Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: Duke Nukem Forever

Great gobs of unpleasant avian sinus drainage! It's a review! Do we do that on this site? I forget!

After 15 years, Duke Nukem Forever has finally come out. All the vaporware jokes, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth... the king is back. But is he still the king?

Alright, you've probably read a lot of other reviews that tell you Duke Nukem Forever isn't a good game. Some even say it's a bad game. Myself, I'm not so sure. And I definitely don't agree with the reasons other pundits put forward when they call DNF a bad game. They want to talk about the dated references, the sexism, all that rot.

Well, I'm here to tell you DNF is not a bad game. It's not a GREAT game. It's hard to even call it a good game. Maybe that's why everybody badmouths it so harshly, because Duke Nukem 3D left some impossibly huge shoes to fill. Duke3D(dot ee ecks ee) was an absolute revolution in the first person shooter genre. The first FPS game that let you have multiple floors in the same 2 dimensional space (later referred to as "2.5d" because it used chicanery in a 2D plane to create the effect), the best multiplayer of the late 90s, and of course the shocking, edgy content - it all created a perfect storm that made Duke3D the staple of just about every LAN party and gaming rig I ever saw.

DNF could have been that again. The problem is not that its conventions are too dated, the problem is developers tried to shoehorn in too many "contemporary" conventions and paradigms. For example,
  • Duke3D let you carry one of every weapon in the game
  • DNF lets you carry two weapons.
  • D3D let you carry huge amounts of ammo
  • DNF lets you carry very restricted amounts of ammo, but boss fights and other heavy conflict areas usually have an inexhaustible ammo crate you can return to multiple times
  • D3D largely consisted of open, free roaming levels that had you hunt keycards to find the exit
  • DNF largely consists of highly detailed rooms and hallways, each with one entrance and one exit
  • D3D let you shoot, reload or sidestep while sprinting, and there was no limit to sprint distance.
  • DNF does not let you do any of that while sprinting, and your sprinting is limited by a fatigue mechanic.
Starting to see the pattern here? What hobbles DNF and makes parts of it irritating are not dated old 90s paradigms... it's the adoption of the bad "quasi-realistic" modern gaming mechanics that everybody gripes about today! I remember late nights with friends playing deathmatch, sprintstrafing in circles firing unbelievable numbers of rockets at each other until someone got lucky. Can't do that in DNF.

A particular sticking point for me as well is the way the alien-stolen "chicks" are handled. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling "sexist" here or anything, but consider another difference here between D3D and DNF - In D3D, the stolen chicks in alien pods were largely scenery. Usually there were ways around them, so you didn't have to kill them even though they would beg you to do so... but if you did kill them, the game penalized you in the form of health loss or by spawning extra enemies. DNF however turns all that on its head - the girls do NOT beg for death (in fact they beg not to be DUMPED), they are placed in bottlenecks in the levels so you HAVE to kill them to get past, and if you leave them alive for too long they will die anyway and you will be punished by additional enemy spawns. That whole part just didn't sit well with me.

And don't even get me started on the load times.

It's not ALL bad though. The "gimmick" portions of the game are mostly enjoyable - the "Duke gets shrunk" portions I found particularly entertaining, less so the strip club scavenger hunt. I liked the driving portions, but maybe I'm the only one who did. I thought the ego mechanic was a nice innovation, where you raise your max health by interacting with objects (though I could have done without the blinding red splatter whenever you get wounded). And I have to tell you, it felt to me like the final boss of the game almost came halfway to redeeming the single player campaign. It was the first part of DNF that felt like the Duke I remember.

So that's basically the story - Duke Nukem Forever isn't as good as Duke 3D felt back in the 90s, but I can name several recent games that are worse - such as Homefront, Turning Point: FOL, Call of Juarez 2... At this point though, that it even came out at all is something of a triumph.

Grade: C+.

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