Monday, August 15, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever


I haven’t played the earliest versions of Duke Nukem but Duke Nukem 3D (DN3D), I totally tripped over. The initial appeal of course was the setting of the shareware version. In those days when internet connections and access to “naughty content” were largely restricted, DN3D with its racy imagery of adult movie posters, magazine covers and video clips, and even live strippers that’d obligingly flash you when you “used” a currency bill on them was a juvenile dream come true; suddenly Doom’s visions of Hell weren’t that arresting. If DN3D had been just a few dollops of sizzle with substandard gameplay, the fascination with pixilated boobies wouldn’t have lasted long. But it was a game with legs: long, sturdy, sexy legs. Crafted with the BUILD engine, the toolset that produced some of computer gaming’s kvlt-est shooters, DN3D packed a triple whammy of eye-popping level design, an innovative fun arsenal, and an iconic wisecracking lead character that would make PC gamers everywhere prick up their ears when they heard his name.

That was in 1996. From then on until a few months ago, the development of the sequel Duke Nukem Forever (DNF), examined in detail elsewhere, has been the most bloated (like a latter day Elvis, hail to the King, baby!) and tortuous saga in video game history, one that alienated all but a handful of the most dedicated fanboys that plugged their senses against the humongous wave of negativity that had risen amongst the gamer press and public. In this while the shooter genre went places. Half-Life came out in 1998 and, for better or worse, dictated the design document of most blockbuster action games that would follow. Story-based action, dialog-spewing characters, scripted sequences...everyone wanted to make the next “cinematic experience”. Single-player shooter level design became a straight line dotted with cutscenes and mission objective screens, rarely allowing, let along rewarding exploration of alternate routes. Another thing I hugely missed was the humor and sense of goofy fun from older games: Gordon Freeman was fine for the game he starred in, but now almost every action game lead is a dour silent entity with zero character appeal.

Which is why when I saw the surprise videos of Gearbox's revival of DNF, I had a pleasant feeling. I certainly did not expect the game to be anything like the revolution that it was touted to be. I expected graphics that would be a mish-mash of older and newer work. I expected rough edges all around. What I wanted was from DNF was precisely what most gamers feared it would be, a retread of a genre no longer in fashion. If it could have just captured the feeling of being a Duke game with a shinier graphical palette than its predecessor I would have been quite satisfied. So how did it fare?

First things first, DNF is nowhere the disaster Daikatana was. Given its multiple technology makeovers it has a reasonably consistent circa 2004 look. I didn't encounter aren't any blatant game-killing bugs, and while the enemy AI is dumb it at least doesn't do things like stand calmly while getting shredded by the player. Given the incredible mess of code that must be the DNF engine, I'd say that's something of an achievement. There are moments when the game is likable if you don't have exacting standards. A fight with Duke holding siege in a trailer against a horde of pigs (not cops anymore), while they pummel and break through it brings pleasant memories of pipe-bomb fragging. Duke's casino level occasionally has pretty sights. The weapons are hefty and satisfying to use in combat – the shotgun still packs a punch, the ripper is still good for firing at enemies en masse, the rocket launcher still has a suitably chunky feel, the shrink ray...you get the drift. DNF does a good job of making you feel like a badass in most combat situations. There's also a decent variety. Apart from standard FPS firefighting, there are vehicle driving missions (where you can run over enemies), bits where Duke gets shrunk and must run obstacle courses to get ahead, turret-manning missions...no wait, those turret missions really sucked. There's nothing more boring than for the player to sit in one place while enemies/spacecraft move towards him and all he has to do is keep the fire button pressed. If I wanted this shit, I'd have got Beachhead 2000. Although most of Duke's new lines aren't particularly memorable (no new Evil Dead films to rip from, that's why), Jon St Jon injects an agreeable machismo into his role and it's nice to have a chatty hero again in an FPS.

On the uglier side, DNF leans too heavily on the Half-Life school of design. The game is so linear, most of the time it's like being in a corridor with different wallpapers to suggest different settings. Boss fights can be particularly egregious, forcing you to fight either perched on a narrow platform, or constantly bumping into level geometry. Consolification or whatever else, there are other design decisions that take Duke several steps behind his earlier avatar. Early in the game you can make Duke do dumbbell curls but they don't seem to do him any good since he can carry only two weapons at a time a la Halo (pipe bombs and trip-mines thankfully don't count here). A patch put out after I had gone through more than 2/3rds of the game increased this carrying capacity to four, grrr. Medkit? No, there's regenerating health, sorry EGO. Scuba Gear? Natch, Duke has to go searching for streams of air bubbles when he's underwater. Compromises like these detract significantly from the gameplay and have no place in what should have been a resolutely old-fashioned shooter. The save system is another major disappointment. You can't have any saves other than the automated checkpoints, which makes some of the jumping puzzles annoying, and woe if you try to replay a mission before completing the game because you'll lose your current check point. That's right folks, while DN3D allowed you to save or quicksave whenever you wanted, DNF gives you a grand total of one automated save for all your needs.

In these days where all manner of gonzo porn lies a couple of clicks away, Duke's raciness is no longer a huge selling point. It also doesn't help that all the female models in this game have an undead-like appearance and gait, which makes you wonder what the fuck 3D Realms was doing with its in-house motion capture studio unless they were aiming for Zombie Strippers. There's one level midway in the game where Duke enters a strip club. Instead of pulling out money for favors he has to do a Leisure Suit Larry quest to get a lapdance. When did Duke get so pussy-whipped as to do errands for a titty flash? The situational humor is very forced. The entire prologue about Duke being this guy that everyone aspires to kiss the ass of, is one of the singularly most dull and unfunny experiences to play through. Like another reviewer said, it'd have been better to have a scenario where Duke has to re-earn the respect he has lost over the years. Sadly this game doesn't do that.

Since it was available for very cheap in India and I didn't have any significant expectations, I don't regret picking it up. But yeah it provides only a few moments of fun in what is for most part a bland and rote experience. DNF is certainly done, but well-done is another matter.

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