Duke Nukem Forever begins with a nostalgic cutscene that relives the best moments from Duke Nukem 3D in an evocative, frame-by-frame pop art style. I found this interesting, because after beating DNF I think this cutscene is possibly the worst thing the developers could have done to help their case for the new game. DNF is finally here! Look at all the awesome things you did in the last game…that you won’t do at all in DNF.
Blasting alien troopers while catching the late showing in a porno theater? Nothing but a distant memory now. Stowing away on a submarine? That’s sooo 1996, we all know seesaw physics puzzles is where it’s at. Blowing pig-cop tanks to shrapnel? Nah, wouldn’t you rather have a boring open-world exploration sequence? What about launching an actual nuke, the most iconic thing Duke could actually do? Pfft, cliché. Let’s do some shrunken first-person platforming instead.
I’m not going to spend dozens of paragraphs excoriating DNF—you can get that in the many hyperbole-laden reviews scattered across the web. Those reviews
rightly called DNF on all of its serious problems, but most of them took an almost childish rip and tear approach. It’s as if they were mercilessly kicking the arrogant playground asshole while he was down, after enduring 14-plus years of his bragging. That kind of thing is no doubt cathartic, but I also think it misses the point, and it’s definitely counter-productive. I’m not trying to get up on my high horse here, but I always try to be constructive with my criticism, and I think that’s exactly what Duke Nukem needs now.
DNF didn’t need to be a paradigm-shifting masterpiece to be good or even loved by the loyal fans. I have little doubt that even after 14 agonizing years of development hell, if DNF had been a faithful yet audacious return to form—a late 90’s era 3D polygonal update in the vein of Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid and System Shock 2—the fans still would’ve welcomed it with open, forgiving arms. I’m almost sure that very early in its life DNF was just that: a gutsy but predictable jump into the 3D world of triangles and textures, with maybe a few new ideas, just like most of the industry was doing circa 1997. The old trailers indicate as much.
But of course, DNF didn’t stay that way for long. As we all know it stumbled into a bottomless pit of perpetual iteration, stealing wholesale from every major shooter to hit shelves during those 14 long years. It didn’t even matter if what was stolen was good. In the slapdash, cobbled-together finished product, we can see, as if archeologists digging through a decade-and-change of digital entertainment strata, a few of the FPS genre’s greatest heights, and dozens of its cast-off, unsuccessful experiments.
Every game has these pitfalls, but what’s important is that the developers of Doom, Half-Life and (to a lesser extent) Halo were smart enough to learn from their mistakes. Not 3D Realms—if the other cool kids were doing it, dammit it went into DNF. What could’ve been a safe yet entertaining thrill ride turned into the worst scope-creep-and-developer-insecurity-fueled downward spiral in gaming industry history.
But Duke Nukem doesn’t belong to 3D Realms anymore. Gearbox Software is the new custodian of Duke’s future. To be honest I think Gearbox is essentially blameless when it comes to DNF—CEO Randy Pitchford clearly stated that all he and Gearbox were doing was finishing the game, delivering the experience that 3D Realms intended. As our own John Yan stated in his review, it’s doubtful Gearbox did anything with DNF but a thorough refit, polish and final assembly; they probably didn’t have time to add content of their own and after so damn long, that would defeat the purpose.
That said, Gearbox didn’t buy the Duke Nukem license just to salvage the mess that was DNF. They’ve got a lot planned for our muscle-headed hero, and I fully expect to see Duke’s next adventure within a couple years. Even so, Gearbox has their work cut out for them. I’d like to do some of that constructive criticizing to see how things can get better. What follows is a detailed critical analysis of how even after 14 years of development, so many things could go so horribly wrong with DNF, and a few suggestions on how to make the next Duke game the one we really deserve. It goes without saying that spoilers lurk ahead. Now on to step one.
Step 1: Know your history
What a lot of people forget is that Duke Nukem 3D was not Duke’s first adventure, nor was he always the swaggering, swooned-over hero that DNF goes to great lengths to portray him as. Duke first appeared as the titular self-appointed hero of a Commander Keen-era platformer; just an average dude with a bad haircut, angry that an invasion of America had interrupted his viewing of Oprah. The series-mainstay alien invaders didn’t even show up until 1993’s Duke Nukem 2. Duke’s first game in ‘91 had him battling the mad scientist Dr. Proton, who was taking over the world with an army of robots and mutants.
It’s a shame that Duke is almost completely known for his third appearance in Duke Nukem 3D, and it’s sad that 3D Realms kind of encouraged it to stay that way. Duke 1 and 2 weren’t exactly groundbreaking but they had some fun ideas, a few cool weapons and, in the case of Duke 2, some badass midi music melodies. After simmering for nearly a decade and a half I expected DNF to show at least some awareness of Duke’s humble beginnings, but apparently all of that was relegated to the underappreciated, 2.5D side-scrolling spiritual successor Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, way back in 2002. The most we got in DNF were a few pixel-art paintings of Duke’s earliest adventures, hung in a corner of the King’s penthouse.
I remember hearing that Dr. Proton was supposed to be the main villain in DNF, and that’s why the nearly-identical antagonist of Manhattan Project was renamed Mech Morphix at the last minute. Imagine my disappointment, after being let down by so much else in DNF, to discover that the final boss was not Proton but the exact same Cycloid Emperor I fought in the freaking tutorial.
Don’t get me wrong, Duke Nukem 3D was a fantastic game and I understand why so many subsequent Duke games took all their cues from it. But even if DNF had perfectly preserved and modernized all of Duke 3D’s best elements, it still would’ve only been a long overdue late-90s sequel. While getting all of Duke 3D’s mechanics right in a modern game—something DNF most certainly did not—will go a long way to getting the franchise back on track, it won’t be enough.
I think mining the oldest source material for ideas is a good place to start. Coming from 2D sidescrollers instead of an FPS, these elements are easier to adapt without trying to be too faithful. For example, the flamethrower and laser gun from Duke 2 haven’t been done in any of Duke’s first-person outings. Tossing some robots into the now-standard rogues gallery of pig cops, Octabrains and alien troopers would add some much needed variety, and retooling a few of those classic Duke 2 tracks into heavy metal would finally give us more than just Grabbag to identify Duke by.
Step 2: Give us the real Duke Nukem Forever
One of the biggest issues with DNF is that the final game left a sizable amount of content on the cutting room floor. While this happens in many game development cycles (both Halo 1 and 2 changed a LOT during development), it seems as if 3D Realms scrapped a couple of solid alpha-builds of DNF and flushed most of the accompanying content down the toilet. Far from the raunchy, colorful adventure teased in early trailers and screenshots, the final product ironically feels very rushed, and lacking a distinct personality.
In DNF, the barest essentials of Duke 3D—the memorable enemies, the one-liners, most of the weapons—are haphazardly pasted onto a Half-Life and Modern Warfare-shaped skeleton, and none of those elements mesh well at all. In the process of constantly aping new games 3D Realms lost most of the fresh ideas they came up with for DNF. If they’d just left some of these concepts in we might’ve had a much more engaging game; none of these early ideas were particularly original, but at least they were more interesting than chunks of hastily pixel-shaded Duke paraphernalia crammed into a world where they didn’t fit.
For starters there were a few missing weapons and a couple of new enemies. At one point Duke’s pistol had a scope on it—a little more interesting than the showy but weak gold 1911 he has in the final game. Duke was also packing an automatic rifle draped in the stars and stripes; I suspect that both of these guns were eventually combined into the incredibly boring rail gun. Also lost along the way were a riot shield and a very Ash Williams-esque hand mounted chainsaw.
You could’ve used these weapons against mutated, tentacle-sprouting EDF soldiers, giant anthropomorphic ants with cloaking devices and at least a couple robots—something that looked like the Terminator, and a close relative of the ED-209 from Robocop. I have a feeling many of these new guns and enemies were scrapped as DNF shifted between engines and major iterations, as 3D Realms worked desperately to graphically update the most iconic elements of Duke 3D, from scratch, a second and third time.
One of the most intriguing early concepts was a character appropriately named Bombshell. A whip-wielding, leather jumpsuit-clad femme fatale, she looked every bit the action hero stereotype that Duke is. Some of the early trailers even show her fighting alongside Duke in the deserts outside Vegas; while Bombshell might have been eye candy to an extent, she clearly wasn’t a damsel in distress.
Hyper-sexualized or not, fetishized or not, a distaff counterpart who, in her own way is just as raunchy, provocative and irreverent as Duke would’ve balanced out the game’s mood considerably. Duke’s rampant, out-of-nowhere misogyny (more on that in part 2) gave portions of DNF a drastically ugly taste. Bombshell might have tempered this a bit by giving Duke a rival of sorts, or at least a companion to humble him a little. It might’ve worked like a ham-fisted take on the Batman-Catwoman dynamic; the King doesn’t necessarily need a queen, but someone to keep him on his toes would add a little depth to his character.
Sadly Bombshell vanished after the earliest 1998 trailer. In her place is Dylan, a Marcus Fenix ripoff with a grating personality stolen from every character ever portrayed by R. Lee Ermey. Every time Dylan showed up I wanted to quit playing DNF all the more—his character was so derivative, so obnoxiously generic that he was a reminder of everything else wrong with the game. Thankfully, Dylan bites the dust late in the game, prompting Duke to unambiguously quip "I guess he won't be in the sequel." It’d be nice if Gearbox killed Dylan off just so they could put Bombshell, or at least someone like her, in the next Duke game.
Another character lost in the shuffle was Gus the prospector, making his first appearance in the ‘98 trailer like Bombshell. Apparently he survived the transition into at least the second major phase of development, because he shows up at the very end of the 2001 trailer to tweak Duke’s nose, saying “you think those glasses make you look cool or something?”
I like the idea of Gus—a goofy comic relief character, probably a little crazy from living in the desert so long, but still old and experienced enough to see that a lot of Duke’s persona is hot air. Gus would’ve added some desperately needed humor and personality to the barren, essentially pointless monster truck desert section. Indeed, the Nevada desert levels originally had a lot of interesting content, including giant sand worms, donkeys you could ride around and an entire mine cart sequence. I tried searching for Gus and these other cool tidbits, but only found a very brief mine cart track and a handful of blandly identical ghost towns.
I’m sure most of this content is sitting on a server at Gearbox, bits and pieces in various stages of development. The good news is that a new Duke game could easily recycle a lot of it; the series isn’t exactly hard and fast on continuity, so the next Duke installment could be the DNF we never got. Unfortunately what Duke Next probably can’t (or won’t) do is reuse DNF’s Las Vegas setting. After so much waiting and a full game set in the city, Gearbox probably isn’t keen on doing another Duke game there. This is disappointing, considering just how much DNF didn’t do with its ticket to America’s playground. What we ended up getting was a tedious trek through Duke’s personal casino and a fleeting jaunt down a ravaged section of the strip; not exactly a no-holds-barred action tour of the Vegas or even Nevada landmarks, but of course this wasn’t always the case.
Once again the trailers tell the story. While the ’98 trailer mostly shows the desert sections, the 2001 trailer starts with a sweeping panoramic view of the strip from the top of Duke’s casino. We get a similar view from Duke’s penthouse in the final game but none of the accompanying gameplay. Early on in development the casino levels were much more involved—there are no traces of the clunky RC car sequence in the trailer, but aerial assaults from helicopters and shootouts in the corridors with tentacle mutants. Duke apparently would’ve ventured out onto the rain-streaked strip, racing up and down the highway on a motorcycle, dodging traffic and sniping enemies perched on billboards.
Instead of the short linear trip to the construction yard we have now, you could do a lot of exploring in Vegas, shooting up (and eventually demolishing) at least one other casino. I have a feeling that DNF’s strip club level, relegated to a jarringly out of place dream sequence in the final game, would’ve showed up in the far more detailed original Vegas levels. Beyond the strip were the desert and Hoover dam levels from the final game, but also an Area 51-style military base that included a missile launch and a possible escape in a Harrier jump jet. From there you could engage in a freeway chase with flying saucers and a jet-ski shootout with the alien mothership—a far cry from the static turret sequence early in the final game.
These trailers point to a much more open, detailed world reminiscent of Duke 3D, not the linear Half-Life ripoff we actually got. Even footage from relatively late in DNF’s development—circa 2006—looks more fun than the final product.
It’s really too bad that DNF ended up wasting the Las Vegas setting. Even though they lost their way and ended up squandering Duke’s Vegas by diluting it with so much stolen content, I can see why 3D Realms chose the city in the first place. Vegas is the perfect backdrop for a Duke adventure, handily providing plenty of amusing distractions, iconic locales and a snapshot of America that reflects Duke to the letter: brazen, hedonistic and excessively larger than life. Of course that leads us to the next step…
Step 3: Give us a world worthy of Duke
One persistent criticism of DNF was just how damn linear it was. It’s true that DNF practically felt like an on-rails affair, but what most critics forget is that a linear FPS isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some games, notably Half-Life, can pull off consistent linearity with aplomb because they give the player a healthy variety of new, interesting things to do. DNF got the linearity down but forgot about the variety. I think the main problem can once again be traced back to 3D Realms ripping off Half-Life top to bottom simply because it was a revolutionary FPS, not necessarily because anything Half-Life did was a good fit for Duke Nukem.
There’s a funny image floating around the web that jokingly contrasts FPS level design from the early 90s to how it is done today. On the left is a complex, painstakingly designed level from Doom (it’s E1M6: Central Processing for those keeping score), and on the right is an empty, occasionally swerving corridor broken up by cutscenes. Joking aside, I think this image is an apt analysis of DNF’s level design woes. Linearity works best for an FPS where there’s a strong overall story, where the developers are constantly pushing the player forward to see the next chapter in the narrative. In a classic action shooter like Doom or Duke 3D, the story is set dressing at best. Duke 3D’s world wasn’t a carefully orchestrated adventure yarn, constantly guiding you forward to the next thrill or plot twist. Duke 3D was a collection of immersive playgrounds that let you make your own story, in highly detailed fantasy versions of real world locales.
Think about it: you had Hollywood blocks, LA red light districts, a fast food joint, a Disney World parody and even a moon base to goof around in. Within these expansive sandboxes were dozens of interactive items and features you couldn’t find in other shooters, not to mention plenty of novel toys: pipe bombs, shrink rays, holograms, even jetpacks. Duke 3D was built in the days when developers dared players to break the world they’d created, and 3D Realms went farther than most with outrageous weapons and hidden areas that taunted “you aren’t supposed to be here.” Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkiens is right: Duke 3D really was far ahead of its time, one of the pioneers of emergent gameplay, and only now are shameless fun-fests like Saints Row, Garry’s Mod and Minecraft catching up.
I think it’s rather telling that DNF lacks the jetpack in its single player game. It’s emblematic of 3D Realms’ deluded need to tell a big, Half-Life-esque multi-chapter epic, spontaneous fun be damned, when such a story just isn’t Duke’s style at all. In the end we got the most paper-thin of plots hung sloppily around a framework of banal, interactivity-robbing scripted events, and possibly the most slapdash and tacked-on video game finale in recent memory. 3D Realms forgot that Duke doesn’t need much of a reason to do his thing, he just needs a good environment to be Duke in. Unfortunately that perfect setting—Vegas—got used up in DNF.
We might not get the thematically perfect Las Vegas setting again, but if Gearbox makes plot a distant secondary concern and instead focuses on raw, unscripted fun, then I think we can have another spiritual grown-ups’ playground like Duke 3D. The question is, where does Duke go next? He’s already been to New York, L.A., Hollywood, Vegas and the freakin moon.
In this one case, I think it’s fine to go with 3D Realms’ original vision: the tacked on, out of left field teaser they put on the end of DNF. If you haven’t made it to the end of the game (I don’t blame you), Duke apparently dies in action…then promptly calls it a “shit ending” and announces he’s running for 69th President of the United States.
Head-scratching aside, I actually think this direction works well. Longtime fans will remember a semi-official Duke 3D expansion called Duke it out in DC; this level pack introduced Build engine mockups of famous DC locations that were impressive for their time. Duke it out in DC had Duke rescuing Bill Clinton from the ubiquitous alien invaders, but it also proved that Duke Nukem mayhem can be just as fun in our nation’s capitol as it is in western cities.
As long as it doesn’t get too political, a new Duke game in DC that lets me defend America’s honor as Commander and Chief Nukem sounds like the perfect way to cleanse the palate of DNF’s disappointment. DC is just as recognizable a city as Vegas, and if done right this time, it could be as open and dynamic too. Imagine pitched shootouts as you chase the alien scum from the National Mall to the Smithsonian, Pentagon and of course, the White House, with plenty of self-aware interactivity and broad humor along the way. If any other developer were handling it I might be worried, but this is Gearbox we’re talking about. This is the studio that gave us Borderlands, an expansive, dryly humorous sandbox brimming with interaction and an absurd number of exotic weapons. I think they’re up to the task.
That’s all the in-depth Duke criticism for now, but stay tuned for part 2 of this editorial where we look at the nuts and bolts of the Duke series, and ask some tough questions about the ugly attitude Duke seems to have developed during his absence. Keep your shotguns loaded and your shades on, we’ll be back for more soon.