PAX East 2011: Duke Nukem Forever Hands-On

As I mentioned in my PAX East 2011: Day 3 Recap And Final Thoughts article, I had some time to play Duke Nukem Forever.  While I touched on a few aspects of the game, I wanted to go into a bit more detail about my experience, the two levels, and other thoughts.  There will be spoilers in this article, so if you do not want to see detailed information about the game, please stop reading now.

For those that have remained, let’s jump right in with the two playable levels I demoed.  The first level starts with you facing a urinal, and allows you to spray the porcelain a little bit before letting you back away and move along the level.  You’ll quickly notice several items are interactive as you work your way through a sports arena’s locker room. Armed only with your fists at first, you will make your way to the center of the locker room, as sounds of distress echo around you.  Troops in the area seem to be impressed to be near you, and as you approach the whiteboard that one of the captains is standing by, you’ll see that their gameplan for stopping whatever is besieging them could use some tweaking.  So you can use the whiteboard, and add your own strategy, erase what’s there, and basically just pretend you’re drawing in MS Paint (I found my skills were just as awful in game as in real life; realism in Duke Nukem!) This theme of interacting with the world was what made Duke Nukem special to me, so I’m glad to see it carried over.  You’ll spend the next few minutes running through corridors in the arena, avoiding combat as you get funneled to various areas and watch the troops get slapped around by some unseen alien forces with laser weapons.  Eventually you will find your way to an elevator that houses an RPG.  As you ride up the escalator, you let off a few traditional Duke quips, before being deposited on a football field, with a huge boss-alien that decides to take offense to your existence.  The battle that ensues involves a lot of rockets.  You’ll ultimately need to find ammo in the form of airdropped resupplies, but it isn’t immediately obvious where exactly that is; you’ll need to check the corners of the endzones to find the flare markers indicating your refills.  After a few rounds of rocket volleys, you’ll eventually drop the giant beast.  You’re not quite done with the battle though.  You’ll need to approach the creature from behind, and perform a quicktime event to execute the creature (I’d say it takes after Splatterhouse here, but we all know this scene was probably created 8 years ago).  So you saved the world, congratulations. You’re off to find out what is up with these aliens, right?

Not quite.  You see the Duke Nukem Forever logo splash on the screen, as the camera pans back to reveal a TV on a wall.  It becomes obvious that you were actually playing a game within a game, and you get a glimpse at Duke’s living room; a rather posh looking place with all the amenities you’d expect the King to have.  This is punctuated by not one, but two heads popping up at the bottom of your screen, as a pair of blondes wipe their mouths and admire your, ah, gameplay.  And with THAT, the first level of Duke Nukem concludes.  An appropriately epic start to a long overdue game.

This opening level was the perfect setup for Duke Nukem Forever.  Never mind the tutorial-like running around you do to get a feel for the controls, the game’s attitude and level of detail are also front and center from the word go.  This serves a dual purpose: it let’s Duke fans get their kicks with familiar feeling actions while letting new Duke Nukem players know that this game is about one thing: Fun.  It’s not a game to be taken seriously, nor is it a game that takes itself seriously.  In a sense, it throws the fourth wall out the window with things like commentary about how long Duke has been waiting for his moment (“12 fucking years”), and other nods to previous and current glory.  It leads to the tongue-in-cheek experience that the game was once known for, and feels over-the-top without being out of control.  It’s also worth mentioning that for all the talk about how dated the game looked and felt, I didn’t think it was any worse than most of the current gen games that are out right now.  I certainly don’t think it looks bad by any means, and while you won’t confuse it with Gears of War 3, you will still have plenty of eye candy to enjoy.

The second level of the demo, unfortunately, is not nearly as crisp and clean as the first.  Granted, it’s much larger, but playing through the various elements, you can start to see the various layers of development that likely saw many iterations over the years.  The first focus of the level is your vehicle, and while riding around you dodge boulders and plow over pig-like creatures.  This lasts up until your vehicle inexplicably runs out of gas, which then becomes the next focus of your mission.  You’ll be asked to ignore the fact that you’ll pass by buildings that hold gasoline containers (which the game wants you to shoot to blow those buildings up), you will instead need to get your gas from a cave.  There are frame rate issues that start popping up during the vehicular section that re-emerge from time to time later on (particularly when trying to pull off sniper shots; a slight jitter is all it takes to go from pulling off a headshot to hitting a rock where the creature once was).  It wasn’t constant, but it was noticeable.  Frame-rate issues aside, the level is in a desert and a cave, so you’ll have 2 bland environments to go through.  Fortunately, there’s enough action to keep you from starting at the scenery, and it’s with this level that you’ll see how nicely the enemy will dismember as you take pot shots at various limbs.  Heads, arms and legs will be strewn about with reckless abandon, and the visuals here are quite gratifying.  You’ll also encounter your second big battle, this time with a large ship that will pummel you with laser fire while you try to take it down with rockets.  Once again, the reloads for these rockets is not immediately apparent: you need to open a container that is near a downed aircraft to find more ammo.  While I don’t mind a game that doesn’t hold your hand throughout the experience, this container did not stand out at all, and I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not gotten caught on top of it while trying to jump to avoid laser fire (it should be mentioned that this level, while the second in the demo, is actually much later in the game, so it’s likely that this convention of a crate of ammo is made clear in an earlier level not included in the demo, and therefore may be obvious to a player going through the levels normally).  Once you dispatch of the ship, you’ll end up in some mines for some forgettable platforming that involves pushing mine carts into position so that you can then ride them.  You’ll be introduced to some bug like creatures, but ultimately you’ll suffer through some sections of puzzle-like platforms that will test your patience as you jump from one set of scaffolding to another.  Again, no hand-holding, so expect to take some time analyzing the area to figure out your path.  You’ll eventually find a refill of gas, get back to your vehicle, and drive off to the end of the demo.

While the second level in the demo left a little to be desired (especially if you check out the trailer, which shows some far more interesting locales), I imagine that most of the other levels probably have material that would have been difficult to display on monitors that could be viewed by anyone standing around at Pax.  Speaking to some of the people that are the driving force behind getting this game out, it was made clear that this game was not about breaking the barriers of what is possible in gaming, stating that this game was about having fun (and “setting a new standard for pissing in a video game.”)  They almost came off as apologetic, but after playing through the game, I felt even more amped up about getting my hands on this than before.  Duke Nukem Forever has the balls to throw the middle finger up at the politically correct crowd that surrounds it, and in doing so feels refreshingly retro while maintaining a modern polish that gamers today will demand.  I had fun playing through the demo, and while it wasn’t perfect, it didn’t have to be.  There’s something to be said for playing a game that becomes something of a guilty pleasure; Duke Nukem Forever hits on those pressure points that other games shy away from.  Nostalgia would have only carried this game so far, so I’m glad to see that it is both technically capable, and fun to play.  This was one of the premiere games at Pax East 2011, and is one you should be keeping a close eye on as the May 3rd release date comes up.  Don’t base your opinion of this game on reviews (even mine); you must play this yourself to decide whether it’s for you.  It certainly has the makings to be greater than the sum of its parts, and considering its parts have been in the works for over 12 years, that’s saying something.

Duke Nukem Forever will be available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC, and is rated M for Mature.

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  • i am so looking forward to Duke returning but had to stop after the first paragraph 🙂

  • Daniel Horowitz (HavenDan)

    Is this the same build Gearbox has been toting around for a while?

    If so I did a preview on it a while ago back in October.

    But I think you did a much more comprehensive job. Great article!

  • Mark, the last paragraph is spoiler free as well if you were interested in my final thoughts 😉

    Daniel – thank you; I read through your article, and it seems that the two demos were identical. What I can’t say is whether this was a later build that perhaps improved on graphics or mechanics. Your details fill in the holes in mine nicely (gun types, enemy names, etc).

    Thanks for sharing your preview as well.. I see good things for this game in the future.. I just pray they price it right.