Before my most recent session with Duke Nukem Forever, I had plenty of questions. Even having previously played through the PAX demo, I had questions. Superficially, I knew this game was Duke Nukem. It had balls-out action. It had one-liners. It had all the iconic weaponry. But as a fan of Duke Nukem 3D since its original 1996 release, I needed to know more.
How Duke Nukem would the full game feel? And how Duke Nukem could it get away with feeling, after thirteen years and countless developments in the FPS genre? Would Duke Nukem Forever be a legitimate and worthwhile sequel to Duke 3D, or just another FPS with the name tacked on? Having fine-toothed the game’s opening couple of hours with my fanboy comb, I now feel like it’s the former, 100%. Here’s what you need to know.
The level design is pure old-school creativity
This is the biggie. Whatever his reputation as a ‘roid-raging, blood-lusting sex-pest, Duke Nukem is a hero with brains. The fact that he can fill them with so much porn and booze and still save the world repeatedly is testament to their size.
Above: Remember when this was all new and exciting? It is again, but maybe even better
Duke Nukem 3D was far from a dumbass shooter. It was a pioneering title that progressed the cause of explorable, cerebrally-challenging environments and interactivity within FPS worlds. Basically, it did a lot of the things Half-Life got credit for before Half-Life even did them. But hey, it’s always as much about what you look like as what you do, and a bespectacled theoretical physicist is always going to get more brain kudos than a bleach-blonde muscle man.
Anyway, the point is Duke 3D’s level design was a splendid mix of ballsy, up-close shooting and brainy, head-scratching environmental navigation. Few FPS in recent years (Valve notwithstanding) have continued in that vein, preferring a hand-holding approach of “walk forward to next cut-scene while pulling trigger, press X to win upon arrival”. Yeah, CoD, I’m looking at you.
Duke Forever, by contrast, feels like a revelation. It throws environmental conundrums at you like a double-speed highlights reel of Grand Designs. Even simple physics problems like manipulating a busted pipe as a seesaw to reach higher ground are like a breath of fresh air, albeit one recirculated through the air-con from 13 years ago.
Above: Poker chips = Tiny-Duke staircase. Obviously
Later on you’ll find yourself in Duke’s self-aggrandising museum to his own greatness. You need to reach a balcony above, but there’s no obvious route. Then you spot a huge diorama, depicting a statue of the king looming Godzilla-style among some model skyscrapers. Then you notice that the diorama has controls. A bit of experimentation will raise and lower buildings, and a bit more with rotate the statue. Eventually you’ll have a make-shift staircase with which you can reach the statue’s arms, and from there you can jump up to its head and leap off to the next floor.
Later still, you’ll have a little run-in with a shrink ray, which will lead to a Toy Story-style race around in an RC car. Eventually you’ll hit a partially open fire shutter that’s closed too low to the ground to drive under. The solution? Get out, crawl your tiny self under the gap, then use the furniture and décor in the next room as a platforming jungle gym to reach a door switch the equivalent of 50 feet above you.
This is the world of Duke Nukem 3D, truly evolved
It’s amazing how intensively 3D Realms and Gearbox have fleshed out Duke’s universe. This is unmistakenly the skewed, cartoon version of our own world we saw glimpses of in Duke Nukem 3D, but it’s so much more expansive and realised than we’d ever imagined it before. Again there’s a Half-Life reference to be made, as the jump feels really rather similar to that from the the first game’s Black Mesa facility to the wider world of Half-Life 2’s City 17.
Suddenly we know exactly who Duke is and how he fits into the world around him. When the aliens return, we get to use his direct video link to the President and the heads of the military (they warn him to stay out of what they hope will be peace talks, but he doesn’t listen). TV news reports detail the invasion live as it happens, referencing nearby locations like a local Duke Burger franchise. It’s a heady brew of world-building, story-telling and satire, with more than a twang of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! about it.
Above: The pigs are back. And this time they're way more organised
And then there’s the gap-filling, which is an absolute treat for long-time fans. Following his 1996 exploits, Duke is now a millionaire celebrity, living it large in the penthouse of his own Las Vegas casino. The walls are littered with blown-up publicity shots of his manly achievements since then. Duke taming a shark. Duke hunting lions. Duke with award statues. There’s even a poster for “Hail to the King: The Musical”, which you can see a real-life version of here.
And that’s to say nothing of the references to his past heroism. The events of Duke Nukem 3D are now a landmark of world history. Statues and memorabilia litter the walls of Duke’s hotel as screaming fans queue outside and invitations for TV appearances continue to come in (the Johnny O' Lenoman show, anyone?). And in a really sweet moment, when you finally get your hands on Duke’s iconic lever-loading shotgun, it’s the Duke 3D original, obtained by smashing its glass display case in Duke's trophy room. Oh, and going by another poster I spotted, the “Bleach Blonde Biker Bimbos” movies are still big news.
And speaking of the world of Duke Nukem 3D...