In part 1 of How to Fix Duke Nukem, we examined the history behind both the Duke series and Duke Nukem Forever itself, how 3D Realms wasted a lot of that potential and content, and the places Duke could go next. However there is admittedly still a lot wrong with DNF and some open questions about how the series could drastically improve, so let’s roll up our sleeves and see what else needs fixing. On to…
Step 4: Guns, guns, guns!
DNF has the elements of a great game hiding right under the surface. Most of the raw material that made Duke 3D such a classic is all there—the guns, the bad guys, the music, the attitude. But it’s not simply having these things that matters: it’s how they’re organized. There are other games that have fallen into the same trap; Deus Ex Invisible War had the basic concept of its predecessor but almost none of the experience-defining complexity. Prince of Persia Warrior Within served up the same platforming mechanics that made Sands of Time groundbreaking, but the soul was replaced by banal angst and grit. In a twisted amalgam of those failures, DNF has Duke 3D’s brain and soul, but as warmed over, reanimated leftovers.
As I said, Gearbox’s Borderlands skills make them eminently capable of realizing a true Duke environment. But once they’ve built a compelling new world for Duke to live in, Gearbox needs to pop the hood on DNF and do some major tuning to the gameplay mechanics. As a shooter, the guns are a good place to start.
For a first person shooter, DNF had surprisingly little shooting in it. It was still a major part of the game but compared to the crazy shootouts from Duke 3D, or even the dull, grinding cover fights in today’s Call of Duty games, DNF just didn’t satisfy when it came to the guns. At first you could only carry two of them—quickly remedied with a patch—but even now the clumsily-applied, Halo-style limited arsenal just doesn’t work for a classic shooter like Duke Nukem. It was nice to have all the old favorites back but aside from the mostly intact shotgun, most of the guns lacked their visceral, satisfying punch and the new guns were utterly forgettable. A lot of this had to do with the shaky hit detection, buggy enemy behavior and the floaty, empty quality that plagued the shooting and combat, but the chop job 3D Realms did on the classic weapons was a big part of the problem too.
The chaingun cannon—strangely renamed “the ripper”—looks and works basically the same, but its classic punchy report has been replaced by a generic rattle, robbing the gun of its satisfying rock n’ roll quality. The Devastator dual rocket launcher has also lost its unique sound effect and its chunky, angular black shape has been scrapped in favor of a rounded, boring Doom 3-era styling. The redesigned shrink ray, sleek and white, looks like something that came out of Aperture Labs while the original gun was definitely of alien origin and used weird green brain-looking lumps for ammo.
The guns that haven’t had their designs screwed with still have had their ammo capacities drastically reduced. The ripper is the only gun that can carry just as much ammo as it did in Duke 3D, and most of the others are practically crippled by how little juice Duke can carry for them. The rocket launcher in particular—scaled back from 50 rockets to a paltry 5—means Duke is practically tethered to an ammo crate during boss battles. Duke can only stock 10 rounds for the shrink ray and the gun can’t even be reloaded from a reserve supply, making it feel more like a scripted event than a portable weapon. While the pipe bombs and laser mines are almost perfectly translated over, you can only carry four of each, severely liming the explosive mayhem you can get up to.
The newer weapons barely deserve mentioning, and are yet another feature of the game that feel rushed and tacked on. The alien laser cannon is clunky, slow and boring, the railgun seems to have been thrown in for multiplayer more than anything else, and the enforcer launcher is made redundant by the Devastator. It feels like 3D Realms scrapped several more interesting guns that they couldn’t finish or just couldn’t quite get to work, and instead tossed in these lame weapons just so they could say they’d added something new to Duke’s arsenal.
Particularly puzzling is Duke’s sidearm. Duke’s signature pistol ended up as a gold-plated M1911—definitely ostentatious and certifiably American, but the 1911, in my opinion, is a little too small and venerable for Duke. The 1911 is a powerful .45 caliber gun, but it’s also a stately, reliable veteran of two world wars—putting it in Duke’s hand almost seems like an insult to the weapon’s historic military legacy. This is Duke Nukem we’re talking about, and 3D Realm’s original pistol choice—a gold plated desert eagle¬—was much more appropriate for him. Stupidly big, highly impractical, expensive and grossly overpowered, the desert eagle is an embarrassingly tasteless monster of a handgun, and spent the majority of DNF’s protracted development as Duke’s weapon of choice. Duke has always been a mockery of American poor taste and consumer excess; giving him a gold deagle seals the deal so perfectly that I’m amazed 3D Realms switched to the 1911. Duke even used the golden eagle as his sidearm in Manhattan Project, and I’d like to see it return as his primary weapon.
As for the rest of the guns, fixing them should be easy. Just throw any semblance of realism or balance out the window. Gearbox could simply return the legacy weapons to their Duke 3D glory: a distinct, satisfying punch for each of them and huge piles of ammo to go with it. Take a page from Serious Sam and give Duke dual-wielded miniguns or something, or that hand-mounted chainsaw from those early screenshots. The tepid, scripted shootouts in DNF just didn’t scratch that shooter itch. I want a banquet of violence here, guys: a buffet of eclectic weapons to choose from, boot-to-face action, scifi B-movie variety and the satisfying, ludicrous gibs and gratuitous blood sprays that result.
Step 5: Tighten up the gameplay
Duke 3D had yawning lunar chasms and LA skyscrapers, and a jetpack that let you explore them. It had well-paced and implemented underwater sections, groundbreaking for the time, and SCUBA gear so you could search out every nook and secret in the depths. 3D Realms had one of the first game engines that let you do these kinds of things so they pushed it to its full potential. But none of these things mean jack if they aren’t distributed well within the world, if they don’t all work and play together to construct a seamless wavelength of fun. DNF has a lot of these elements simply for lip service, nostalgia; they are there because the fans would complain if they weren’t. This approach gave us the scarce, practically-scripted-event shrink ray, the ridiculous ammo limitations, the predictable enemy encounters, the endless corridor crawling and the excruciating underwater slog at the end of the game. A good old fashioned keycard hunt looks infinitely preferable in comparison.
One thing the next Duke game could really nail is the spontaneity of Duke 3D, particularly the enemies. Because the levels were so open and unbounded by tedious scripted events, bad guys would show up everywhere. They’d spawn in out of nowhere, fire off a few shots and teleport out again. 3D realms also placed them in amusing locations; you’d find pig cops dancing in a strip club, alien troopers watching porn in the back rooms of an adult bookstore, hell you’d even catch lizard foot soldiers on the crapper. They were everywhere living it up and Duke just happened to show up to set things right; it felt like the aliens had already conquered earth and were genuinely enjoying the spoils of war. DNF managed to update the enemy designs pretty well, but the actual encounters were short, simple and painfully predictable.
Duke 3D’s spontaneity also had a lot to do with the random interactive items and setpieces littered throughout the levels. There were little details and objects to play around with just lying around everywhere, making Duke 3D feel more like a fantasy world than a rote game. This random fun aspect became part of the game’s legacy, and was something the marketing team played up for DNF. The problem is that DNF’s long development and highly scripted, linear nature made the interactivity feel forced and poorly distributed in the final game. There were glimpses of this random fun in those early trailers but, as with just about everything else, the final product comes up short with the interactivity.
I have a feeling DNF’s interactive elements were much better distributed at some point during developing, but the multiple restarts made it harder and harder to construct a lovingly detailed world filled with goodies, distractions and secrets. Most of the interactive elements are disproportionately packed into two distinct parts of the final game—the opening trek through Duke’s casino, and the bizarre strip club hallucination. The strip club is particularly glaring and poorly implemented as a slow, pace-killing fetch-quest crammed with interactive elements that could be much better spaced out in the desolate second half of the game. Why is there a single, solitary cigar in the whole game when Duke is always toking on one in promotional media, and on the freaking pause menu? Why can’t he even smoke the humorously named cigarettes found throughout the game? Occasionally you’ll find a paper airplane here or a sexy calendar there, but there are huge, boring stretches with nothing to do—go watch a walkthrough of the interactive elements on Youtube and you’ll see.
I did like that playing with these interactive setpieces increased Duke’s “Ego Bar,” his recharging health. That’s a pretty cool idea—Duke gets more egotistical by screwing around in the environment—but like most everything else this mechanic feels broken and half-finished.
Duke’s newfound vulnerability was another serious issue and just didn’t jibe with his legendary swagger. Duke wasn’t ever as stout as the Doom Marine or even James Bond in GoldenEye, but he could at least take a decent amount of small arms fire and even a direct rocket hit without dying. Conversely, his newfound DNF habit of cowering behind cover until his health recharges is unbecoming of any 90’s era FPS hero, especially Duke. Mr. Nukem isn’t allowed to disparage any modern shooter star, even the wooden Master Chief, if he’s simultaneously copping gameplay mechanics from said shooter star.
Despite DNF’s blatant theft of the Chief’s recharging health, the game inexplicably still had traditional health pickups hiding in the corners—some of those lost, purposeless interactive elements. Occasionally you’ll find fully-functional soda and snack machines, complete with multiple smarmily-named flavors and accompanying Duke-belches, but these vending machines are otherwise worthless because of Duke’s only health, the recharging Ego bar. You get the feeling that drinking soda should increase Duke’s ego bar but it does absolutely nothing. Whatever happened to Duke powering up with Coca-Cola? You can’t get more American than that!
The solution is to use a 2-part health system like the original Halo. I like the idea that Duke’s “shield” is literally his ego—he’s so damn narcissistic that you have to shoot him a few times to wound his pride before you can actually injure his body. The Ego bar in DNF is the right idea but it isn’t used it well. Duke should have a layer of basic, non-regenerating health that you replenish with traditional power-ups—medkits, soda, food—much like Master Chief’s recharging shield, and the layer of non-recharging health he supplemented with biofoam health packs. On top of Duke’s basic health, his ego acts as a constantly recharging “shield” that protects him from incoming damage; so long as his self-image isn’t too crappy, Duke is ballsy enough to shake off bullets and even explosives. Letting Duke increase his Ego bar by messing around with the interactive world is a great idea and should be retained, so long as the interactivity is distributed better and has more variety.
Step 6: Duke needs a serious attitude adjustment.
Here’s a little known factoid: two of DNF’s dialogue writers were women.
Jumping off from this bit of trivia I’d like to state that I don’t think anyone involved with DNF’s development actively intended for parts of the game to get so hideous. 14 years is a damn long time and it’s very easy to get lost along the way, to the point where you’re pushing the boundary of taste just to do it and have forgotten how or why you were doing it in the first place. I don’t think DNF’s writers intentionally made parts of the game so needlessly offensive or that they have some ugly ulterior motive. I think it’s a simple case of burnout—they worked for too long trying to recreate what they thought the essence of Duke Nukem was, not what it really is. In the process they missed the point by a mile and got things horribly wrong.
Yes, Duke is a tool. If he existed in real life he’d deserve to be cold-cocked and taught some basic civility, but in his bizarre video game world he’s at least always been a hero. He might’ve started out as a self-serving Joe-shmoe but he eventually rose to the occasion as earth’s savior. Narcissistic? Sure. Brusque, muscle-headed and prone to use violence to solve every problem? Guilty as charged. Chauvinist to the point of exaggeration? Absolutely. But these are the things we love about Duke. He’s a caricature of 80s action heroes and the Reagan 80s culture itself. He’s nostalgia and guilty wish-fulfillment rolled into one obnoxious package for 80s kids like me and most of the current gaming generation.
Let’s be honest here: playing Duke Nukem games is a guilty pleasure. Video games let us vicariously experience things we’d never be able to, or never want to do, in the real world. Sometimes I want to save the universe as virtuous Commander Shepard, other times I want to build my own world in Minecraft. But sometimes I want to be the abrasive asshole that is Duke Nukem, the guy who blows stuff up and gives a big ol’ middle finger to the world. But you know what? There are limits to living a fantasy. For example, I’ve never wanted to be a monstrous, misogynistic pig. Even in a video game. And that’s what Duke is in DNF, and this time the exaggeration has been taken too far; not just in terms of good taste and parody, but to the point where the original Duke character doesn’t even exist anymore.
His actions are just too extreme, even for Duke; you actually start to hate the guy early on in DNF. It would be understandable, (if cliché) if Duke’s reaction was vengeful anger or concern that his two live-in girlfriends have been kidnapped, but I never really got that feeling. “Not my babes, not in my town!” Duke growls, as if the aliens simply made off with another piece of his property; he seems to equate the abducted women with his trashed casino and plundered beer. In fact he has a cavalier disregard for anyone and everyone else caught up in the catastrophe; Duke’s only issue with the alien invasion seems to be that it’s ruining his fun. It’s ironic that the developers try to portray Duke as the epitome of badass manliness when he really comes off as a spoiled, petulant man-child with a lot of guns.
Once in the alien hive, confronted with the parasitized babes, Duke has another unsavory reaction. He’s not mad or even smarmily determined to get back at the aliens—he’s cracking jokes. About the ugly situation right in front of him. He even makes a painfully unfunny crack as he watches the aliens hatch from his girlfriends, and shoots off dismissive comments as he “mercy kills” the other infested women. I wasn’t too disturbed by the situation itself—the alien parasite shtick has been stolen by dozens of video games since Alien came out in 1979—but it was Duke’s utterly callous reaction that bothered me.
It also seems completely out of left field—that single level feels like it came from a completely different game. To quote Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, it was “as jarring a shift of tone as you can get without splicing five minutes of The Human Centipede into the middle of Mallrats.” It’s also a far cry from Duke 3D. Yes, the aliens went around stealing women in the tradition of pulp 50s scifi movies, but it was always played for nostalgic laughs and Duke was at least cliché heroic about it. “This really pisses me off,” Duke would snarl when he happened upon cocooned babes, and you’d be severely punished by the game if you harmed any of the captured women.
This might upset Duke purists, but I think the only way to salvage Duke’s humor is to move on a bit. The whole “Mars needs women!” thing was funny back in the 90s but most younger gamers won’t get it and the joke is too easy to get horribly wrong, as we’ve seen. I’m not saying they should take Duke’s womanizing out of the equation, just throttle it back a bit and make it funnier, self-referential. Having so many women swooning over a repugnant jerk like Duke was hard to believe, even in the fantasy world of DNF; maybe in future games he should be a self-deluded ego maniac that nobody really likes, like Zapp Brannigan in Futurama. As for the rest of the humor, from now on Duke should stick with pop cultural references and abrasive irreverence.
The best humor from Duke 3D came from the corny old movies that Duke was always quoting, and the various other nerd culture references peppered throughout the game. DNF tried some of that, but it had a problem: the references weren’t so much about old movies as they were about internet humor, and thus so ancient by the time the game shipped that they just made people groan. Who was still laughing about Leroy Jenkins, or Christian Bale flipping out on set? That said I think this issue will be a uniquely DNF one; now that Gearbox is in charge, the jokes won’t be half a decade old when the game finally ships.
There’s also a huge opportunity for self-referencing humor here. The games that make me laugh the most are the ones that give gaming and gamers a well-deserved ribbing: Conker’s Bad Fur Day, House of the Dead Overkill, No More Heroes. Gamers take themselves too seriously as it is, and Duke could be a healthy antidote to some of the obnoxious self-righteousness out there.
A lot of critics complained that Duke Nukem was no longer relevant, and that Gearbox was chasing a figurative pink dragon by trying to resuscitate such a dated icon in a modern age; supposedly this is why DNF’s humor was stale at its best and disgusting at its worst. I think the critics were missing the point again. The problem isn’t that Duke Nukem is dated as a character, or an idea, or a style of gameplay or a sense of humor. Duke Nukem has ALWAYS been dated. His arrogant, chauvinistic attitude is dated, his one-liners are dated, the things he references and jokes about are all dated. THAT’S THE POINT. He’s a walking, talking, shooting joke on the chest-beating Reagan 80s. When I play Duke Nukem I may feel like a cocky badass, but I’m also laughing at myself—and the culture I grew up in—at the same time. Duke was special back in the 90s because while every other first person shooter was mimicking 80s action movies with a completely straight face, Duke was doing it with a smirk and a middle finger.
Army of Darkness, They Live, Robocop, Star Wars—these nerd culture sacred cows are not high art, and Duke Nukem was not ashamed to point that out. He let us laugh at him and ourselves and just have a great time doing it. This is exactly how Serious Sam picked up Duke’s mantle during that long 14 year drought: not by treating women like crap and being an insufferable asshole, but by making a lot of sharp tongue-in-cheek jabs at nerd culture, and delivering a flavor of classic FPS gameplay that hadn’t existed in years. Duke can be that guilty pleasure escape for a whole new generation of nerds, gamers and their cherished, rose-tinted idols: Halo, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Avatar. We just need to stop idolizing a Duke Nukem who never really existed, and learn to take ourselves a little less seriously.
Conclusion—Looking to the future
I know I’ve dished out a lot of hard talk in this article, most of it directed at DNF’s original developers, 3D Realms. I want to set the record straight—while I’m much happier now that the Duke Nukem franchise is under the ownership and guidance of Gearbox Software, I don’t think the 3D Realms guys are evil or deserving of endless criticism. Quite the opposite: while it might seem strange, I wouldn’t have anybody else doing the actual development of future Duke games. I’m very happy that they have their own internal studio, Triptych Games, working at Gearbox HQ.
These are supremely dedicated people who love the Duke series. Why else would they have stayed with one project for over a decade, a game that everyone else kept telling them was ultimately doomed? Even after their studio closed its doors and they were all laid off, DNF’s developers kept working on the game essentially out of their garages. These are the people you want building Duke’s future, the people who will stick with it through just about any adversity that is thrown in their way.
All they need is solid management, disciplined leadership that will stick to development milestones, enforce those painful content cuts and make all the other hard decisions that come with producing and shipping a video game. Gearbox is exactly that essential leadership. Randy Pitchford and his team have worked extensively on the Half Life series, they’ve shipped Borderlands and they’re working with the Aliens franchise. The partnership between Gearbox and Triptych is just what Duke needs, and the future really does look bright.
There’s good stuff on the way for Duke Nukem. Some leaked achievements on Steam hint at a major DLC release for DNF—it looks like some of that content that was cut from previous versions, including a few more classic guns and a boss battle with Dr. Proton. Maybe DNF can reach just a bit more of its potential through post-release DLC.
In addition, Randy Pitchford has said that Gearbox and Triptych are working on a new Duke game that will be announced soon. Rumors suggest that it’s actually Duke Begins, a series reboot that Gearbox was working on before they acquired DNF. Are Gearbox and Triptych bringing Duke’s formative 90s sidescrollers into the shooter realm, or are they working on something altogether different? There’s nothing concrete for now, but in any case Duke Nukem fans and gamers in general should be excited, not bitter and resentful. After 14 years in exile and a shaky return, the King is poised to take back his crown. Hail to the King, baby.