The game that came in from the cold: Thoughts about ‘Duke Nukem Forever’.

1997 . It was this year that Princess Diana was killed, James Cameron released Titanic and recent internet laughing stock Rebecca Black was born. It was April that year when 3D Realms announced a follow up to their hit Duke Nukem 3D, a game titled Duke Nukem Forever. It was predicted the game would come out in time for Christmas 1998  and in May of ’98 the game was shown off at Video Game convention E3. The game was built using the Quake II engine, which at the time was the most cutting edge game engine available….at least until a few months later when the Unreal engine was released. Despite showing off the game to journalists and proclaiming their delight with how the game was going, 3D Realms made the sudden announcement that they would be switching to the Unreal engine, effectively starting the game again from scratch.

Then, 14 years later, the game was released.

Like The Beach Boys’ Smile or Guns ‘N Roses Chinese Democracy, DNF (As it hereby shall be known) become something of a myth, a concept that would be largely forgotten about until someone would give an interview and happen to mention that they’re still working on it. Occasionally they would release images from the game, proof that behind closed doors they were working hard to finally achieve…something. There were some hiccups along the way, least of all was the complete shutdown of production back in 2009, finally ending the long cycle of development that started back when PC’s were still running Windows ’95.

I could talk at length about the development of the game, and the rampaging ego that kept production going long after it should’ve been shelved, but I will instead point you to this excellent piece by Wired, which will tell you everything you need to know.

So how is the game? Well it’s like a game that someone started making in 1997 and didn’t finish. Not to be flippant about it of course, but it the game is as every bit disjointed and unpolished as you would expect it to be. It’s also dated, incredibly dated in fact.

There’s a time capsule element to playing this game. You can see sections that were slowly phased out of games over time but remain here, a sign of when it was made. You can also spot the influences that newer games (At the time) had on the development of the title. I’m sure had the game come out when it was supposed to (Realistically about 5 years ago) then it could be argued what it was doing was still fresh but instead it was constantly playing catch-up. It was never innovating, it was always just replicating. It’s amusing saying it now in the light of that Wired article but the game could’ve done with another 6 months of polishing. There are parts of the game that look downright ugly, and some parts that play just as poorly too. Unusually, it’s also a dark, dank, game. This should be a vibrant colourful world, but it never comes across as anything more than seedy. Though I think it’s a fair point to say that if they couldn’t get it right in 14 years they’re not going to make it any better in 6 months.

There’s also a flippant, misogynistic streak that runs through the game that’s just unpleasant to view in 2011. Back in 1997 I don’t think anyone would’ve batted an eye, in fact some moments from DNF directly replicate moments from DN3D. Thankfully we’ve moved on since then, and while the idea that alien rape could be laughed off originally (We were all sick, juvenile kids then), that same presence here is distinctly off putting. I suppose we partly have technology to thank for that. It’s hard to really care about poorly drawn sprites on a screen compared to what we can do now. It seems as if 3D Realms tried hard to keep up with technology, but left everything else to one side. Did anyone honestly think that moments after a rape scene there was something funny about slapping a large pair of alien breasts and saying “Got Milk?” Over 14 years of development no one stopped to say “Really guys? This is still ok?” The defenders of the game will tell you that this is Duke, this has always been Duke so why the surprise? It’s a fair point to make I think, and I don’t believe that anyone else was really expecting anything different. But it does lead into my next point.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I like my jokes dirty. My biggest issue when it comes to DNF is the laziness of it all. Again Duke does what he’s always done, demean women and spout movie quotes. Except we’ve seen it all before. Watch any episode of Family Guy to see the same thing, or any of the _____ Movie series. Quoting something isn’t funny, there’s no joke to be had there. All you’ve done is show that you’ve watched Robocop or They Live a few too many times. It would help if the game comments on this, but it never does (There’s a distinctly average game from few years back called Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard that does just this. It mercilessly mocks the catchphrase spouting hero in a very meta way…and is about the only thing that game does well). The Duke of DNF is something to be celebrated, and almost everyone you meet in the game does just that. It’s as if they live in a world even dumber than the one in Idiocracy.

Duke, effectively, is like that one guy you knew growing up who seemed like the coolest cat in the world. He smoked, he drank, he fucked. He told you wild stories about the girls he knew. But then you grow up and you see that guy again after 14 years and he never changed. The stories are the same, the jokes are no different and you just smile politely waiting for him to go away. Then the years pass and you wonder what happened to him, only to find he hanged himself with his own belt.

Poor Duke. Never innovating, always replicating.

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