Thursday, June 23, 2011


A brief word about my titles, at least with regards to game reviews. QUICK, a la my Portal 2 review, means I'm not putting as much time into writing the review. Mostly just spouting off a few thoughts as they come to me. Most likely means it's a game that doesn't have much for me to criticize in the first place. INCOMPLETE, as this one is titled, doesn't mean the review itself is incomplete, but is based off an incomplete experience of the game, where I'm limiting the definition of a complete experience to finishing the single player campaign. And RETRO, which I haven't used yet but plan to very soon, is for a game released before this current console generation (so games released around or before 2005). I'll come up with other important title words as I need them. Just note that they're not exclusive, so I can have a QUICK INCOMPLETE RETRO REVIEW if I want.

Anyway. Onto the review. First, as usual, the long version:

There are very few gamers that haven't heard of Duke Nukem Forever. Announced back in 1997, DNF has been the definition of vaporware for over a decade. For comparison, Gran Turismo 5 took a bit over 5 years and that development cycle was considered to be lengthy, while blockbusters like the Call of Duty games take two years. For a scarier comparison, check out the Duke Nukem Forever List. It's got a list of things that have happened since DNF was announced, and things that have taken less time than DNF's development. And the lists were last updated two years ago, so just imagine the plethora of things that can be added on now. Back in 2009, the game was officially dead, before getting picked up by Gearbox Software (most recently known for Borderlands, a really fun co-op game) and brushed up for release. After 14 long years, was it worth it? Short answer is, no. DNF is a poorly made game that is only mildly entertaining at its best, and incredibly frustrating at its worst.

Let's get started with the story. The story starts with the end of Duke Nukem 3D, and in a clever twist, reveals that the opening sequence is actually the video game Duke Nukem Forever, as it exists inside the Duke Nukem universe. That's where the cleverness ends though. After some introductory blather, the aliens attack and start stealing all the women, and Duke sets out to teach the aliens a lesson. *NOTE AFTER WATCHING THE ZERO PUNCTUATION DNF REVIEW: Yahtzee brings up a good point about how the game starts out like there might actually be some interesting moral grey in the story, creating a setup where it could be that the aliens are initially peaceful visitors and you as Duke mess everything up and start the war, but then this is completely thrown away and the aliens attack you first. END NOTE*  The mood the game tries to set fluctuates wildly, starting off I guess as expected from a Duke Nukem game, and then suddenly attempting to mimic (unsuccessfully) the darker and creepier shooters with the alien hive level. The story is extremely bland, and serves as extremely thin motivation to shuffle the player from set to set. Up to where I stopped, I had been told to fight the aliens off the dam for some reason or other. Having already taken out the alien mothership and queen, I have no idea where the story was going, nor was I particularly interested.As far as character goes, Duke is the only one that I noticed actually had a character, and Duke generally appears to have the mindset of a teenage boy, so crude jokes and one-liners abound. I don't mind this kind of humor or Duke's character, it's simply who Duke is and what he's known for, and it'd hardly be a Duke Nukem game if his character changed. But DNF takes it too far and just heaps it on, and it gets old quick.
Moving on. As far as gameplay goes, DNF is an extremely standard shooter. The standard shooting gameplay works well enough and can be decent fun, though it gets repetitive. Most of the weapons are nothing special, though there are a few fun ones like the Devastator (shoots lots of rockets) and a shrink ray. I also like that the sniper rifle in the game is labelled as a railgun, though that's not really relevant to gameplay. DNF limits you to two weapons though, so most likely you'll stick with the reliable shotgun and whatever other gun you happen to come across. Rather than standard grenades, Duke gets proximity mines and pipe bombs. While this variety is nice, it's somewhat frustrating to not have a standard grenade to fall back on. I'm not the best player, but I found the proximity mines to be extremely difficult to use. The pipe bombs work well enough, but they need to be detonated after being thrown, which requires a few precious seconds in a middle of a firefight where you're unable to use your gun. Some other goodies include beer to make you resistant to damage but makes your vision blurry, steroids to make your melee attacks stronger but you can only use your melee attacks, and a Duke hologram to distract enemies with.

Here I need to bring up a point that may seem somewhat minor, but really bugs me. To me, one of the most important things for a video game to have is for the gameplay and narrative to mix. It adds a lot to the experience of playing the game, makes everything more immersive. For a simple example, the reloading system in the Mass Effect games. In the first Mass Effect, you didn't reload, but waited for your gun to cool down after heating up from shooting. In the second game, they changed the system so that you had ammo for your gun and had to reload like in normal shooters. If they had just left it at that, there wouldn't have been a problem. But inside the narrative they explained the change with new technology that allowed them to transfer the gun's heat into a disposable clip, allowing the guns to be reusable much faster than by just waiting for them to cool normally. It made sense, it worked, and it made the Mass Effect universe feel more realistic.
How is this relevant to DNF? I guess it's a little much for me to expect an amazing combination of narrative and gameplay, but consider Duke Nukem's character. He's essentially the manliest man ever to exist. Now consider this beer power-up, where Duke's vision goes blurry after downing a single beer. I don't care what kind of beer you're drinking, Duke simply isn't a character that gets affected by drinking a single beer. Having this as a gameplay element only serves to undermine Duke's character. It'd be a bit more complex, but the same gameplay effect could have been achieved without clashing with the narrative by letting Duke carry more than one beer, have each beer restore some amount of health, and only have the blurring effect if you down several in a short span of time. Again, this may seem minor especially since DNF has more fundamental flaws, but every little bit counts.

Back to the gameplay. While DNF does alright with the shooting sections, the biggest problem is that there are huge portions of the game that are not shooting sections. Between extended vehicle sessions and extremely awkward puzzle solving and first person platforming (not to mention a dream sequence interlude where Duke has to find popcorn, a dildo, and a condom for a stripper), these are all extremely poorly done, and typically fall somewhere between boring and tedious at best, and extremely frustrating at worst. It just doesn't work.

Let's start with the driving. The driving sections technically work, but they're extremely boring. I read some previews that described an earlier level where Duke, having been shrunk down to action figure size, must drive an RC car through a casino to escape (at least, until he can become full sized again) as it's invaded by the aliens. It sounded like a great scenario, full of action and explosions and with a lot of charm. It played horribly. It was an extended sequence of driving a car down long (and mostly empty) hallways, occasionally using a boost to make a jump, at which point something would explode underneath you. Every now and then a single enemy would show up, and I either ignored it, or drove into its shins and then ignored it. The idea of having you be shrunk for this stage sounds cool, but in practice it means that the car you drive only moves slightly faster than the normal sized Duke moves, which in turn means that there's no sense of speed to the driving, and hence no fun. You can boost, but only for about 5 seconds before it overheats and has to cool down, and it doesn't speed you up very much either. Overall, just not fun at all. The later full sized driving section isn't much better, though it at least gives you enemies to splatter occasionally.
As for the puzzles and the platforming. They're even worse than the driving. The puzzles usually consist of jumping around and moving one object somewhere else. And worse, there's almost no objective marking at all in DNF, so it's very common to reach a point where the game gives you no indication of what you're supposed to do. Ironically, the fact that DNF is so linear saves it a little from this, as there's only so much you can explore before you finally find the way forward. The platforming is imprecise, and it's very frustrating to have to run back to the start of a platforming section over and over again. In the end, it means that there's that much more time between each gunfight, and that much more frustration. Even though the shooting in DNF is pretty standard and can be fun, the parts in between pretty much ruin the game. I didn't get far enough in the game, but apparently there are even underwater sections later on, as if DNF needed to have more frustrating segues between the shooting.

At the end of the day, I honestly think that Duke Nukem Forever should have remained vaporware. The most obvious reason for this is just that it's essentially impossible for a game to live up to so many years of expectations. That doesn't bother me as much, after a certain point you just don't expect it to be good anymore. More importantly (at least, to me as an aspiring game developer), Duke Nukem Forever had a lesson to teach through its failure, and its impact is lessened somewhat by the fact that the game has finally come out (albeit after changing developers twice) and has probably even been quite successful in terms of sales (after all, it is an infamous part of gaming history now). In any case, I'm not going to go into the story behind DNF's development, that's beyond the scope of a review. Here's a link to the best article I read about it: "Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem", though it's hard to say exactly how accurate the article is about DNF's story.

Short and simple:
For better or worse, Duke Nukem Forever is a major piece of gaming history now.
Pros: The shooting parts of the gameplay work reasonably well and can be quite enjoyable if somewhat repetitive.
Cons: Duke Nukem Forever is crippled by the content between the shooting. An extremely weak story and schizophrenic mood don't help it at all.

I don't feel like assigning a nonsensical score, so I won't.

No comments:

Post a Comment