PAX East: Duke Nukem Forever Lives

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As soon as I finished playing the demo for Duke Nukem Forever at PAX East and set down my controller, the representative from 2K looked at me and summed up my experience perfectly:

“It’s Duke.”

Without a question this game embodies the very nature of Duke and his games. It’s crass, it’s violent, it’s over the top, and above all, it’s downright fun.

Now, for those that aren’t familiar with the lengthy history behind Duke Nukem Forever, the short version is this: it was initially announced back in 1997, and over the following years, it only occasionally popped up on the radar. As is the case with most games that spend more than a few years in development, word began to circulate that Duke Nukem Forever would flatline. In 2009, that rumor seemed to be proven true when the game’s original publisher, Take-Two Interactive, sued the original developer 3D Realms for failing to finish the game.

But shortly after the case was settled, 2K Games announced that Gearbox Software had picked up the game as the new developer in 2009. Now, the game is very much alive and kicking, with a scheduled release date of May 3 on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.

The demo began with me relieving myself in a urinal (naturally), after which I ran out to a conference room, where I could sketch on a white board that was already plastered with crude drawings. After being complimented on my “genius” attack plan, I was quickly ushered through the halls of the building I was in, only to eventually take an elevator up to a football field where I battled a giant monster with a missile launcher. Once he fell, one of his gigantic eyeballs popped out of its socket, at which point I punted it for a picture-perfect field goal.

If this all seems like a random, rather unexplained beginning to the game, that’s because it was completely unrelated; it turned out I was actually playing a game within a game. After kicking my field goal, the camera zoomed out to reveal that Duke had been playing a video game that had been in production for 14 years. At least Gearbox can laugh about the story behind the game’s development. It was only then that the Duke Nukem Forever title was splashed across the screen with the American flag waving in the background, rock music blaring.

The demo then transitioned to a real mission from the game, which was as simplistic as it gets: Here I am, rolling around in my sweet monster truck and squashing the occasional assailant when suddenly, I run out of gas. That’s quite the buzzkill, so it’s up to me to venture into a mineshaft to find a gas can that I can use to refill my ride so I can get back to cruising. All that stands in my way are the series’ signature pig cops — armed to the teeth — and a number of other equally repulsive enemies.

All things considered, there were certain aspects that didn’t convey that this was a game that has been in development for 14 years. For instance, the graphics weren’t anything spectacular. I understand sophisticated or top-notch visuals aren’t what people care about with a game like this, but you still can’t help but wonder: if it wasn’t working on highly advanced aspects like the game’s visuals, then what was the development team doing all this time? Again, I realize that really doesn’t count for much with Duke Nukem Forever, I’m just saying that it raises some questions.

No, what really matters here is whether or not it’s fun. And if you like blowing up aliens while Duke growls stupid, ham-fisted one-liners under his breath, then you better believe it’s fun. If you like shooters at all, it’s fun. If you can appreciate the history behind it and the nostalgia factor of a game from a classic franchise like Duke Nukem, then it’s fun. Really, it’s difficult to play this game and not smile or have fun, despite how hard some of the stuffy types may try. It’s like the Dumb and Dumber of video games: some people might act like they’re too sophisticated or highbrow for it, but the reality is that everybody thinks it’s fun, finds it hilarious, and loves it for the old-school factor.

It may be straightforward in that you just run and gun — with the occasional simplistic puzzle, like taking heavy barrels out of a mine cart so you can move it down the track — but it’s action-packed and part of what makes it so fun is the wide array of weapons. In the demo, I got to try out a 1911 pistol, a railgun, an RPG, the ripper (a gatling gun, basically), and, the weapon with the most character, the shrink ray. There is nothing more satisfying and humorous than shrinking an opponent and then giving them the boot. It’s goofy, it doesn’t make much sense, and it’s just plain awesome. My only gripe is that the game only allows you to carry two weapons at a time. I realize this has kind of become the standard for shooters, but that’s usually for the sake of realism. For a game that otherwise completely eschews realism, this seemed like an odd choice, especially when maximum firepower is very much in the spirit of Duke Nukem.

Even the one-liners that Duke mumbles while blasting his way through foes can be enjoyable; I especially liked his comment that “a crowbar would be perfect right now” when I came across a barricaded entrance to the mineshaft (for those missing the reference, he’s talking about the classic and widely-recognized weapon wielded by the protagonist of Half-Life, Gordon Freeman).

On that note, the game’s humor is another one of its draws. The majority of it may be lewd, but part of what makes Duke Nukem Forever so enjoyable is that it wants to laugh with you…at itself. It revels in its over-the-top nature, to the point of satire. For example, you can receive a temporary combat boost by chugging a beer. On loading screens, occasionally instead of helpful hints you’ll see lines like, “Duke Nukem can bench press over 600 pounds.” Overall, Duke Nukem is just full of things like that: big guns, over-sexualized women, and again, I point to the ridiculous opening titles (featuring explosions, rock and roll, and the American flag). It’s very self-aware, but in a good way. It’s a game that knows that it’s ridiculous, and it just takes that and runs with it.

Is Duke Nukem Forever going to change the way we look at shooters? God, no. But it doesn’t want to, either. That’s not the point of a Duke Nukem game. The point of a Duke Nukem game is for players to see Duke being Duke, and this has that in spades. You shoot, you kill, you do and say inappropriate things. At the end of the day, this game will live up to the hype because it will be true to the franchise, it will be fun, and it will sell well.

And in this business, that’s all that matters.



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