Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever

Fourteen years after it was first announced, we finally sat down with Duke Nukem Forever. How modern can a game that has been that long in development be?

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Let's give you some perspective on just how much has changed in the years since 1997.

Batman was as popular as he is now, but while today we have the gritty realism of a Dark Knight, fourteen years ago it was the hefty slab of cheesiness with Batman & Robin. Today, the deep and complex portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger. Back then, the wooden tongue-in-cheek of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Mr. Freeze.

1997 was the year the Nintendo 64 was released. This was the era that brought us Mario 64, Gran Turismo, Fallout and GoldenEye 64. And while those titles passed from Most Wanted into Most Played and eventually into Greatest Of All Time gaming lists, one game was announced that remained firmly in that first Top Ten.

Well, kinda. Over the course of the next fourteen years that game was punched and kicked further down the list until the name 'Duke Nukem' was being scraped off the boot heels of every other game on the planet, wiped up, and dumped in its own special category: Most Controversial.

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All for the simple reason that it never saw the light of day. At least not until now. Duke Nukem Forever is - after 14 years - finally on its way. But is there a modern game behind the title, or is it all just nostalgia?

Duke Nukem Forever

To find out, we went to Las Vegas. In a club decked out to celebrate the event, Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford, who has also been working as a magician in Hollywood (no joke), tell us how the developer has worked hard to finish Duke Nukem's latest adventures, since they took over the franchise from 3D Realms.

And he can't help but tease us for a few minutes more until finally a trailer kicks in. It starts quite anonymously with The Duke's classic voice off-screen, but soon we're shooting rockets at a one-eyed alien robot on an American football field. After the Cyclops has bitten the dust Duke grabs his eye and kicks a field goal, while the one-liners blast over us like confetti.

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So the mood is established, or so we're led to believe. The camera zooms out and displays a screen where the credits to Duke Nukem Forever proper rolls, and we pan out to see the real Duke finishing playing this game based on his own life. Two blondes are busy "easing his pressure" and when one asks if the game was good, Duke responds: "Yeah, but after 12 fucking years it should be".

This kind of humour permeates the game. Former fans of the series have a lot of childish humour to look forward to. Like we said, Dark Knight versus Batman & Robin.

Duke Nukem Forever

After Duke saved the world from the ferocious aliens back in 1996, he moved to Las Vegas where he opened up his own casino, The Lady Killer. All is not hunky-dory though, just outside the door a giant alien ship hovers and threatens all of Duke's empire.

Look outside, and you see helicopters fly by outside the panoramic windows. Glancing down you can see a rendition of the Bellagio, complete with its iconic water show. The above scene could easily have been taken from a more modern shooter, and it's nice to see that the developers have tried, at least in some respects, to modernise the series.

In other ways however, Forever feels very much a game of its time, and its here that we find the negative aspects rearing their head. Time has taken its toll on Duke, and it shows. The experience is, well, old-fashioned.

There's plenty of atmosphere, but technically it doesn't look particularly impressive. During the two hours of hands-on time we got, we saw small but steady frame rate problems and textures that looked grainy and unpolished.

Also, the quality of the animations were uneven. Each and every enemy really only has one attack pattern, and even if the game stacks a heap of foes upon you, their limited routines means get old pretty quickly.

Duke Nukem Forever

Because of that excellent introduction one might think that we would get an open world, or at least the illusion of one. The problem is that the illusion quickly shatters. You go from level to level without any proper motivation. The simple but crucial question "why?" is never really answered, and even when events start to take off, it's clear that the story has little more depth than a puddle of water on a rainy January day. So, from a narrative perspective there isn't much to dig into. It's something you should be prepared for, given we're living in this day of cinematic narrative.

We're aware this isn't the finished product. But given the hype, given how long we've been reading about this title, waiting to play it above all others, its no wonder why every detail is being examined with the intense concentration of a neurosurgeon.

But maybe the Duke doesn't need to change. Fans of the original games that long for Duke's macho style won't be disappointed. Duke Nukem Forever does not attempt tread in any middle ground between a boyish obsession with cleavage and any softer, more emotional themes that we might see in other modern shooters.

There's something reassuring about a character and a game that is stubbornly set in its ways, and refuses to concede to current trends. The Duke's balls are still as big and as bold as brass, and as always, there's an echo of boyish giggling resounding in the background.

Duke Nukem Forever

There's no concession here, but there is a knowing nod and wink to now traditional mechanics. The left trigger is used to zoom in, just like in any other shooter since Call of Duty. Duke can no longer carry more than two weapons at a time, which seems a bit at odds with the rest of the game's universe. Maybe we're more annoyed that we have to whittle down our selection to just two.

The weapons in the game feel very satisfying, such as the remote mine which you use a car alarm key to set off. When the enemy is pulverised, and Duke exclaims "you've got guts", we get all warm and tingly inside. There are also puzzles to solve, like taking control of a miniature monster truck and driving it through an air vent in order to get to a key.

Playing Duke Nukem Forever gave us mixed feelings. There were elements that worked really well, and it was wonderful to play a game that doesn't take itself too seriously.

But there's an element of schizophrenia here. It seems like it's a game that's uncertain where to sit, alternating between two personas. It wants to be a modern shooter, the kind that the intended audience will probably prefer, while still not abandoning the nostalgia surrounding its story and universe.

Despite this confusion between the past and the present, the game delivered the same kind of pure entertainment value the series always has done - for better or for worse.

Whether that's enough for an action game in 2011, only time will tell.

Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever

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