Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Duke Nukem Forever (Xbox 360) Review


It's always a difficult task to create a follow-up worthy of the pedigree the prior title acquired through its success, but what should matter most for the writers, directors, or developers of any work is creating a product that can still be considered solid.  Yet, the tumultuous development history of Duke Nukem Forever is representative of a company that was over-ambitious and in over their head.  George Broussard, head of 3D Realms, thought his studio could create a game that would not only surpass Duke Nukem 3D, but also every other major FPS title that was out at the time.  With such a lofty mindset, development of the game commenced in 1996.

Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations of the studio went on too long, and their ultimate game became an industry joke.  In 2009, 3D Realms filed for bankruptcy, putting the final nail in Forever's coffin, but not long after, Gearbox Software, which was co-founded by Randy Pitchford, a former staff member of 3D Realms, swept in and took control of the project, finally releasing the title in 2011.  Sadly, what they did save was a bizarre, Frankenstein monster of various concepts and mechanics stitched together by 3D Realms without any sort of coherence, resulting in a train wreck of a game.

In the years following Duke Nukem 3D, Duke Nukem has established himself as an international success.  He's opened a casino in Las Vegas called The Lady Killer, has expanded his chain of Duke Burger restaurants, opened a strip club, and when the game begins, he's scheduled to make an appearance on a late-night talk show.  The promise of appearing on national TV is cut short when the aliens from the last game appear and start to attack Vegas, and in the process, abduct women with the intent of using them as hosts for their species.  With the help of the Earth Defense Force (thankfully, not that one), he intends to stop them once again, but the President believes that he can straighten things out, and if Duke intervenes, the situation might just escalate even further.

Plodding, boring, and humorless; Duke Nukem Forever squanders any potential for an interesting plot by re-using the same set-up of Duke Nukem 3D and stretching it thin as much as possible.  The twists can be seen from a mile away, and they are made worse by the writing.  Featuring a plethora of outdated jokes and references to events and people such as the Olsen twins, Christian Bale's infamous verbal rant, and "Pork-chop sandwiches" from the re-dubbed G.I. Joe PSA's, the game thinks it's being funny by poking fun at such things, but it isn't.  The humor is juvenile, but not in a comedic way, and in certain circumstances, it can be hypocritical.  For example, after meeting up with a squad of EDF soldiers outside his casino, one of the men tells Duke that they have armor for him.  Said armor is Master Chief's get-up from the Halo series, and when he sees it, Duke says, "Power armor is for pussies."  It's mildly amusing, but when you consider that his health system functions the same as the one in Halo, the joke loses its impact tremendously.

In addition to those moments and loads of pitiful toilet and sexual humor, Duke Nukem has been turned from a fun spoof of '80's and '90's action heroes into a proverbial Rip Van Winkle, a man who lives in a modern world, yet acts like he still did in 1996.  It doesn't sound bad, but his core dialogue is comprised of nothing but quips, which he only says when the moment calls for it.  The result is that for much the people of this in-game world praise Duke, his silent nature would make you think otherwise.  Worst of all, his lack of involvement or any sort of emotional regard for what's going on is most prevalent in a rather controversial level.

For those unfamiliar, in the previous game, there were many hives with eggs strewn about and women held captive.  All it did was show why the aliens were abducting them, without being entirely explicit.  In Duke Nukem Forever, this idea has been taken to the extreme in a level that is a complete 720 from what has happened prior and later in regards to both tone and relevance to the plot.  It's serious and grim, with Duke coming across clusters of women implied to have been raped in addition to being used as hosts.  What's even worse is Duke Nukem's lack of empathy towards the whole thing.  He rarely utters a word, save for the occasional remark about how the aliens are maniacs for doing this as he mercy-kills them.  As such, Duke, the symbol of manliness and an icon of badassery, becomes an emotionless psychopath for this one part.

However, the biggest slap in the face of this whole ordeal is how in some areas, you can come across wall-boobs, you heard that right, that can be slapped, the first time of which increases Duke's health.  Worse, he will crack a joke every single time this is done.  In fact, the entire section is akin to taking five minutes of a torture scene from one of the Saw movies and inserting it halfway into an Adam Sandler flick the audience is watching.  There's bad taste, and there's being tasteless, within the span of one level that takes around thirty minutes to complete, it crosses both of those lines and turns an icon into an irredeemable jackass.

Much like the story and writing, the gameplay is outdated in every regard, as it's an awkward mash of modern, old-school, and novelty gameplay mechanics rolled into a half-baked experience.  First off, the good.  The ten-hour campaign is varied, featuring shooting, light-puzzle solving, platforming, and driving, so the experience isn't entirely formulaic.  While some elements leave a lot to be desired, other aspects, such as the platforming and driving, are decent and fun to partake in.  Another solid, albeit flawed concept, is Duke's health system; as mentioned before, it is regenerative, but the size of the health bar can be increased by interacting with the environment and doing things such as flipping light switches or winning a game of pool; sadly, this is where the positives end.

Combat, an area that Duke Nukem 3D excelled in, is clunky and soulless thanks to several poor design choices.  Instead of carrying an ever-increasing arsenal of guns, Duke can only wield two weapons at a time, but the selection is limited and generic, consisting of genre mainstays such as a pistol, shotgun, machine-gun, and explosive weaponry such as rocket launchers and pipe-bombs.  The player does occasionally wield an inventive weapon such as the freeze or shrink ray, but these opportunities are few and far between.  Not only that, but they also lack impact due to weak audio and pitiful visuals that make it hard to tell whether the bullets are making contact or not.

Like the firearms, the enemy roster is also limited in scope, featuring returning foes such as the pic-cops, octabrains, alien soldiers, and flying foes that shoot rockets.  Since all guns deal the same amount of damage, the aliens and other nasties do not have a weakness to certain weapons, unlike in the prior game.  The only time you'll have to consider saving a certain gun is in the boss fights, as they can only be damaged with explosives.  However, the erratic pacing of the campaign never properly balances time between fighting aliens and the other 75% of the game: interactivity.

This is a game enamored with such an idea, as there are large sections of the story in which the player wanders around the surroundings, be it the casino, a strip club, or the Hoover dam, until the next major area is reached.  In this time, you are encouraged to interact with what you see, which as explained earlier, increases Duke's overall health.  Yet, this destroys the flow of the campaign, especially in the first act, where for the first thirty minutes, save for the first introduction, all Duke does is walk, and walk, and walk.  The erratic nature continues throughout, but once you reach the Duke Burger level and subsequent desert stage, a proper sense of balance is achieved in these parts.  However, just when things seem like they're picking up, the experience derails again once the dam is reached.

Visually, Duke Nukem Forever clearly looks like a game that spent fifteen years in development, and that's not a good thing.  Textures are ugly and low-res, featuring frequent pop-in, multiple glitches, and a jittery framerate.  Not only that, but character models move and talk like old, malfunctioning animatronics, especially the strippers and their stiffly-animated dances, resulting in a sight that's both laughable and horrific.  Audio doesn't fare much better; guns sound weak and at time, music doesn't play when it should, resulting in an eerie silence during most sections of the game.  Voice-acting is equally terrible, and while Jon St. John is clearly giving his all, his performance is diluted by the poor writing and lame jokes.

Despite spending fifteen years languishing in development hell, Duke Nukem Forever feels like it was made in fifteen weeks due to its weak storytelling, gameplay, and design.  It's a game with an identity crisis, since it can't decide whether it wants to be a shooter or an interactive simulator, resulting in unnecessary stop-gaps throughout.  The game is terrible, but for those who have followed the game's problematic development, it's a fascinating work to dissect and analyze to see what went wrong.  For everyone else, it's best to bury the surviving copies next to E.T's remains.

Final Score: 2/10

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour (PS4) Review

Each year sees the release of many titles across various platforms and genres, and when the awards ceremonies happen later, a select few will be commended for their quality.  Sometimes, their impact affects people so much that the product is still remembered many years later.  In the '90's, Wolfenstein 3D and Doom encapsulated players with the idea of killing enemies in a first-person perspective, but Duke Nukem 3D, released in 1996, showed us that such an act could be both entertaining and funny.  As will all critically-acclaimed works, the game has received its share of ports over the years, but in 2016, developer/publisher Gearbox Software took the chance to honor its legacy via re-release filled with nostalgic extras and technical enhancements.

Taking place immediately after Duke Nukem II, the titular protagonist is returning to Earth after defeating the threat of the last game when his ship is shot down over Los Angeles.  He discovers that the city has taken over by alien invaders, who have been terrorizing the populace and abducting women with the intent of using them as hosts for their kind.  Thus, Duke Nukem sets out with the intent of eradicating the extraterrestrial threat and saving the ladies.  Over the course of the game's five episodes, his journey takes him though L.A. and the surrounding area, outer-space, and the likes of London, France, and Russia in the closing act.

Simplistic in set-up yet brimming with personality, Duke Nukem 3D compensates for its basic plot by featuring a fun protagonist and a highly irreverent tone.  Like B.J. Blaskowitz and the Doom-guy before him, Duke represents the player's inner fantasy of being an ultimate badass, but it's his voice and actions that help him stand out from the former two.  Prior to his creation, most video-game characters were silent and had to rely on their in-game gestures and animations to create personality, and while Duke certainly performs several memorable actions, his voice and vast array of one-liners are what help stand out from his ilk. 

He has simple goals and knows how to tear into the opposition, but he's also very sarcastic and immature.  When he's not referencing different '80's and 90's action movies, Duke is flashing the cash so strippers bare their breasts or defecating down the throats of giant aliens.  At the time, such actions caught the eye of the press, which led to controversy, and though the game can be risqué, the humor never crosses the line and becomes tasteless or worse, unfunny.  Considering his lines are often quoted by many to this day, Duke Nukem 3D succeeds where other games at the time such as Leisure Suit Larry failed by never going overboard with the comedy and sexual references.

Duke Nukem 3D's gameplay is representative of a time when shooting was a matter of being able to efficiently run-and-gun, mowing down enemies left and right, all the while making your way to the end of a stage and finding as many secrets as possible along the way.  Over the course of the game's five acts, gamers will shoot their way through a multitude of stages with a common goal: kill the enemies and fulfill the required tasks needed to continue onwards, be it find color-coded keycards or solve puzzles.  Levels are complex in design, and though some can be difficult to navigate, the remainder are easy to get a grasp of and determine where you're supposed to go.  However, those stages which are confusing and become tedious to complete often stick out like a sore thumb, since the action slows down to a crawl as the player fumbles around, trying to figure out where he/she is supposed to go.

On the other hand, combat is smooth yet has strategy to it.  Although it lacks the same precision that a mouse-and-keyboard combination offers, the controller set-up on the PlayStation 4 works well, allowing Duke to move around swiftly with the kinetic action of a pinball.  Both the aliens and weapon selection are varied; the firearms include a pistol, a shotgun, a heavy machine gun, and a rocket launcher, but there is also more inventive fare like a shrink ray, a freeze ray, and a rapid-fire missile launcher known as the Devastator.  Though each gun is useful, most bad-guys have a weakness against certain guns.  For example, flying octa-brains and pig-cops are more susceptible to the shotgun, but heavier foes and bosses will require the RPG or the rapid-fire Devastator to bring down.  Make no mistake, Duke Nukem 3D can be a challenging game, but by exploring your surroundings and uncovering secrets, this increases the chances of finding more ammunition for the bigger guns and useable power-ups to help Duke have an advantage over the opposition.

As stated earlier, this port celebrates the 20th anniversary of this heralded game via a few interesting bonuses.  There is, of course, a slight graphical enhancement to the visuals, as well as re-recorded voice work from Duke's voice actor, Jon St. John, more on that later.  Yet, the most interesting additions are the fifth chapter, titled "Alien World Order," and an option that enables audio commentary from those involved with the game, including Richard Gray, Alan Blum, and Randy Pitchford, who was a level designer on Duke Nukem 3D before he founded Gearbox Software.  The commentary is interesting, since it provides much insight into the development of this game, but the new act is slightly underwhelming.  Although it offers more fun combat, the chapter never takes full advantage of its set-up, as it rehashes enemy designs and bosses from the original game, without changing their look to match the respective locale.

Duke Nukem 3D's visual style has helped the game hold up reasonably well, graphically speaking.  It's never true 3D, rather, it's a hybrid of sprite-based objects and characters that are located on basic three-dimensional geometry, giving the illusion that it is truly 3D, although the end-game CG cinematics look very dated.  The audio is solid; guns sound meaty and the soundtrack, with its mixture of ambience and hard-rock compositions, fits the desired mood of each locale, but the standout is Duke Nukem.  Jon St. John does a brilliant job at bringing the character to life through his deep, growly voice and multitude of one-liners.  Of course, this is what the original dialogue is like, and though the remastered lines are well-done, they lack that same punch the old lines have, probably because of time having caught up to Jon St. John.

Even twenty years after its release, Duke Nukem 3D has aged, for the most part, relatively well.  Shooting is great and the levels, even when their confusing nature drags things out, are a treat to explore and find that which is hidden.  The extras are nice, but for returning players, it might be a hard sell since there is only one new chapter and the original add-ons, save for the Atomic expansion pack, are not included, but for others, this is a good way to get familiar with one of gaming's most manly heroes.

Final Score: 7/10

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Invasion of the Blog Update

With the beginning of May comes the eventual beginning of summer, and now that I'm out of school, it's time to spread my wings and have a little fun on this blog.  Similar to last year, one can expect a mixture of gaming, film, and anime reviews throughout the months of June, July, and August.  Additionally, I am currently laying out the plans for the next interview, and the plan is to have it primed and ready once August rolls around.  Who will get questioned remains a mystery, but the sky's the limit.

Also, for those who want the chance to meet me in person, you'll get that chance at this year's Southern Geekfest in Hattiesburg, followed by the Mississippi Comic-Con in Jackson.  Granted, I won't be hosting a panel, but going for the fun and thrills of a comic-convention.  If you manage to spot me, feel free to ask me those pondering questions like, "Why do you want to be a journalist?", "What are you reviewing next?", and most importantly, "What's your deal with ADV Films?"

On a more serious note, after two years of college at Jones County Junior College, I will be graduating tomorrow.  Looking back, I have to say that I have been very satisfied with how my time at college thus far has been turning out, especially in comparison to my high-school years.  I will be transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi, where I will continue my studies as a journalist major.  Although real-life has made it troublesome to get reviews out from time to time, I have done a fairly competent job at balancing education, martial arts, writing, and work, and going into the second half of this year.  Things should be fairly stable as far as I'm concerned.

That wraps it up for this update; as of this writing, the blog is coming close to 2,000 views, so I encourage those that read my work to support it by sharing it with others and spreading the word about what it is that I do.  I thank for God, family, friends, and other individuals for helping me get to where I am, and the plan is to just keep on trucking, and succeed with flying colors in all areas of my life.

Till next time, klaatu barata nikto.