Duke Nukem Forever: A Monument to Our FPS Sins
For those who have played Duke Nukem Forever, its flaws are obvious. The muddy graphics and horrific loading times string along a collection of half-baked gameplay ideas. Even when the game is fun, much of its promise and potential is lost among misogynistic jokes that don't really fly today. Critically, DNF is average at best, but to call it an average experience is giving it too little credit.
3D Realms' 15-year failure is so famous because it always had genuine potential. A 2009 Wired Magazine article documents the story best. Each time the game showed its face, it was ahead of the curve. When shooters like Half-Life and Halo changed the FPS world, Duke Nukem Forever was right there showing off ideas that were just as fresh but more over-the-top and fun. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that those older Duke trailers were more influential to the rest of the shooter genre than actual games were.
At some point over this epic development timeline, that newness and vibrancy was lost. You can only work on one thing for so long before you start to lose control of it, and 15 years is just straight-jacket insane.
Still, the story as far as it's been reported goes like this: 3D Realms and George Broussard fought to put out a game that was ahead of the FPS innovation curve. When Half-Life did something cool, DNF had to do it too, but better.
When I played Duke Nukem Forever, I didn't feel like any of it was “but better”—but it was highly influenced by over a decade of changes in the shooter landscape. What I was playing was a shooter history lesson. It wasn't just a story of how one game went wrong, but also a predictor of the potential downfall of an entire genre.
DNF is at its best when you can run around shotgunning pig cops and exploring—when going down corridor A over corridor B rewards you with some silly diversion. In other words, they had the right idea with Duke Nukem 3D in 1996. That game served up timeless gameplay, whereas Forever offers on-rails turret sequences.
For every obviously scripted enemy wave, closed arena encounter, endlessly linear corridor, and corny sequence, I'm not thinking about how bad Duke Nukem Forever is, but how bad shooter design is becoming. DNF is the genre copycat, and its obvious mimicry reveals the smoke and mirrors design of games like Call of Duty and Gears of War.
Now don't get me wrong—I've been known to have a blast in a Modern Warfare or two, and I couldn't be more excited for Gears of War 3, but I'm becoming increasingly tired of playing the same gimmicky sequences again and again. The flash and spectacle go a long way, but it can't hold your attention forever.
Homefront was another game that, like Duke Nukem Forever, revealed the flaws of the modern shooter. The “Heartland” chapter in that game was particularly offensive. It pitted you in a stealth mission with your squad through an enemy-occupied farm. There wasn't any actual stealth, though. You simply followed your squad through a dull, scripted sequence. While that sequence is particularly lazy, plenty of shorter scripted moments in more successful shooters are equally devoid of gameplay depth.
Consider the Burger Town sequence in Modern Warfare 2. That was a wide open space where enemies were attacking from all angles, yet it still felt linear because you were forced to specific checkpoints before the next wave of enemies arrived. At the time, though, that sequence was incredible. Infinity Ward had figured out a way to top the bigger moments in their previous entry with even more spectacle.
The problem is that spectacle and flash are fleeting things. Yes, those explosions look great now, but what happens when they don't? One day the visual punch of Modern Warfare 2 will be as unimpressive as it is in Duke Nukem Forever and Homefront. Already, Call of Duty isn't nearly as fun to replay as it is to experience for the first time, and yet more traditional shooters like Duke Nukem 3D, Doom, and even Halo are infinitely replayable today.
Even one of the ultimate classics of the genre, Half-Life 2, has started to show its age over the years. While it succeeds by riding mostly on quality gameplay, its scripted parts don't impress the way they once did.
Duke Nukem Forever spotlighted another issue with modern shooters and maybe games in general, and that's gameplay diversity. While it was cool to be shrunk down and do some miniature platforming or zip around in a tiny RC car, more often than not DNF's variety took time away from genuinely solid shooting mechanics. Gears of War 2 had a similar issue—its cover-based shooting was the top of its class, yet half the game was spent in vehicles or scripted turret sequences.
Rather than creating diversions or breaks from the action, developers should introduce gameplay variety through a range of options. Halo games, for example, are combat encounters from beginning to end, yet vehicles and turrets are tossed in as optional tools for the player to add some variety to the gameplay as they want it.
Duke Nukem Forever may see success in sales thanks to the name, but it's too late for critical accomplishment. Forever is a failure, but if it manages anything in this industry, I hope it's a warning to shooter designers about the dark path they are headed on.