When I got the First Access Club email that I had been granted access to the Duke Nukem Forever demo a few days back I was ecstatic. Finally, after so many years Duke would come back to life on my PC monitor and take me on an insanely awesome alien ass kicking adventure. It wasn’t an extensive demo by any means. The first level was the playable version of the very first public demo we saw back at PAX 2010 and Firstlook in Amsterdam. The second level featured some monster truck action and then a canyon-like level with a mine of some sort. Overall, not too large of a demo but one which could be completed in 20 minutes. I spent an hour and a half playing through the demo in all three difficulties offered and searching through every nook and cranny in those levels to make sure I didn’t leave an inch of pixels unexamined. I was left wanting more, and not in a good way.
For being a 3D game, it as very 2D. The level design was very flat and linear with barely any room for the player to improvise or choose a different path to reaching a goal. You had no choices when it came to progressing throughout a level. It’s as if a level designer drew some squiggly line on a screen to portray a path and the artists just filled the area around it with eye candy that was irrelevant.
This was most prevalent in the monster truck level where your biggest challenge was to make sure you stayed on the road. There weren’t any different paths you can take, no creative jumps, no ways to avoid the spaceships dropping monsters in front of you. The canyon level following the monster truck run is designed with a very open feel to it, but the path of progressing is very limited. Your goal is to get to the other side of a canyon in the middle of a map. You are presented with a broken wooden bridge, a mine railway, and a path along the canyon. Instead of being able to choose which of these three you want to pursue in order to get across you are forced to take the canyon path. The mine railway is blocked off by a wooden fence which for some reason is invulnerable to gunfire or explosions (yet a few minutes later in the level you can melee or shoot off some similar wooden planks from a mineshaft entrance to gain access) and the other end of the broken bridge is purposely aligned higher than the part you’re on, so jumping leads to a fatal fall.
I couldn’t help but think of the very first level in Duke Nukem 3D and how I could enter the main building either by taking the regular path around the back entrance or by blasting my way through a wall under the marquee. That basic creativity and the option of having a choice was disturbingly absent from the Duke Nukem Forever demo. I’m not really counting the first level in the demo because that’s more or less a game-within-a-game situation so it’s excusable to a degree. However I was not happy with having a wall explode in front of me with alien baddies firing away and me being forced to run back into a hallway instead of go forward, guns blazing, Duke Nukem style. Again, the whole pre-determined paths of progression were a major turn-off with the demo.
The controls were typical FPS controls and there weren’t any inconsistencies or surprises with the way the game played. If you are expecting to carry a full range of weapons, think again. Unlike old-school Duke where you could switch between an RPG and a shotgun in between chaingun rounds, you are only limited to two guns and a handful of pipe bombs. I guess Duke is being given a reality check. However I did get a kick out of those Duke Nukem one-liners. A lot of pig and pork jokes are heard when you’re blasting away through swine enemies. The Dukeisms will definitely put a smile on your face, but I’m not sure I want to pay $50 for a bunch of catchphrases.
The bosses on the other hand were a varied experience. The cyclops boss in the first demo level was a complete and utter joke. If you know how to strafe in a circle while keeping your crosshairs aimed and the fire button pressed, then you know how to beat this boss. It was almost pathetic having to go up against this alien, but again, it was a game-within-a-game scenario, so I’m going to let this slide. The boss in the canyon level was a spaceship and was a bit more challenging. The second you had a line of sight with the ship you were fired at and hit. I’ve never seen a spaceship be so agile and nimble, especially when you’re hiding inside a cabin of a crashed shuttle. Psychic AI aside, the ship stayed in one spot the entire time. You’re in a a friggin canyon hiding inside a cabin that is open on two ends, yet this ship can only hover in one spot and hit you with deadly aim regardless what side you come out of? Come on Gearbox, a little bit of effort would have been nice. Hell, I would’ve even appreciated it if the ship was set to fly around the shuttle cabin in a circle. Even the most basic and stupidest of movements would have been a worthy effort than a ship that just hovered in one spot.
I’m not sure if the rest of Duke Nukem Forever will be like this or not. I honestly hope that these demo levels are limited because they are demo levels. Otherwise Duke is in trouble, big trouble. For a first person shooter coming out in the second decade of the new millennium it most certainly has a past-millennium gameplay mechanic to it. I have a feeling that Gearbox rushed this out. I know that’s such a bizarre thing to say about a game that’s been in development for longer than some of this site’s readers have been alive for, but that’s honestly how it feels. Was Gearbox in that big of a rush to pump out a game for the sake of saying, “look, it’s finally complete”? If Duke fans were able to wait 14 years for this game, I can bet some serious cash that they would have waited an extra year or even two extra years in order to receive a game that actually has depth and is a worthy successor to the Duke Nukem legacy, and a worthy crusher of the jokes and naysayers the title has accumulated for over a dozen years. If you’re a die-hard Duke Nukem fan, I guess you should get it. For everyone else, you’re better off just waiting for a Steam deal that will slash the price to under $30 or just wait and get it at the Best Buy or Gamestop bargain bin for under $20.