This post spoils every game ever made, if you don’t like that, too bad. There’s also no music associated with this post. You would have thought I’d have done the obvious thing, wouldn’t you?
I recently purchased and played Duke Nukem Forever, I played it, I liked it – with caveats, and since it’s such a popular topic for people to bash on it I figured I’d get my two cents in. Although this rambling bullshit reads more like thirty-five cents.
I’ll start off by mentioning the fact that you can get the “original” Duke Nukem 3D from GOG.com, which as of this writing is only US$5.99. It’ll run on just about any hardware these days, so you haven’t got much of an excuse. You can match that up with the EDUKE32 project, and run it with nice modern resolutions on everything including your toaster.
We’re in an age these days where getting a vidjagame to market takes lots of people, lots of time, and lots of money. The story of getting this game to market is a tortuous path and I’m not going to bother going over any of it here, there are tons of people who’ve already beat that dead horse.
These days video games are really more interactive cinema than games. My first slap in the face for this was the first Mass Effect game. It’s a computer program that pretends to be an RPG, but is really just “run down a hallway, mash buttons for a minute, then watch a long cutscene”. Mass Effect 2 was the same thing, but more. Run down a hallway, mash buttons, watch cutscene with intricately detailed breasts, then run down the next hallway.
Mass Effect 1/2 “worked” for me, not because they were really that great a game, but because they had a pretty decent story behind them. i.e. – if you just strung out the game’s cutscenes one after the other that would probably have been just as an enjoyable an experience as ‘playing’ the game.
Let me go back a little bit in time. The original Duke Nukem 3D (and Doom, and Marathon, and countless other games of that era) were essentially “run around and kill everything, and eventually find the button that ends the level” games. Usually you had to do some exploring, find the red/blue/ultraviolet key, and then fight a hundred hojillion monsters.
That’s not to say that Duke Nukem 3D/Doom weren’t fun. They were great fun. I was in graduate skool at the time those came out and spent lots of time playing them and enjoying it. I wasn’t a big fan of the violence, but I was huge fan of the exploring concept. I just wanted to run around and see all the cool stuff the game designers had put into it.
Marathon was one of those games that rewarded you for your “running around looking at stuff” mode. Marathon had, I thought, I pretty nice storyline attached to it. Even though the story went completely insane for Marathon Infinity. The drawback of Marathon was that you only “got” the story by reading the terminals, and by “reading” I mean reading. You activated a terminal and usually had to read a wall of text. No voice would read it, no cutscene. If you hadn’t killed all the Pfhor one would usually come up and beat you to death as you were reading. A player could get through all the Marathon games without paying attention to a single thing, and just run around killing things and pushing buttons.
(These days you can download Aleph One, with all the original Marathon levels for free, and I recommend the Marathon Rubicon scenario).
From there, probably my favourite game of all time was the original Deus Ex. Compelling story, voice acting, cutscenes, and importantly: large game levels with tons of ways to complete the objective. A lot of people put this down as choosing either “guns blazing” or “stealth”, but I felt it was a lot more than those options. Accidentally trip an alarm? That’s okay, you haven’t screwed the level. Run past some guys rather than kill them? You can get away with that. I loved the fact that there were tons of plot elements that you didn’t have to do in order to advance the game, so these “secrets” were truly secret. That made the replayability great, since you could go back and and explore areas you hadn’t even noticed the first time. The multiple endings thing was touted at the time, but it didn’t make a lot of difference to me since you could just save and complete all three within about five minutes of that save point.
Deus Ex 2? No. Didn’t like it. Universal ammo and crummy graphics? No. Sniper rifle that made characters do a 360 cartwheel? No.
Deus Ex 3… err Project Snowblind? So disappointing I didn’t even finish it.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Not out yet, we shall see. I want to believe.
Games have become bigger and bigger investments for companies. With this inflation, people expect more and more from games. If you bring out a “simple platformer” game these days you’re an indie developer, are expected to charge five bucks, and not be very complicated.
I’m not going to defend Duke Nukem Forever, as overall I thought it was a fairly average game. I don’t think it’s the worst game ever made though, unlike lots of folks. No, the worst game ever made is X3: Terran Conflict – which consists of spending an hour of real time flying somewhere in space while doing nothing, getting your ass trashed in five seconds, and then having to start over.
What’s my favourite game ever? No question, Nethack. No, fuck you. I had more fun pushing ascii characters around a randomly generated map than I ever had being called names by 14-year olds.
So, why don’t I start off with some criticism: people complain about Duke Nukem Forever’s linear gameplay. I agree. The entire game is Duke-on-a-rail. Run down the hallway, get stuck shooting enemies until you kill them all, then the door opens to the next section. In lots of cases you can’t even backtrack. That’s not new in games though. Mass Effect 1/2, F.E.A.R., are all games essentially on rails. Mass Effect 2 had the story to back it up. Here, I’ll put that graphic here that everyone’s been using these days, just so I’ll look cool.
(I wish I knew who made that graphic originally, so I could properly give them credit).
The “on rails” part is really apparent in that disappointing underwater sequence. In Duke Nukem 3D you could “find” scuba gear and swim around underwater levels at length until the air ran out. In Duke Nukem Forever you have exactly enough air to swim to the next conveniently placed set of bubbles coming from a pipe. Too slow and you’re dead. That’s the worst kind of rails because you feel the underwater area is open and explorable, but you can’t go anywhere because you can’t make it ten feet if there aren’t convenient pipes bubbling in that direction. In fact, you just end up following the pipes (rails) to the conclusion.
The antithesis to this, for me, at least, was Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. When Oblivion came out I was so enamored with the visuals and the big open playfield that I was actually completely disinterested in doing any actual part of the game. I was far more interested in going to the top of hills and looking at vistas than going through the linear dungeons and – worst of all – trying to find 20 Nirnroot for some dumb fuck NPC who then turns around and demands I go get even more. Fuck Nirnroot.
The good inbetween “wanting to look around and see stuff” and “actually wanting to play the game” were Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I think Fallout 3 was the first game since Deus Ex where once I’d finished it, I went back and started over again from scratch just to see more things the second time around.
And to the other side of the scale were the Grand Theft Auto games (GTA3, GTA San Andreas), where the game is big, open, and – to me – completely uninteresting. The “quests” in the GTA games were so tedious for me to try to complete, since you had to complete key parts to advance the game along. I was not interested in chasing a train on a motorcycle, or driving around trying to find 15 dropped porn mags in 1 minute. The highest point of fun for those was that in GTA San Andreas seeing how stupid a jump I could make in a motorcycle. I never finished any of the GTA games because they were so aimless they were boring. I bought GTA4, but it’s unplayable on my computer, so I never bothered even trying to get into it.
Starting with games like Quake 3 Arena and Tribes 2, games started to shift away from even having single-player modes. I don’t like to play online games, principally because I don’t like being called names by 14-year olds. Single-player games have suffered in complexity as a result, because I think game developers put more effort into the low-hanging fruit of decent multiplayer support than making it enjoyable for us rejects.
So, Duke Nukem Forever’s story: really, there isn’t any story here. The game is largely “I thought of this cool scenario for Duke Nukem, let’s get him from A to B to make this happen” I think of the scenario on the top of Hoover dam against the Battlelord where you run down a hallway (okay, the top of the dam), to trigger a scene where a big dude comes out and starts gunning at you. Then you realize why there are all these ammo-replenishing crates that were scattered down the length of the dam for you. The ends of the boss battles are all designers saying “Yeah, then Duke climbs up his back and rips off his tentacle, how are we going to implement that? Make players bash the spacebar”. Attempting to make a game out of a cinematic sequence.
Enemy models: The original Duke Nukem 3D, despite being a game where you essentially ran around and killed everything, had some pretty cartoony models. Cats with jetpacks, pigs with LAPD uniforms. Low-resolution sprites are easy to manage like that, and you have to make them cartoony since you can’t really make them realistic. You might as well run with that.
Duke Nukem Forever tries to show off a modern graphics engine with realistic gritty models. The large boss characters (that Battlelord, the Energy Leech, that dude at the end), who cares – those are big complicated guys. I was really disappointed with the current pigs/cats designs. The pigs/cats had no charm. The pigs are now just muscular humans with pig heads and pants and no shirts, and the cats with jetpacks – well, you can’t even really tell they’re cats. The colour palette of Duke Nukem Forever is in the vein of “if we make everything gray-to-black, people will think it’s gritty and real”. In fact, I had played quite a bit into the game before it clicked in my head, “oh yeah, those are the pigs/cats from the first game”. I’ll come back to this in a little bit.
These movies-become-games things are pretty hard to design and have the cinema flow properly from gameplay. Look at the Valve stuff – Half Life 2, Portal, and especially Portal 2. Portal 2 is a heavily scripted game and pretty dependent on playing along a rail. Do such a task, trigger an event at the end of it, which leads to another task, etc. Portal 2 does a really good job of obscuring that fact from the player, though. As you play through the game you’re not constantly being banged over the head with “once you cross that line on the floor, something will happen”, you get the perception that events are naturally flowing from your player’s action. These are hard to get right, and I figure are undoubtedly the reason why the Half-Life 2 Episodes take so damned long to come out.
Doom 3 was a big loser in this aspect. Most of Doom 3 revolved around “walk over a trigger point, lights go out, demon appears behind you, get your ass kicked”. After a while that got tedious. F.E.A.R. was similar. Duke Nukem Forever also suffers from this. In order to preserve the cinematic experience, you have to restrict what the player can do. No, you can’t go through that door until the next scene plays out. No, you can’t jump up on that surface because that’s not part of the script. Yes, you can destroy that because it’s important to trigger an event, but you can’t destroy that other thing because we haven’t planned for it. Key example of this are those little bouncy alien-trampoline things. You jump on one and it only bounces you exactly where it’s designed to throw you for the next part of the sequence. In Half Life, which also had bouncy things, you had to figure out how to use the bouncy things to get you where you wanted to go. Duke Nukem Forever just takes you there by the hand.
That was one thing I really liked about Deus Ex, was that most of the ‘objects’ in the world you could pick up and move around. Sure they weren’t useful, like plants and bowling trophies, but you felt like you had some measure of control because you could knock shit over. Contrast that with another game I played from that period, No One Lives Forever, which was pretty humourous and fun to play, but always frustrated me because you couldn’t push the chairs around on the floor. Everything might as well have been a crate. (Coincidentally, the second game in that NOLF series was also pretty heavy on the triggered-event-rail-story problem).
Essentially, designing a game that ‘plays’ well, and a game that looks like a good movie are two different things and hard to get right unless you put a lot of effort into it, and I don’t think the Duke Nukem Forever folks had a lot of time to do that. This game has been ‘in development’ for twelve years, but really I think it’s only been a year they actually worked on this version. If you look at the previously released ‘footage’ from the game you see most of them were mockups, not playable, or in most cases contained story elements that never made it to the final Duke Nukem Forever. When the final company in the chain got it’s hands on the task of making a game, they made a game quickly and put it out.
Watch The 1998 E3 Trailer, The 2001 E3 Trailer, none of that is in this game.
I do like that in the ‘game extras’ they include a timeline detailing out a lot of the horrid history of this game, including all those movies. At least they’re not trying to hide it.
The “no secrets” problem: Duke Nukem 3D was big on having hidden things to find, usually giving you something like atomic health or a gun, or something. Same thing for finding hidden rooms in Wolfenstein 3D: it wasn’t that what was in there was necessarily cool, it was that you explored around and found something ‘secret’ in the game. Duke Nukem Forever has, near as I can tell, zero secret stuff. The closest thing is “find all the items that give your ego bar a boost” (also an achievement, I hate achievements). No secrets means no incentive to want to explore the game areas, on rails or not, you don’t want to hang around to look for anything.
Technical issues: I’m an old guy and not actually a gamer. My PC is a little old, but played Duke Nukem Forever just fine. The loading times were absymal. Not seconds, minutes. I never timed it, because usually I’d just leave the room and come back when it was ready to play. Couple that with the checkpoint-save method (you never save, if you get greased you have to start over from the previous checkpoint), meant a lot of areas were damned frustrating until you figured out the only-scripted-way to get out without dying. The loading times were a real killjoy.
Okay, thats a lot of complaining on my part. Duke Nukem Forever has a lot of shortcomings as a game, and most of them come down to unrealized expectations. “This game could have been so cool if… “, “It would have been so much better if…”, “I wish this were like the original game where…”.
The thing is, I played Duke Nukem Forever to the end, I finished it, and overall I wasn’t actually disappointed. The game has a lot of faults, and it isn’t Duke Nukem 3D with modern graphics. I thought a lot of the cinematic stuff was well done, even if the story was pretty dull. Duke Nukem Forever could never live up to the hype and anticipation of a game so legendarily long in development. So at that point it’s best to turn that off and just live in the moment.
Having said that, let’s talk about the parts of Duke Nukem Forever that I really did like. Lots of reviewers got their Hatorade out for this game, but some bits they hated were what saved it for me.
The nostalgic throwbacks and references: Early in the game Duke has to force open a door (by stupidly bashing the spacebar, but forget that) for the first time. The computer voice says you can’t go through because you need the red key. Duke says essentially, “I don’t need no red key” and forces the door open. Given that most of Duke Nukem 3D was “where the fuck is the red key?”, this really was great. The comment about the power armour (i.e. Halo) being for pussies.
I enjoyed the shrunken-Duke-in-RC-car bit. I enjoyed running everyone over in the Monster Truck and making those jet-assisted jumps. I even enjoyed the pre-game intro sequence with Duke throwing a pair of dice with all the company logos who’ve had to work on this thing, leading into a recap of all of Duke Nukem 3D in stylistic form.
The whole ego bar thing: lots of reviewers hated this, but I thought it was well suited. The Duke “character” in all the games revolves around him being an over-the-top caricature. It sure beat wandering around with 3% health knowing you’ve used up all the health packs on the level, and begrudginly having to reload an older save game. People said the regenerating health promoted you to hide more and have less action, but I didn’t find that. Sure you ducked behind a pillar for a moment, but then your ego bar/health comes back up and you run back out into the action. This leads me to my next bit.
Action: Duke Nukem 3D was game about blowing shit up. You ran around and killed everything. Games these days have leaned towards ‘tactical’ stuff. Your Modern Warfare, your Battlefield, Mass Effect 2. Stay safe, hide behind things, use a sniper rifle when possible. Duke Nukem 3D and Duke Nukem Forever are games designed around getting maximal fun by throwing yourself into a hail of gunfire with your own guns emptying out until everyone is dead. I got a lot more enjoyment by charging at dudes with the shotgun than hiding behind a slot machine. At one point you man a cannon and blow up and entire mothership, what’s not to like about that? The end-boss battle with the Cycloid Emperor is where Duke Nukem Forever feels the most like a Duke Nukem 3D successor.
Carrying only two weapons: I didn’t care, you always find enough weapons lying around to trade when you need something bigger.
I liked a lot of the ‘destructability’ of the environments, in particular pillars – which when you gunned them turned into masses of rebar and concrete for a nice visual touch. I wish the game had more of that. Blow up slot machines, knock shit over. That takes more design and thinking and time though, and this game didn’t get that. One of the best things about Fallout 3 I liked to do was blow up abandoned cars, something you don’t get to do a lot of in Fallout New Vegas because there aren’t many abandoned cars.
As I’ve said, I’m old and lame, and one of the parts I got the biggest kick out of were these:
Yeah that’s right, I’m an engineer, I appreciated the realistic looking wiring and fire controls panels.
It falls into the pop culture references category, but here’s a simple bit that I think impressed me the most.
During a part which turns out to be a dream sequence, there’s that little spinning “totem” from the movie Inception on a table, happily spinning away, back and forth. That bit there sold me on the game. Seriously.
A lot of reviews of this game complained about the treatment of women, and aspects of the game they considered misogynistic. Seriously, did you not play Duke Nukem 3D? I’m not talking about the pixellated strippers – if you shot the strippers in Duke Nukem 3D you usually got penalized by having more enemies show up. I’m talking about the final battle with the Alien Queen, where in the game’s final cutscene Duke shoves a bomb up some orifice (take your pick which one you think he uses), makes a glib statement about abortion, and blows her completely up. Both games are excessively over-the-top on Machismo – just like most action movies.
Finally, the bit that everyone seems to mention: fishing out the turd from the toilet at the beginning of the game (which you can also do later on). I think that was well executed. After all, how many games do you try and go around and ‘action’ everything to see what you can do with it? Given that lots of Duke Nukem Forever you actually can’t interact with, I thought it was neat you could pick up that turd, and then get the voiceover along the lines of “who the hell picks up a turd, now what am I supposed to do with it?”, then toss it against the wall. I thought that was comedic genius. It’s also backed up by one of the million different ‘play tips’ that you get to read while waiting a half hour during the loading screens, which says something to the effect of “we wanted to to make picking up the turd make your ego go down, but didn’t”.
Duke Nukem Forever is a flawed game. Flawed a lot more than lots of games. Worst game ever? Hardly. Enjoyable? For me, it was. Worth full price? Hell no, wait for this to go on sale for ten bucks.
Now, making the game better. This was the whole reason I decided to write all this bullshit in the first place, because I saw this comment on reddit and didn’t want it to go by to be forgotten. This game was so long in development, imagine how this could have turned out:
Sam: Dude, I had this epic vision of Duke Nukem Forever
Kenneth: so did 3drealms
Sam: like why throw out each previous engine when you have to catch up with the times?
Sam: Here’s what should have happened.
Sam: Duke powers through two gorgeously rendered Crysis-like levels before the aliens hit him with a Retrotime Gun
Sam: then he ends up in the pixelated quas-3d of the original Duke Nukem
Sam: and is like “what the helll”
Sam: and he has to fight his way back through 10 years of FPS gaming engines
Sam: see this is what I was desperately hoping was going on through all those ten years
Sam: they weren’t WASTED years
Sam: they were carefully stored
Sam: DNF was to be the epic panopolistic archaeological journey of the Perfect FPS
Sam: oh wait except it wasn’t, they were a bunch of incompetents bumbling away a decade
Sam: O WELL
Seriously, if the game had gone this route, and actually switched game engines and visual design during the game, I think that alone would have made it the game of the year. That’s the Duke Nukem Forever I want to play.
I don’t care what you think, AWTFY.