Just a word of caution; this review will be rated M and will likely be one of the longest reviews I’ve ever written – you’ve been warned. Where do you even start to review a game like Duke Nukem? Ostensibly the most delayed game in history, we managed to think up, plan, execute, and complete a mission to Mars in the time that 3D Realms dicked around with this title. John St. John recorded one of the first lines for the game where he was asked “How do you like the game Duke?” and he replied “After 12 fucking years it better be!” – even here we have evidence of a delay as the game actually took over 14 years to complete. I am not going to do what many reviewers have done and spend my review thinking up all the clever and funny ways I can rag on Duke – I’m going to review it for what it is. Without bias, without malice, and as a fan of the series, I’m going to do something I never expected to do – I’m going to review Duke Nukem Forever.
A little Duke History:
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of Forever, let’s talk about some history. On April 28th, 1997, Duke Nukem Forever was announced. It was going to use the Quake II Engine, which was absolutely state of the art at the time…if you like the color brown anyway. In the Summer of 1998, 3D Realms announced that they were going to switch engines and use the Unreal Engine. (Guess they didn’t like brown) George Broussard stated flatly that the engine change would cause no delay and that Duke would see a release in the Fall of 1999. 1999, 2000, and 2001 came with more promises but no Duke. Even in 2001 Duke was still highly anticipated, and with a gameplay trailer as well as a full spread in PC Gamer Magazine, we finally had proof that Broussard and his team weren’t just spending their day rubbing it out to updated nude girl models in the game engine. Behold the first trailer for Duke Nukem Forever:
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With the excitement for Duke raised back to original levels, 3D Realms got awful excited about Duke as well. Broussard and crew decided that the Unreal Engine wasn’t good enough for Duke and that they would build their own engine from scratch. Despite the decent-for-the-time in-engine trailer above, Broussard again flatly stated that they had scrapped almost the entire game to rebuild it in their new engine as they would have needed another two years to complete Duke using the Unreal Engine.
There is only so much a publisher is willing to put up with, and in early 2003 Take Two had to step in. Announcing that Duke would see shelves in 2003, Take Two went out on a limb. Unsurprisingly, this was later revised to “Fall of 2004” and then “Summer of 2005”. Broussard and crew remained silent on the subject, revealing only that they had built a new physics engine for the game (call it what you will, that’s another engine change folks) and that they were still on track. Summer of 2005 came and went and 3D Realms went completely radio silent. Hiring new programmers and using a small image as a teaser, we got another look at Duke in late 2006, it wasn’t until 2007 that we got to see another look at Duke. Behold the second trailer for Duke Nukem Forever:
Telling audiences to “Stay Tuned” only brought sneers of derision and laughter at this point. For reference up to this point, Squaresoft had released Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII, two CGI films, and multiple spin-offs from the Final Fantasy series on several different platforms. What the fuck was 3D Realms doing that they couldn’t kick one game loose?
In June of 2008, our friends at Shacknews finally got something we’d all been waiting for – they got their hands on Duke Nukem Forever. Very pleased with the results, they passed on a quick preview of the title that had old fans pondering the impending release of Duke and new gamers wondering just what the hell these ‘old folk’ were talking about. On episode 3 of the Jace Hall show, we finally got to see Duke Nukem Forever being played with the current engine, and the results were mostly positive! With light at the end of the tunnel, fans of the series braced themselves for the return of Duke.
3D Realms must have killed their golden goose somewhere in the background of all of this as in roughly June of 2009 it was announced that 3D Realms and Take Two had engaged in a protracted legal battle and that 3D Realms was shutting down. With light at the end of the tunnel, Take Two likely saw that the tunnel was longer than Broussard was willing to admit and likely put their foot down to say “No more.”
What followed after this announcement can only be described as a complete and total PR disaster. Spurned ex-3D Realms employees started looking for work and some of them had some things to say about the development of Duke Nukem Forever. Confirming what we had all suspected, some revealed that much of what we saw in trailers and ‘gameplay’ was complete smoke and mirrors bullshit, and that building and designing levels was a micro-management heavy and constantly frustrating exercise in building and rebuilding the same levels over and over again.
Leaks of polygonal artwork, some gameplay footage, and even a few screenshots hit the web and fans wondered why the game couldn’t be finished from this state and tossed onto the shelves. Eventually 2K Games and Gearbox tried to do the impossible – it was announced that Duke Nukem Forever would hit shelves on May 6th of 2011. For a quick update, by the time we also had Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV, and a damned good look at Final Fantasy XII-2. I won’t even bother to list the 28 other titles that Square released in that timeframe. May 6th wasn’t meant to be either, perpetuating the curse – Duke was finally released on June 14th, 2011. Behold the final trailer for Duke Nukem Forever:
Get on with the review man!
So we spent over 1000 words talking about how we got here, let’s talk about where ‘here’ actually ended up. I’ll be reviewing Duke on the Xbox 360 for this writeup. For final frame of reference, Duke Nukem Forever uses the modern Unreal Engine 2.5 that powers games such as Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Lineage II, Star Wars: Republic Commando, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Tribes: Vengeance, Unreal II, Unreal Championship, Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004, XIII, all three Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3 titles, and 6 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell titles ranging from the original to Pandora Tomorrow. To say that Unreal Engine 2.5 is flexible is as big an understatement as saying “Duke was a little delayed.” Development houses have done some amazing work with this engine, so I was very excited to see Duke play in that sandbox.
Graphically, I can’t honestly tell you what the fuck happened. Parts of Duke Nukem Forever are very fleshed out, well drawn, and have a generally polished appearance. Other parts of the game feature clone-stamped repeating textures (try not to look at the ground while you are in the crane car…trust me, just don’t) angular and rough edges, and even a few shockingly low polygon points that look almost like placeholders rather than final product. When you look at the incredible graphical fidelity of the titles I listed above, you can probably extrapolate that this mess is the result of scrapped and re-scrapped art that was being handled by many different artists at various stages of the A.D.D. mess that was development of this title. Adding a severe framerate drop when you are in heavy combat (though, one very large boss battle just had just the monster, the occasional little baddie, and Duke on the screen but still managed to drop the framerate into the low 10-15 range if I splash-damaged the ground with a rocket launcher) and you don’t exactly have a ‘final product’ on your hands.
On the other side of the coin, there are several levels in the game that really show off the capabilities of both the art team, as well as the Unreal Engine. Without ruining the vapor-thin plot, let’s just say you end up in an alien environment and have to fight off some old familiar friends as well as their bosses. This level looks slimy, vile, and downright well done. Similarly, character models for the Octobrains, women (from the neck down – they kinda look lifeless or loaded on Adderall in the face), bosses, most monsters, and Duke look pretty damned good. Whoever was working on these models, know that your work is appreciated! Please teach the environmental guys your magical ways – they need help.
“What are you waiting for? Christmas?”
When I said that I’d be reviewing this title entirely on its merits, I didn’t say that I wouldn’t feel a little nostalgia in the process. Duke Nukem 3D brought some of the most hilarious one-liners I’d heard in video games thus far. Gems including “Your ass, your face, what’s the difference?” and “Nukem ’till they glow, then shoot ‘em in the dark!” peppered the title, harpooning pop culture, movies, and even himself as he passed a PC playing Duke Nukem 3D. Self-deprecation was pretty normal, and everyone got a kick out of the occasional curse word. The title, had the ESRB been around, would have likely garnered a T for Teen rating. I thought it was hilarious…when I was still in high school. Right around this time a title called Kingpin: Life of Crime hit the shelves for PC. To say that it was rated M for Mature would hardly cover it. One liners from that title were a little more like “You fucking want some of this, fuck?” and it got fairly brutalized by the press for being too far over the top with its use of foul language. It felt completely forced and frankly wore thin rather quickly. I bring this up because Duke Nukem Forever has moments that reminded me of Kingpin. Take a moment and digest that statement – this brand new title had moments that reminded me of a mediocre title from over a decade ago…
John St. John returns as the voice of Duke in Forever, but his lines feel a bit dated. Follow along and you’ll see what I mean:
- I’m from Las Vegas, and I say kill ‘em all! – Starship Troopers (1997)
- Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker! – Die Hard (1988)
- You’re one ugly motherfucker. – Predator (1987)
- You think this is the real Duke? It is! – Total Recall (1990)
- A crowbar would come in handy right now. – Half-Life (1998)
- Did I promise to kill you last? I lied. – Commando (1985)
- Pork chop sandwiches. – G.I. Joe fake PSAs (2006)
When you look at this list, do you notice something? Other than a reference from 2006 (there are a few more from around this same timeframe), there is nothing new under the sun. If you are a movie buff like I am, you have likely said these quotes yourself enough where you really aren’t amused by them when you hear them in game. I’m not sure when John St. John recorded his lines, but I’m guessing it was around 2006. I get that they were aiming squarely at my demographic with the quotes, but I didn’t stop watching movies and TV in the 80s.
“We need you Duke, now more than ever.”
In terms of gameplay, the Duke Nukem series was not about shooter innovation as much as it was interactivity. From handing cash to strippers to flushing toilets, Duke Nukem 3D had a level of environmental interaction that we’d not seen beyond nameless/faceless Space Marines pressing giant oversized brown and red buttons. Duke Nukem Forever is as linear as its predecessor and is at its heart a straight up shooter. It makes no bones about what it is, and it has all but ignored almost all of the changes that have occurred in the genre over the last 10 years. I honestly believe that this was done on purpose – Duke is a simple man with simple desires, after simple pleasures, and in a simple game. In this way, Duke succeeds admirably – Forever is a very simple and straightforward throwback to a simpler time where complicated cover mechanics and stealth gameplay just wasn’t the norm. If a trip down memory lane is your aim, you’ll hit the bullseye here. It isn’t all sunshine and roses though…
The titles I listed that use the Unreal Engine 2.5 all have one thing in common – they use streaming technology. You have an initial load time to kick off a level, and then you don’t load again until the next level. Textures and content are streamed from the disc and/or hard drive, ensuring the player isn’t taken out of the action by loading screens. Unfortunately, the way 3D Realms implemented their level structure, you’ll being seeing the loading screen pretty frequently. In fact, that’s really the point – the game feels like it has been split into levels. You’ll battle baddies for a while, get to a spot in the map where it ends, the screen will fade to black, and you’ll pick up your Kindle to read for about 40 or so seconds. Welcome to XYZ Level, Part 2 of 3! Honestly, I can’t recall this sort of presentation used since the original Half-Life. It breaks immersion in a title that needs all of the help it can get.
The level structure isn’t the only way that the immersion gets broken in Duke. There are moments where Duke will have to stop and talk to people to flesh out the story, obviously. These moments stop the player, removing them completely from the action, and force them to stand still and wait for whatever ham-fisted lengthy speech is delivered before the next area can be accessed (likely delivered courtesy of another load screen). Couldn’t Duke have a Bluetooth headset that he could use to get these messages on the move? No…I suppose he couldn’t – Bluetooth wasn’t a widely accepted standard until Bluetooth 2.1 in 2007.
For the record, I did try to play a few multiplayer games, but one week after the games release the multiplayer landscape is essentially a ghost town. Given that there are no achievements tied to multiplayer, it seems that 3D Realms understood that the multiplayer aspects of this title would likely be stillborn.
“Hail to the king, baby!”
So here we are 14 years later and Duke has finally returned. Through what is ostensibly the worst development cycle ever to plague a released product, through the roughest PR disaster-riddled track from start to finish, through multiple engines, multiple iterations, and through some of the worst public lashings both during and post-release I’ve seen in over a decade of reviewing games Duke has managed to somehow endure. Even making it through the closing of the development studio that brought it this far, Duke somehow survived. It just goes to show that you cannot kill The King. While the final product couldn’t possibly sustain the weight of the expectations brought on by a 14 year development cycle, it is a nostalgic walk down the shooter path of yesteryear. When I look at Duke I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if somebody with the discipline to feature-lock the code and put it through optimization and polishing for 6-8 months could have done with this game. Parts of it are just stupid/fun but there isn’t enough here to justify the $59.99 pricetag. The potential for a fun but simple shooter is here, but even with Gearbox at the helm Duke Nukem Forever is clearly a hastily-cobbled sum of unfinished parts. It could have been epic if it was released 3 to 4 years ago, but nowadays there are new rivals for the throne.