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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Game Play: Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever has finally arrived, after just under fifteen years of developments, moving through multiple game engines, swapped between different publishers, and passed back around multiple development teams (before finally being finished by Gearbox ... formed by 3D Realms developers who ditched that company during the "early" years of DNF).

A lot has changed since 1997, when Duke Nukem Forever was originally announced. For instance, Zoid's CTF mod came out for Quake 2 in 1998 - which is when Duke Nukem Forever was supposed to originally be released. Zoid's CTF was really the starting point for objective based team play for first person shooter. So every shooter which has ever been made since DNF was announced has taken this concept and evolved it into the kind of online play we see in Call of Duty.

Or to put it another way, Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for as long as team based shooters have started going past pure team deathmatch.

While the shooter genre is a something of a slow moving bunch, there has been paradigm shifts like Zoid's CTF (1998): GoldenEye 007's location based damage and lack of health packs (1997), Half-Life's first person cinematics (1998), Counter-Strike's objective based maps (1999), Deus Ex's hybrid RPG elements (2000), Halo's use of shields over health points and realistic inventory handling (2001), Half-Life 2's use of physics (2004), WinBack's use of cover (1999) and Rainbow Six's first person adoption of it (2006), Vanquish's slide movement (2010 ... almost all of these mechanics becoming either de facto standards (especially in the case of GoldenEye 007 and Halo) or important design choices for titles as they're released.

Fun Fact: The title for Duke Nukem Forever comes from Duke Nukem 4Ever, which was to be a 2D sequel to the 3D classic employing concepts from the old game and some new ones while returning to Duke's original nemesis, Doctor Proton.

And all this time, the development of Duke has been watching these titles released - and apparently then struggling to keep up as best it could. Duke Nukem 3D was a landmark title in it's own right and easily as influential on games like Deus Ex and Half-Life as the above list has been on other titles. It was clear that 3D Realms was never going to be happy with DNF unless it used the greatest technology and using the latest tricks.

The problem is: you can't simply adopt these tricks once you've seen them. And Duke Nukem Forever is a game plagued by this fact.

For instance, Duke uses "Ego" instead of health and the usage is clearly aped from Halo's use of shields (which would later be adopted to the realistic shooters use of damage of health points in general). However, considering that Halo was released in 2001 and DNF had already been in development for five years at that point ... you have to wonder how much redesign that would require.

Fun Fact: According to the game, development began with the original Quake engine and moved quickly to the Quake II engine when the game was being announced. In 1998, after having developed on Quake II engine for 14 months, 3D Realms declared they would use the Epic's Unreal engine. Since then, Epic released Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Championship, Unreal II, Unreal Championship 2 and Unreal Tournament III - each with specific updates and overhauls to the engine.

Moving from a health based system centered on pickups to a shield based system centered on the user avoiding damage to heal is not a simple change. It's not like you can simply remove all the health packs from the game and then add a timer to the player's health bar. The damage the enemies deal needs to be handled, the levels need to provide players with enough area or cover to deal with a bad situation to regain health, the amount of "shielding" a player requires needs to be balanced, etc., etc. It's a core design change that needs to ripple throughout the game.

While Duke adopted the concept, and surely the idea of Duke Nukem being protected solely by his ego is funny enough: it never really seems to handle it correctly. There are sequences which are simply woefully unbalanced because you'll be picking off Assault Captains left and right only to run into a boss where a few blows can kill you but you really have nowhere to protect yourself from. In fact one boss fight in particular seems to have exactly two or three points of cover where the boss almost inexplicably can't hit you momentarily as if to solve this problem. Though, it's still a problem until you find these spots left for you by a benevolent level designer.

Fun Fact: In 2009, Wired removed Duke Nukem Forever from their yearly vaporware awards list as the project appeared officially cancelled and "the joke was getting old". In 2010, Gearbox would officially announce the game's release and the game hit 11th on the vaporware list that year.

Or the fact that back when Duke was King - shooters simply let players collect as many weapons as they could find. This idea of a "primary" weapon and a "secondary" weapon was completely alien. You found a weapon, you had the weapon, you used the weapon, you ran out of ammo ... you found more ammo. Weapon and map design matched this fact: you had weapons which were weak but utilitarian and weapons which were the BFG and used ammo like a mofo. You would simply swap out weapons depending on the situation.

The primary/secondary weapon mechanic that Halo introduced requires some weapons to be more useful than others so that you can rely on at least a common group of ammo and resources to keep fighting even when you used up your secondary BFG style ammo. Duke Nukem Forever adopted the Halo weapon concept but the actual weapon design is nearly exactly the same as it was from 1997. The end result is that you end up using the Ripper nearly the entire time because it's the closest thing to generic plasma rifle the game offers the player. Some situations even insist on the usage of specific weapons - forcing the player to hunt down a obviously conveniently placed weapon pickup just to swap out.

If there was ever a first person shooter which could excuse itself from the idea of only holding two weapons: it is Duke Nukem Forever. Duke Nukem can bench press 600 pounds (according the relatively funny in-game hint notes). Duke Nukem punches alien overlords in the balls. Duke Nukem can take a rocket or two in the face (provided his ego is big enough). But Duke Nukem can't hold as many weapons as he did ten years ago.

This isn't a game burdened by reality, as noted buy some of the more entertaining underwater scenes - so why did it feel the need to grab mechanics from games which are intended to make shooters feel more real?

This mishmash of game design plucked but not entirely cooked from ground breaking titles over the years creates a uneven landscape of good and bad the player can barely navigate through. It's not that Duke Nukem Forever is all bad or without charm - but the design flaws and lack of polish aren't something one can simply power through or laugh about when Duke pulls out another signature one-liner. The game constantly beats the player over the head with the woes from development past and every moment of fun the game offers up is quickly dashed by five more which are either frustrating or simply boring. There are portions of this game which an anyone used to the genre will simply have to wonder if this level was left unfinished. There are portions which seem oddly devoid of enemies, or enemies which seem to spawn simply to elongate scenes, or boss sequences which feel like they never got past the design phase of the creature concept, or maps which clearly don't have the correct lighting and ... on and on and on.

Obviously no game is worth this much development time - it's an absurd question which doesn't need to be asked. We're not talking about genetic research here, we're talking game development and if you can't get the game out in a certain timeline you're game is going to feel outdated. This is simply a law of physics.

The parts of Nukem which work the best are the parts Nukem learned from itself. Unabashed humor, interactive and unique levels, and the occasional feeling of a somewhat epic fight with an unrepentant use of tits and ass - there are moments of pure Dukedom.

The multiplayer has some merit in the sense that it manages some fast old school deathmatch killing. Sadly, the game browser suffers from some network issues (like the age old problem of constantly finding open games which by the time the browser lets you try to join ... the game is full) and there simply aren't enough servers out there to really make the online portion stick.

But Duke Nukem Forever doesn't just feel dated, the damn game still feels unfinished. The Dilbert cartoon at the top of this post refers not just what happens when it is better to ship nothing at all, but was the source of Macromedia's Director 5 being code named "better than gum". While Nukem has more character in the first five minutes of game than some shooter have in an entire game, the Duke's bravado simply doesn't live up to the final offering. This may not entirely be a gum release, but it is a product clearly out the door with the intention of publishing before completely forgotten.

In the early parts of the game, Duke wanders into a bathroom and can, in a now infamous scene, pick up a turd from a toilet. Disgusted with himself he then moves out to a stadium to re-enact a boss fight from the Duke Nukem 3D's end boss fight only to have the action pull back to be revealed as just a video game being played by Duke and a pair of buxom twins.

And honestly, that encompasses nearly everything you need to know about Duke Nukem Forever. There's some crap, and there's parts which will remind you of the original game and there's some parts where Duke is clearly just pick up what he learned from playing games for over a decade.

If you've never played Duke Nukem 3D and you're wondering what all the fuss is about - I have to recommend giving the game a pass. Maybe we'll finally get a proper modern Duke release, or maybe Duke Nukem: Zero Hour for the Nintendo 64 was the last decent follow up the franchise will ever get. For the nostalgic, Forever will likely just be a disappointment. It's surely a moment in history for the gaming industry and while it has some moments - it's probably better a moment to just move on from.