I’d just been on holiday with a group of friends. I’d seen plenty of sights, including abandoned houses, old churches and rural villages. Here, I’d witnessed a black market of tobacco growing; where it was dried. later rolled and sold wholesale. Three euros for twenty 100% pure cigars. We’d also climbed abandoned buildings and visited an old church where a hermit monk once lived. Returning to sunny England, there was only one question left unanswered in my life: Why do they always take the hot ones?
I’ll openly admit – and yes, this is sad – that I got butterflies in my stomach as I opened the case and loaded the disc. Gaming was my first love and the whole story of Duke Nukem Forever feels like a personal milestone in my gaming lifeline. My hypothesis was this: there would be no middle ground, my review would be a ten thousand word love epic or a three hour recording of a grown man sobbing. I have been waiting for more than just one Christmas for this one.
In truth, it’s much more complicated than that. My experience playing DNF is a mixed one. The line between love and hate is thin indeed, and in this case it has never been thinner. So let’s cut the bullshit – is it any good? Yes, yes it is. DNF is a gaming relic, one whose single-player campaign was completed and had been put on the shelf for two years; one that should have been finished and released at least three years ago. It’s a lot of fun, if you don’t fall asleep during the loading screens.
Set twelve years since the last game in the series (Duke Nukem three-D, Duke Nukem Four-ever, get it?), Duke has it all. Women, a casino, endless awards and a world of fans. Finally, the video game of him saving the world has been completed and he finishes it, just in time for those alien maggots to return. They steal the babes, tear down L.A. and ruin Duke’s talk show interview. Someone’s gonna pay.
Everything in the game has a good sense of weight, with Duke moving like a bulk of muscle and the guns kicking out some serious firepower. The pipebombs detonate with a few notes from the Grabbag theme tune, the shotgun is perfect and Dukevision gives a very ’80s sci-fi night-vision. It feels solid, comparable to how Condemned felt. The story takes you through a long list of different locations and clocks in at around ten hours long, with plenty of hidden gags and Ego-boosting interactivity to discover.
DNF is far from perfect though, and can be summed up in its opening scene. The broken mirror and the reflection it casts are detailed and vibrant. You can interact with everything in front of you. But for some reason, you can’t jump into an empty hot tub , an invisible wall stops you. A number of doors litter the corridor outside, all mysteriously locked. The idea of easing the player in via a few slow moving chapters at the beginning falls flat, as the pacing is the worst in the game. Once you’re off the streets, thankfully, things pick up and the game finds its footing. What makes this game great is what it keeps from an era of FPS’ long gone, and what holds it back are the attempts to ‘modernise’ it.
The recharging Ego (health) meter doesn’t feel right. Duke is nails, so why does he now take much less damage and cower behind walls to regenerate his ego? It’s a poor decision when the Ego bar brings so many opportunities. Have Duke be tougher and take more damage, the bar refilling when you kill enemies, the end of a battle filling the bar back to full, as Duke is king once again and his ego grows. Hiding is not Duke. Neither is running out of breath after sprinting for three seconds or having to stop running to shoot. Duke is king, remember, not some kid who’s never got off the couch in their whole stinking existence.
Then the two weapon decision sticks out like a sore thumb. Apparently, 3D Realms made this decision to make it easier to play on a controller. But then Gearbox said only the PC version was complete. Either way, it’s an odd choice. Especially when the sound made when running is of a lot of gear clanging together. The weapons aren’t balanced well and in some events you’ll be frustrated by the lack of a weapon you know would solve the issue. All they had to be done was add a line of dialogue to make a joke out of all the gear he carries. ‘I bet you’re wondering where I put ‘em all, aren’t ya?’, when looking in an mirror. The player smirks and then blows everything apart with an intense range of weaponry.
Fortunately, Ego does provide an on-screen health bar – disappearing out of combat – and increasing the bar is great fun. The first time you interact with many objects Duke’s Ego increases, and so he becomes tougher. Lifting weights, killing bosses, and winning in the casino are all examples of the interactivity and Ego boosting available. If you step away from a pinball machine whilst playing, you can see the ball continue to bounce around the table. It feels like a real world and you’re in it.
The full body awareness is some of the best I’ve seen in an FPS to date. When dying, you fall to the ground and can often seen Duke’s arm or other body parts within view, depending on how you’ve fallen. Enemies rarely clip through objects and fall against them convincingly. The physics work well too, as you pick up and throw many items of varying weight to progress. Whether it be to smash some alien scum in the face, or solve a puzzle.
At times it looks great. Enclosed areas are often coated in artistic lighting, as spinning fans create claustrophobic spaces in vents and water runs down Duke’s shades. The alien hive convincingly looks to be from another world, the colours and sounds are wholly unique compared to the drab streets of Las Vegas. And at other times it looks unfinished. Textures pop in and out and in some cases look completely lifeless. Whether this is part of a poor console port I’m unsure, but some will find many of the outdoor sections to look ugly. And that’s an irony that can’t be ignored. The game was delayed for an engine that could create these outdoor sections. Yet, these sections look the worst in the game. Quickly dart around a corner or from cover and you’ll see some textures pop back in, but not quickly enough. The frame-rate also visibly struggles in some of the outdoor sections, with a battle from a gunship dipping below 30 frames a second when more than three enemies are on screen.
Graphics aren’t everything to me, Deadly Premonition was my game of 2010, but what irritated me the most in DNF were the loading times. They’re unacceptable. A long loading screen to generate the next level is bad enough, but when it goes through the whole process every time you die it’s horrendous. When a console can run Crysis 2 steadily, there are no excuses for the poor frame-rate issues and pathetic loading times here. Ah well, as least when it does load it provides plenty of laughs.
Many classic dialogue lines return, as well as new ones. ’80s films are referenced throughout, including Robocop and Big Trouble in Little China. Every line of Duke’s is well delivered. Which brings me to my next point: it sounds great. The guns are so meaty that I had to turn the music and voice volume right up in the options menu. The music score is a mix of dedication to DN3D, thick guitar riffs and, surprisingly, orchestral sections and ambiance during the darker sections of the game. Duke’s world has never sounded better; even if my nostalgia does miss the level based midi-keyboard tracks.
While Duke’s lines are great, there are many times when you expect him to say something in response to a scripted event or another characters dialogue. He may quip throughout, but he rarely responds to other characters that are talking to him. Its a juxtaposition, like much of the game. One nice touch, though, is the EDF captain. An intentional sidekick, and irritating at first, his constant stream of vulgar comments are a clear satire of war games and ‘bromance’. He’s funny as hell later on though, delivering one of the games’ funniest lines during a battle on Hoover Dam.
Using the film critic Mark Kermode’s comedy guide, where five laughs minimum makes it a funny movie, DNF easily lands above that number with all the pop culture references and playful nods to other gaming franchises. It’s easily the most times I’ve laughed when playing a video game. They should all be taken tongue-in-cheek too, as many of the people and titles mocked by the game are clearly loved by its creators, like a group of friends mocking each other over a few ales.
Once the game is complete you’re awarded with extras to view and use. Options to have the freeze ray like the old model, invincibility, bigger heads and more await. As do all the trailers and previously unseen gameplay footage. The ‘06 footage is particularly interesting, showing an early showcase of what would finally become the finished product. There’s also the multiplayer mode available from the get go too.
As soon as the multiplayer begins, it’s clear that something is amiss. The music has gone. The likes of the classic theme to Dukeburger or the atmospheric track to Spincycle are missing and not replaced. The lack of music is a big mistake, as it makes the mediocre presentation all the more apparent. There’s Dukematch, Team Dukematch, King of the Hill and Capture the Babe; all standard modes with new names. At first I was unimpressed, looking like the multiplayer was tacked on as an after-thought. After a few games, and getting the feel of it, it works surprisingly well, reminiscent of my time with the first Unreal Tournament. There’s no depth to it but considering it’s almost a bonus, the multiplayer element is worth a go. However, I did encounter some game breaking lag at times, and there weren’t many matches happening when I logged on. Looks like I’ll continue to play DN3D online for the foreseeable future.
The truth is you can’t please everybody. DNF was damned if it did, damned if it didn’t. I’m just glad to have finally played it. And upon completing the campaign, and laughing at the ending, I loaded it back up and started again; on Easy this time to avoid the long reloading. That alone speaks volumes. It feels like a long time ago since I enjoyed an FPS campaign like this. Sure, it isn’t everything I wanted, and there was an undeniable and inevitable moment of disappointment once the game started. It does look old too, hell, it is old, but bar the hideous loading times and poor console conversion, it’s been a pleasure to finally play Duke Nukem Forever. Until next time, Duke.