Duke Nukem Forever made me think of pro wrestling.
Specifically, it reminded me of WrestleMania 18, when The Rock faced off against Hollywood Hulk Hogan. It was billed as a fantasy match, a clash of old-school versus new-school sensibilities not just for the industry, but for the fans themselves.
The match itself could have been a pop culture experiment. From a technical standpoint, it was middling, but that's not why people watched it. The Rock, then the avatar of contemporary sports entertainment, was poised to athletically and charismatically steamroll Hogan, who used to sit on The Rock's cultural throne decades ago. Hogan was also supposed to be the heel, the bad guy. We weren't supposed to like him anymore.
That changed when the bell rang. If you saw it, you know what happened: People cheered for Hogan, no matter what he did. We knew his moves, his past poses, and what's he'd done in the industry. We didn't even care if all of his moves were still a bit shiny from the '80s- and '90s-era cheese that had covered them. People ate it up.
In the gaming space, you could put Master Chief, the girl from Portal, Jackie Estacado or (insert Call of Duty protagonist here) in the boots of The Rock.
But I wanted Duke to be Hogan.
It's not because they're both blond with huge muscles. Watch the match again sometime. The Rock CARRIED Hogan from a technical standpoint. He sold, even oversold, every move and reacted with perfect shock when Hogan unspooled his "hulk out" routine, even though everyone and their brother (including mine) had seen it about 1,000 times. Didn't matter … that match became legend in the eyes of many.
To me, that's how I envisioned Duke Nukem Forever making its impact more than a decade after the last game. I figured Duke would be carried, in a sense, by a host of superior contemporary gameplay elements, something revolutionary in the combat, or outstanding visuals or inventive design — all accentuated with the clanging of Duke's balls of steel.
Even the beginning of the game alludes to the past, and in a way, puts the onus on itself to deliver. After the heads of a pair of busty blondes emerge from Duke's lap following a mock gameplay session (wince), one asks him if the game is good.
His response is, "After 12 years, it f*****g better be." Unfortunately, it is not. There is no Rock vs. Hogan lightning in a bottle. Instead, Duke is left wading in a flat mishmash of dated gameplay and ideas, without enough tangible hints toward moving the character forward artistically or technically in the extremely loaded field of first-person shooters. Imagine if The Rock didn't react to any of Hogan's moves or mocked everything he did. Imagine if Hogan resurrected his entire '80s schtick, entrance and all, before the match. Awkward, right?
Even some of the most ardent Duke fans would have difficulty defending the way the game looks. It carries the visual weight of a juiced-up original Xbox title, or perhaps DLC for a much larger game — certainly not a full-priced feature title that hoped to compete with today's gaming fare. You see this right away, when Duke fights a Cycloid warrior in the middle of an open football field. Everything has a sort of sandblasted, dated look to it. Every time I perished or started a level, I'd see the basic flat visual layout of everything before the detail would kick in a couple of seconds later. I encountered several instances of old-school slowdown during an aerial strafing raid, which seems like heresy to experience in 2011 with practically any game.
Some have tried to make the argument that the visuals are another way the game is "keeping it real." (Do people even say that anymore?) No sane person interested in seeing progress in this medium would buy that, because that's basically trying to tell people that something looking like crap is woven into the game's integrity — as if attempting to improve it somehow cripples it.
There's evidence all throughout the gaming landscape that icons from decades past can be upgraded and integrated into contemporary gaming. If the Transformers (War for Cybertron) and Lara Croft can endure visual makeovers while maintaining their souls, so to speak, so can Duke Nukem. Instead, fans and non-fans get poor and choppy animation, flat textures and frame rate issues. Duke and the game don't help their cause by taking verbal potshots at others, such as games like Halo ("Power armor is for p*****s,") or the creators of Portal ("I hate valve puzzles"). It comes across as a little crotchety and brings the game into "Matt Hazard" territory; games shouldn't poke at other games unless they are just as good, if not better. Bad Company's boys can take a swipe at Call of Duty. Duke needed to bite down on his mouthpiece.
With that said, I didn't find the game's attempts humor at permanently damaging to humanity, though I can understand why some would. There are some truly bottom-feeding moments in the game, such as Duke's abortion jokes after wiping out a few imprisoned, alien-impregnated women in a level called the Hive. It's extreme, gallows but overall … just dumb. I treated it as such, sighed, rolled my eyes and moved on. It's the kind of crazy stuff one would hear about in campy B-movie alien fare, not the evidence of some kind of mental sickness from the people at Gearbox. Some of the tamer stuff, depending on your taste, is wave after wave of sexual debauchery, be it having to find "popcorn, a vibrator and a condom" in a strip club, or being able to find (and use) a glory hole in a bathroom stall. There are also random boobs on alien walls for you to slap, if you are so inclined.
Interacting with boobs, beer, toilets, pinball machines, air hockey and anything else that comes across Duke's path is an integral part of the game's design, which feels very basic, fundamental and intuitive. You can zoom with the left trigger, fire with the right, chuck pipe bombs and mines with the shoulder buttons and switch weapons with the Y button. Duke can jump, but not very high, and he can also sprint with a click-down on left thumbstick. Boob-slapping and beer-drinking fun can be had to with the X button, which also allows you to open doors and flip switches.
Playing with stuff increases Duke's "ego," which functions as a sort of Halo-type shield system, where taking cover for a few seconds eventually replenishes it. It's doesn't seem as sturdy, however, as the Chief's shields or power armor that apparently real men don't use.
On normal difficulty settings, people newer (or just not proficient) at first-person shooters will feel bombarded and sometimes overwhelmed with enemies and enemy fire that can reduce Duke's ego in a single blast. No one takes cover; everyone moves in random patterns designed to throw off a player's rhythm and punish those who take too long to pull the trigger. At times, the game can seem merciless and unforgiving. A fight against massive Octobrain will have you fend off other Octobrains that can take much more damage than you, and, if you're not careful, can end you within seconds.
This death-by-numbers methodology was a staple of FPS gaming years ago. It can be alternately refreshing in a masochistic kind of way or frustrating to the point where your controller or TV/monitor could suffer the consequences. You might find yourself improving as a player under those circumstances. If that's not enough incentive, you'll want to avoid the epic loading times that come with each death. For a game that, for all intents and purposes, should feel like a 12-ounce curl to the Xbox 360 in terms of strain, this is very unusual and extends the overall playtime. The fact that load times have even entered the discussion is disheartening and speaks even more to the game's dated feel.
Duke is not without tools. There are a bevy of relatively uninspired weapons, such as a machine gun, sniper rifle, RPG, plasma rifle and his customized golden pistol. He also has "Duke vision," which enables him to see in the dark. He's got the Holoduke, which is still around to draw enemy fire, and he also has beer and steroids. The beer gives him blurry vision and brief invulnerability, while the 'roids allow Duke to furiously make enemies explode with his fists. Since roughly 12 years of gaming have transpired during Duke Nukem Forever's development cycle, none of this seems even remotely new now. It would be fine if Gearbox aimed to mix in some more innovation in its design, but that's not what we get.
Duke's levels hearken back to the days before GPS and bright arrows held everyone's hand and spelled out the next destination door. As the player, you're left to figure out things for yourself and explore. Be prepared for a few moments when you're standing in a room and think, "What the hell am I supposed to do now?" The hardcore would love this, as it would weed out and frustrate radar-spoiled players. Exploration is always welcome, but there's not much to look at here. Much of the game goes in a straight line, much like Duke himself, but the exceptions come with the simplistic puzzles, such as finding heavy barrels to toss onto a platform so a crane can tip a certain way. There are also driving sequences, where you can control everything from a remote-controlled car to Duke's monster truck. The vehicles are skittish to control, and the sequences seem to drag on, feeling like one of those online tests where you can't finish early and have to sit for 10 more minutes because of the "official" time window. A game should not make me think of online testing.
Another gameplay wrinkle comes from the Alice in Wonderland playbook, which is when Duke finds himself shrunken down to the size of an action figure, courtesy of some green, alien spore-like areas. There are several levels like this, and it featured some interesting scale-based gameplay. One sequence has Duke at a burger joint traversing a flooded, electrified floor by hopping on burgers, a dead body, ketchup bottles and fighting miniaturized versions of his enemies. It's pretty clever stuff, but there's little to no follow-through. Duke gets miniaturized for the first time in a casino, drives a little remote-controlled car, handles his tasks and then grows back to normal size. What happens next? He backtracks through the casino, this time as full-grown Duke. It felt like a cheap way to extend the game, much like when Devil May Cry 4 did the same thing — and no one liked it that time, either.
I won't say much about the story. Aliens are here, kidnapping and impregnating women, and it's Duke's job to blow them away. The more intriguing aspect of Duke Nukem Forever is how the character's apparent mythos appears to be the engine of the entire experience. He's worshipped as a living god in the game, with his own burger joint, strip club, museum and stadium. His mission is about rescuing babes and kicking ass, which is well within his strike zone, but did it need to leak into every capillary of the experience? It's as if Gearbox was relying a little too much on the "Dukeness" to cover up any weaknesses. Who care if the game looks dated? It's Duke! Let's have him mess with Halo because he's Duke!
That brings me back to the Rock vs. Hogan match at WrestleMania 18. The Rock was victorious, and it really shouldn't have surprised anyone, even if Hogan did Hulkster things, worked his routine and captured some of the old magic for a few moments. Hogan couldn't have won because you can't have the company's biggest modern star at the time be defeated by a revered cultural relic of a bygone era. It wouldn't be forward-thinking, and most entertainment truly achieves something by moving forward. I want to see Duke again, but not if he's in a game that refuses to at least adapt with the times. There are a lot of directions Duke can go, and unlike Hulk Hogan, he doesn't have to age. He can, however, change. If there's a next time, I hope it's for the better.
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