimal shading, and a casino/hotel – where the demo took place — that just doesn’t feel alive and inhabitable. Art assets making up the paintings and pictures of Duke’s casino are also very pixelated, as if they were taken directly from the original 1997 build of the game. Nostalgic maybe, but pretty they are not.
I want to reiterate, Duke Nukem Forever is still three months away from launch. That’s plenty of time for Gearbox to tweak the gamplay and fine-tune the graphics before the game hits shelves in early May. With that said, I wasn’t blown away by Duke Nukem Forever. I’m appreciative of Gearbox for finally pushing this elusive unicorn of the industry out in the wild. But I’m honestly not chomping at the bit to play the full game based off what I’ve experienced thus far. The industry has changed and Duke definitely looks and feels his age. Now if it was 1997 and I was 14-years-old, well, that would be a different story. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.