Duke Nukem Forever Hands-On Preview [PAX 2011]

Getting my hands on the infamous Duke Nukem Forever, a game that started development during the last millennium, was a tough experience to interpret. Part of me felt like it was necessary to revere the game simply because it existed. Part of me wants to trash it because no game should ever take that long. So it is with all these thoughts in my mind that I approached the game.  Looking back on it now, Duke Nukem Forever is kind of like the McDonalds of video games – fun to play, but you might feel bad about yourself afterwards. What I mean is this; Duke Nukem Forever works very hard to recreate the feeling of the original Duke Nukem games, and in that capacity it is absolutely a success.

Duke Nukem is a macho man – in the story he’s a hero and an icon, having saved the world from giant aliens in the past – and Duke Nukem Forever sets itself apart from other shooters by cultivating that persona and getting the player to feel and connect with it.  It starts with his walk. Duke has an exaggerated swagger step that swings from side to side.  It feels odd at first, but when you approach an enemy that way, there’s definitely a powerful feeling that comes from lumbering around without any concern for cover. If subtle touches like that don’t seem convincing, then how about positive re-enforcement?  Literally every person Duke encounters tells him that he’s a badass.  If he’s a badass, then so am I, right?  Most people don’t need that much convincing before they accept their role as the coolest guy on the planet.

Duke Nukem Forever may hit you over the head with Duke’s persona but it draws you into the game with much more finesse.  To help players be Duke, rather than simply play as him, the game asks you to interact with the world in ways that show off who Duke Nukem really is outside of combat. For example, the demo opens with Duke taking a piss. The funny thing about it is that it’s not a movie.  The player controls the pee, pulling the trigger to release the stream. Before you ask, there isn’t a minigame – you can immediately stop peeing, or continue for as long you like. This is just one of many flourishes in the game that encourage players to revel in the game’s particular brand of escapism.

Unfortunately, while those little interactive tidbits definitely help players get into the sprit of the game, playing parts of Duke Nukem Forever exposed the game’s age very quickly.  Remember the giant alien monster I mentioned earlier? Well you fight him in the demo. The boss fight was extremely reminiscent of old shooters like the Duke Nukem series or Doom.

The game had me strafing around my opponent in big circles, shooting rockets at it until it died. While the fight resonates with my nostalgia for those old games, the reality is that we’ve come a long way since then. Even the most standard boss fights in 2011 have multiple forms or a trap to set off. In an FPS field populated by Halo and Battlefield, I think it’s fair to say that most players want to think more than that. Then again, the one rule in Duke Nukem Forever seems to be “Do it like Duke,” and Duke definitely wouldn’t use cover – he would blow stuff up. Period.

Overall, Duke Nukem Forever is a solid title that fans of the series will surely appreciate. Parts of the game may feel outdated, but at its heart, it knows exactly what it is and never tries to pretend to be something its not. I was mostly impressed with what I saw and I’ll definitely be taking this one for a spin. Be sure to pick it up when it hits store shelves on May 3rd!