I wasn't actually expecting to play Duke Nukem Forever today. I figured some kind of planetary disaster would preempt the press event — game called on account of imminent asteroid impact — or the entire thing would turn out to be a practical joke 12 years in the making. We'd get to the press event, and it'd turn out that Duke Nukem Forever was the code name for a new kid-friendly kart racer or a Cooking Mama clone, the PAX build was a red herring, and Randy Pitchford would stand on stage with dramatic backlighting and laugh like a mad scientist for 60 minutes straight.
The least likely of all possible scenarios actually occurred, however, and I have now played Duke Nukem Forever.
In the years since Duke Nukem 3D was released, Duke himself is probably what most people remember the most clearly. If you go back and play 3D, he's talkative but not aggressively so by modern standards, and the game itself is often difficult enough that it demands most of your attention. (I've been stuck on that one lava level for years now.) Back in the day, having a protagonist who actually spoke now and again was actually a pretty big innovation, even if he was the insane love child of Bruce Campbell, Roddy Piper and a syringe full of horse steroids.
Perhaps as a result, Duke Nukem Forever is Duke's show, from start to finish. In the 12 in-game years since he saved Earth from aliens, he's become an action movie star, astronaut mountain climber, big game hunter, billionaire casino owner, poker player and professional wrestler. He owns his own burger chain, runs a stadium, has a "Duke Cave" with the President on speed-dial, and has probably sired enough illegitimate children that they qualify as their own ethnic group. As you start Forever, Duke is playing a Duke Nukem video game in the penthouse of his casino while being orally serviced by twin blonde pop stars. His entire world consists of his successes, his admirers, or asses he's about to kick.
I am not sure the world is ready for this game. Some people will love it and everything about it, some people are going to regard it as the ultimate guilty pleasure, and some people are going to embark upon a crusade to destroy it. The most honest, objective reaction I had to it was a blank, disbelieving stare. When this comes out and you're talking about it with friends and acquaintances, you will often use the phrase "and I am not making this up."
The aliens Duke defeated 12 years ago have returned, and initially, they open diplomatic relations with the President, who orders Duke to stand down. This lasts about 10 minutes. Then you're beating aliens to death with your bare hands and a bowling trophy in an effort to prevent them from stealing Earth's women.
Duke is empowered by his own ego. Doing things to inflate that, like flexing in the mirror, lifting weights or shooting a basket, gives him an immediate and permanent "health" increase, and any damage you take regenerates quickly over time. Steroids drive him into a berserk rage, which lets you splatter aliens across the floor with one punch, and beer acts as a sort of "super armor," making Duke too drunk to feel any real pain. (Duke's favorite beer is apparently rubbing alcohol in an aluminum can. Either that, or his one heroic flaw is the alcohol tolerance of an anemic toddler.)
The big draw of Forever — aside from the near-miraculous fact of its existence and Duke himself — is that the gameplay changes frequently. Most of it is spent punching, shooting or exploding aliens, as is only proper, using Duke's gold-plated .45, a riot shotgun, two different kinds of alien lasers, or a rocket launcher, with the freeze gun and shrink ray promised for the final build. It's actually a bit harder than I was expecting. On normal difficulty, I figured the enemies would just fall over and give you the win out of sheer awe for Duke or something. Instead, they like to teleport in out of nowhere and constantly reinforce one another, changing up the variety of enemies in a single encounter from flying riflemen to the old familiar pigmen with shotguns.
Each of the playable stages also had a few lengthy digressions. The first real level, as Duke fights his way out of his own penthouse, features what could be laughingly called "stealth" (the same way that punching somebody in the back of the head in a darkened room is a "silenced takedown") and doesn't actually give you a gun until right near the end, finishing up with a sequence where you shoot down an alien mothership with a laser turret. The second stage, in Duke's casino, begins with a long vehicle section where a shrunken Duke has to run away from full-size aliens while driving a remote-control racecar. Later stages reportedly feature puzzles, platforming, different kinds of vehicles, and bosses that are several stories tall.
That gameplay variety is probably the single best thing that Forever has going for it. It's also smart enough that once it actually gets going, it doesn't overplay Duke himself. We've seen in the last 12 years that the best protagonist in the world gets annoying fast if he says the same six things over and over again, and that isn't quite the case here. Duke could still use a greater variety of one-liners, and a lot of them seem to be in the game entirely because they're what you'd expect Duke to say (and why has Bruce Campbell not said something about this by now?), but he isn't chatty.
The general line of critical and fan reasoning on Duke Nukem Forever is that, after 12 years, Gearbox was going to have to create the best game in the universe just to live up to the years of hype. Their reaction has been to make the single most ridiculous thing they possibly could, which constantly mocks itself, its protagonist, its players, and video games in general. It is the crude, sexually explicit carnival of violence (I'm really hoping to get that phrase into their ad campaign) that your grandmother thinks of when she hears about video games, and it is aimed directly at your inner 14-year-old boy.
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