Duke Nukem (takes) Forever to hit shelves, misses mark

Allistair Pinsof

There was once a time when “Duke Nukem Forever” could have been the next big thing. That opportunity was 14 years ago.

When the sequel to 1996 first-person shooter “Duke Nukem 3D” was first shown at E3 1998, it impressed with scenes of vehicular combat, large environments and cutting-edge graphics (powered by the Unreal Engine). Developer 3D Realms intended to make the sequel in two years, instead it took nearly 15.

As a result, the game runs on a graphics engine from 2004 (a modified Unreal 2.5) and plays like a game from 2001 (“Halo,” mainly). Duke’s crude humor hasn’t aged much better. Overall, the game is OK. It’s not worth the 14-year wait, but what game is?

As “Halo” and “Call of Duty” swept the market, a handful of passionate developers soldiered on in an effort to get “Duke Nukem Forever” released. After legal disputes, a new publisher, a new graphics engine and a tangled history that will remain largely unknown, “DNF” is finally here. As a result, the long-delayed game that once elevated Duke’s status to legendary will now be its undoing.

Duke’s latest outing might not have the flashy set pieces of “Killzone 3” or “Black Ops,” but it brings back good memories from early ’00s shooters, along with bad ones.

Forever drops the original’s “Doom”-inspired open environments and keycard hunts for a game that plays like “Halo” and incorporates the platform and physics puzzles of “Half-Life” for variety. Considering both those games came out during “DNF’s” early stages of development from 1996 to 2002, it shouldn’t be a surprise more recent series aren’t as big of an influence.

Like “Halo,” “DNF” throws the player into a narrative-driven campaign in which the direction is always linear but the space in which you play varies from lengthy series of corridors to vast expanses of dessert. Unlike “Halo,” “Forever” does a poor job of directing the player toward the goal — no mini-map or marker is given. The player would have to search every corner of the map to figure out where to go next.

With the addition of rechargeable health and limitation of only two weapons, you would think you were playing as Master Chief if it weren’t for the steady stream of crude one-liners. The scale of combat is never as tense or expansive as you would like, but the smaller, indoor environments offer strategic encounters you don’t often get in a post-”Call of Duty” shooter.

Despite originating as a PC game, “Forever” plays best with an Xbox 360 controller. Still, you may want to stick to PC due to the console versions’ terrible load times. Even with a controller in your hand, the aiming isn’t of “Call of Duty” quality even if all the button-mapping is identical.

Throughout the game, “Duke” pokes fun at “Gears of War” and other modern shooters only to throw the player into a poorly designed turret sequence or boss fight a moment later. An underwater boss fight with a giant Octabrain, near the end of the game, will go down as one of 2011’s most frustrating moments in video games, and the other boss fights don’t fare much better. The turret sequences seem poorly tested, spiking the difficulty level that will cause all but the most masochistic player to switch to an easier mode.

The core of the game still revolves around shooting, taking cover and exploring. All of these things are good enough to keep the game’s eight or so hours engaging, even with its annoying segments. Duke doesn’t have any new weapons in his arsenal, but firing the Shrink Ray and stomping on a miniaturized enemy is still amusing. The Freezethrower, pipe bombs and the rest of Duke’s weapons return and feel as good as ever.

All the enemies from the original return in some form, although their original charm and humor are rendered down. Pig Cops are now naked beasts that leap at you, while the reptilian assault creatures and creepy Octabrains remain faithful to the original. Most of the encounters are horribly lit, partly the engine’s fault, but also due to bad light source placement within the maps.

There is a distinct lack of color in both the models and environments, which clashes with the game’s juvenile protagonist and cartoon logic. Most of the game takes place in dimly lit corridors, whether it is the Hoover Dam or an alien hive. The game is at its best when you are exploring rat holes as a miniature Duke at the Duke Burger or firing your shotgun between slot machines in a Vegas casino.

The platform and physics puzzles in the game aren’t anything “Half-Life” and its sequel hasn’t done better, but these segments give some variety to action and vary the pacing. You throw barrels onto some type of holder to weigh down another platform, which lets you progress. It’s more of a road bump then a challenge of logic. The platforming and driving sections are much more entertaining. Most involve controlling a shrunken Duke with pitch-shifted vocals — one of the few moments in the game that elicited a chuckle.

It would be easy to call the game sexist with Duke’s offensive one-liners and ability to shoot moaning, naked girls encased in alien cocoons, but “Duke Nukem Forever” was primarily written by two women in their 30s, which kind of makes all the game’s crude moments more unsettling.

Now Duke is a sad, broken man misquoting films and referencing events that weren’t timely five years ago. Even worse, the sexual innuendo and portrayal of female characters is tasteless and one-dimensional. “Forever” has no self-awareness, which completely ruins what could have been a funny game. If the game’s characters reacted to Duke’s antics with the disgust the player felt, there could have been some genuine laughs. Instead, everyone from the president to squadmates talk in the same vulgar language as Duke.

If you can look past the game’s alien breasts, panty-less strippers and lame humor, Duke still carries the bravado and stupidity that made the original fun. Duke was never about high-brow humor, anyway. He’s an ’80s action hero with the comedic sense of Pauly Shore. When he isn’t making a joke in bad taste, it can still be fun to tag along with Duke and punch jetpack-strapped aliens until their heads explode.

When you strip away the legendary development story, 2K’s hype machine, the recent PR meltdown and Gearbox’s efforts to help finish this game, what is left is essentially a passion project by an incredibly dedicated and small team at Triptych Games.

The fact that the game even exists on store shelves is a testament to the passion of the developer, but “Forever’s” soulless, hit-and-miss nature is more indicative of the stress and pressure Triptych was under. As a result, they have created a weird follow-up.