Oh, Duke. We all know about your game’s tortured development cycle, eventual death at the hands of your perfectionist creators, and resurrection under the watchful eye of Gearbox (creators of the awesome Borderlands). Now, after fourteen years of development (FOURTEEN!), First Access Club members were given an early download for the Duke Nukem Forever demo, a week and a half ahead of its release at retail. So how is it? In as few words as possible: tragically bad.
Before Quake, Unreal, and Call of Duty shaped the first-person shooter landscape, there was Duke Nukem 3D. Colorful, raunchy, tasteless; qualities that those franchises sought to avoid. Duke Nukem may seem anachronistic as a character in an era where we’re min-maxing our Modern Warfare profiles, but it provides a welcome source of humor throughout. Unfortunately, it’s a bizarre mix of old and new gameplay that feels so very wrong here. (It should be noted that this is the same demo that Gearbox used to reveal the game at PAX Prime last year.)
In the first level, we start at a urinal in a locker room. You pull the right trigger to pee, which can carry on for a time if you just hafta keep pulling. As you pay attention to the variety of extra things you can do, like turn faucets and showers on and off or draw on a whiteboard (which is as frustrating to manipulate as it is interesting to see) you see why this game was in development was so long: 3D Realms was stuck ironing out the most insignificant and superficial elements of the game for years. Interactivity in Duke Nukem Forever feels like a step back to a time before Half-Life 2 existed, which changed how we mess with the environments
You wander through this stadium, which is filled with human fodder, and wind up on the football field with Cycloid, the end boss from the last game (y’know, before most of you were born). Maybe it’s at this point where we’re supposed to laugh at the Olde Tyme Gameplaye, but unloading all of your ammo into the boss, then running across the field to pick up another batch (conveniently provided as 69-round magazines) for about four or five rounds is far from endearing. You finally win, kicking Cycloid’s eye through a field goal. The camera pans out to reveal that you were Duke playing Duke in another video game while being ‘serviced’ by some cute girls in school girl outfits, where he makes a clever jab at how long the game’s been in development.
Now bear in mind, this first level is here to show off the scripting. There’s exactly one enemy and the game’s funny. Okay, I’ll keep going. The second level takes place at some other random part of the game, starting you off in a monster truck racing through a dusty desert canyon. For some reason, the game feels that the truck needs a laughably implemented ‘fuel’ element to arbitrarily hinder your progress. There’s only one point where you need to run out of gas, and that’s when you need to hoof it through a monster maze. Instead, my truck ran out of gas a jump away from that segment and the game didn’t do much to explain that I needed to refuel it. Instead, I jumped off the ledge and died when I was supposed to boost jump over it with my truck. The game set me up at the next checkpoint, anyway. Hmmm, okay.
So now you’re on foot, allowing you to experience moment-to-moment firefights. In a bizarre decision, the developers decided to limit Duke to two weapons at any time, Halo-style. I understand the need to modernize, only Serious Sam or Bulletstorm have you running around with ten to fifteen weapons at once, but the level provides a such a thoroughly vertical slice of weapons in such a short period of time that it’s a pain to manage them. The AI is awful. Line up in the same spot and the pigs will advance on you in the exact same lines every single time. They stand unfazed as you shoot them, giving you little feedback on how well you’re buzzing on them.
Toward the end of the level, an alien ship floats above you, requiring special explosive ammunition to dispatch. That’s fine, except there’s very little of it in the level. I spent twenty minutes backtracking in solid “It Came From 1998!” style, trying to scrounge enough explosives to take the chopper thing out. After a point, I gave up and let Sam go at it (the beefy load times didn’t help). (UPDATE: Yes, I missed the bloody ammo crate. Maybe I need a modern arrow or compass point to tell me what to do. UPDATE 2: This was not an admission that I needed my hand held. This game seems to have missed some prime game-testing opportunities. If a player is stuck on a level, don’t leave them stuck on a level. This isn’t 1996 anymore.) After having to restart once, he was able to pull it off. He spent another few minutes wondering where the hell to go next and ended up in a mineshaft where a required cart ride sequence glitched out, leaving it suspended three feet in the air.
Then came the obligatory ‘buy this game, it’s awesome’ splash screen and trailer, but not before the game forced him back out to his truck to refuel it. I really want to blame Gearbox and I sorta don’t. Based on the condition this demo is in, it would’ve probably been another decade and fifty million dollars to fix the fundamental issues with this game. At the same time, if Gearbox wanted to convince people to pick up this game with this ancient demo, they’ve taken the completely wrong tack here. It’s 2011, you can be retro without being tacky (Painkiller) or you can be modern and sophisticated (Half-Life 2, Deus Ex) but for some reason, 3D Realms decided that a poor mix of both was what this game called for. I don’t care how nostalgic you are for more Duke Nukem, you need to give this demo a once over before committing your currency. I was hoping to plunk down some hard cash on this monument to what is truly the longest in utero game in history, but Gearbox has effectively scared me off.