Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever

After 14 years, what's another couple of weeks to wait for my review of Duke Nukem Forever at I tried something a little different this time, writing as a credulous fanboy in an alternate universe in which DNF was released more or less on time. I think it's pretty funny, but I'm never the best judge of my own jokes.

As it turns out, I may not be the best judge of a game's quality, either, because I honestly thought Duke Nukem Forever was all right. It's not spectacular, it's definitely dated, and it displays some major lapses in judgment -- but, so help me, it's a lot of fun in places, too. Yet I've rarely seen such negative reviews for a major release. Maybe seeing the Metacritic scores before I played the game put me in a forgiving mood. But I'd definitely take this over a more technically competent but entirely soulless shooter like Killzone 3. Despite all its problems, it's got a spark.

Not that things started off all that well. I was prepared to hate it as much as anybody when, in the first few minutes of the game, I fumbled around with a white board, first scrawling a bunch of nonsense and then erasing the whole board, while all the while the soldiers around me talked about what a genius I was. Even though that was part of a quasi-dream sequence, in the game's reality, it still seemed clear that Duke was as exalted by others as he was in his own mind.

A little bit later, I managed to scratch out the word "Duke" in a book for a breathless fan, who didn't seem to notice that my handwriting looked like that of an illiterate child with palsy. Then, as I walked away from the fan and his father, I heard the dad remark, "I thought he'd be taller."

Finally, I thought. The biggest problem with the textual reality of Duke Nukem Forever is that everyone else seems to think Duke is as great as he does. That makes it hard to buy any claims that the character or the game is satirical. To see his bravado punctured, even a bit, was welcome. Then it rarely happened again. But my favorite parts of the game tended to be those which seemed aware that Duke was not an admirable character.

At a few separate points, Duke is shrunken to a tiny size, and still spouts tough-guy bullshit with a voice that sounds like he's been inhaling helium. This is legtimately funny, and also makes for some of the most fun parts to play. One standout scene was a platforming sequence through a kitchen, which worked as a spatial puzzle and also included some inspired twists, such as when Duke had to hop from one hamburger bun to the next in order to avoid being burned on a griddle. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but this struck me as inspired.

Actually, I know I'm easily impressed, because much of Duke's dudebro humor worked for me, too. Not all of it, but it turns out that I am the sort of cro-magnon who is legitimately entertained by seeing a button prompt labeled HUMILIATE. I laughed several times during Duke Nukem Forever. I laughed when it made reference to other games. (My favorites quips, in ascending order: "Power armor is for pussies!" while looking at Spartan gear; "I hate Valve puzzles!" while futzing around with steam pipes; "I was expecting a monkey!" after climbing a staircase and killing the pig that was throwing barrels at me the whole way up.) Most jokes miss the mark, but that's not a problem unique to this game.

(For what it's worth, though, I laughed more during the second chapter of Transformers: Dark of the Moon than during the entirety of Duke Nukem Forever.)

Duke Nukem Forever makes more sense, as a game and as a cautionary tale, when you realize that the whole thing is 3D Realms' attempt to make Half-Life. The point of Duke 3D was to take what worked about Doom and give it an attitude, and the point of Duke Forever is to do the same for Half-Life. Yes, it is more than a decade too late, and this isn't the only game that has failed to emulate Half-Life's potent blend of storytelling and encounter design. Playing Duke Nukem Forever, you can start to understand why Broussard and company were never able to finish. Their standards are evident in certain scenes, which makes their failure to meet those standards elsewhere even more glaring.

Oh well. I am still glad that this chapter of gaming history has been closed. If nothing else, maybe Duke Nukem Forever clears the decks for a better Duke in the future.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

inFamous 2

Above: Betty Draper's weaselly brother IS Cole McGrath.

My review of inFamous 2 is up at This is one of those games that makes me question reality, because I haven't read one bad word about it, and I could barely stand to play it. Remember when I talked about how great Outland felt in my hands? inFamous 2 is the opposite. Nothing about this game feels right to me.

I don't like the way Cole McGrath moves, not on the ground or in the air. I don't appreciate the way he clings to objects automatically. I don't understand why the crosshair seems a touch off from where my shots end up. I resent not being able to lock the camera on to bigger enemies, who are able to fire devastating ordinance at me as I stumble into walls, looking for a safe place to hide but inexplicably grabbing a window ledge instead. Playing inFamous 2 feels like having a long, drawn-out argument with my controller.

I would estimate that my inFamous 2 experience broke down like this:
  • 10% failing to run in a straight line
  • 20% climbing something I didn't mean to climb
  • 5% failing to to climb something I meant to climb
  • 10% not damaging the enemy in my crosshairs
  • 5% getting killed all of a sudden for no reason
  • 10% doing unfun story missions
  • 20% doing unfun side missions
  • 20% looking for blast shards
That last 20% was definitely compelling, and it kept me playing longer than I would have expected, given how much fun I wasn't having, which is why I mentioned it in the review. But I want to take a second to talk about the missions. They are terrible. They may bridge cutscenes, but they don't advance the story in and of themselves, and many fail to contain an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. One of the mission objectives was literally to run a couple of blocks. I hadn't even seen what I was supposed to see and suddenly the debriefing screen came up. Then several of the game's unlikable characters had a conversation while I went to get something to drink.

The side missions are even worse, because I felt a junkie-like compulsion to keep completing them. I don't even mean the major side missions, which are often superior to the story missions and which earn you a nice chunk of XP. I mean the little events that pop up frequently as you traverse the map, which affect your karma meter. I foiled so many damn muggings, each one consisting of two immobile bad guys standing next to one immobile victim, all three waiting for me to show up before they started doing anything. Maybe I'd have had more fun if I'd been playing as Evil Cole, and taken random opportunities to murder buskers (really!).

Worst of all, by far, is the -- wait for it -- user-generated content. I've seen some people mention the inclusion of "UGC" as a way to extend the game's lifespan indefinitely, which they say as though it is something desirable. Of course every user-created mission that I played was terrible. That's to be expected. What surprised me was that, in the several days following the launch of inFamous 2, all of the UGC that you could play was provided by Sucker Punch themselves, presumably to set an example. And even that was terrible!

Not terrible in the way that the rest of the game is terrible -- terrible in all new ways. One of these missions had a bug that made it impossible to finish. I thought I had done something wrong, so I played it again, carefully, and the same thing happened. Then a third time. Then I wondered what the hell I was doing with my life. Not playing inFamous 2 anymore, that's for sure.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Above: Out is in.

My review of Outland is up at I'm always late to the party with my reviews, since I rarely get advance copies, but in this case it seemed even later than usual. The version I played, on Xbox Live Arcade, has been out since April 27. But in this case, Sony's loss is my gain. Thanks to the PlayStation Network outage, Outland will be out next Tuesday for PSN -- which makes this review timely as hell. PSN owners, if you want the short version: thumbs up!

Blessedly, I don't have too much to add to what I said in the review. I just thought this game felt great in my hands. So if the levels seem sparsely populated at times, that's all the better because it is such a joy to move through the space. Then, when you hit the frequent difficulty spikes, you at least feel equipped to get past them with enough honest effort. It's not one of those games whose sole purpose is to keep tricking you into getting killed -- ahem, ahem.

It is a strange transition sometimes between the Metroidvania stuff and the bullet hell stuff, and while a lot of positive reviews of Outland have called them two great tastes that taste great together, I don't know if I'd go that far. It's more like two great tastes that taste great near each other. Only during the boss battles do the two modes of play really seem integrated, and even then the only exploration you're doing is probing for weaknesses. No matter. Both are expertly executed.

Sadly, I was not able to try the co-op modes, since no one on my friends list had the game, and playing with strangers gives me heart palpitations. Given how much I liked the single-player campaign, my feeling is that the multiplayer could only be a bonus. If co-op is inferior, well, then you've still got an awesome one-player game. And if it's terrific, all the better!

All right, let's all go back to reading 8,000 identical Tweets from an E3 press conference.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Why I'll play Duke Nukem Forever

On Twitter, Rich Clark linked to a Eurogamer interview with Randy Pitchford that is like catnip for people who enjoy reading between the lines. Pitchford makes several pronouncements, one of which is that the launch of Duke Nukem Forever is the most important event in the history of games, and another of which is that reviewers are going to give it unfairly low scores, because reviewers are petty. Beneath his bluster, which includes comparing DNF to Half-Life 2, he sounds like a man who knows that his game is in for a drubbing. If you watch the launch trailer, you can see why. It looks pretty bad.

Maybe DNF isn't bad. Maybe it's as great as Pitchford says it is. I haven't played it, so I have no idea. But I have heard a lot of people say they refuse to play the game. Mostly, they don't want to play a game that perpetuates a culture of misogyny, or to financially support a company that profits from that culture. This is valid. I would not try to talk anybody out of such an opinion. In my own mind, there could be a distinction between how good the game is, and how offensive its content might be, but that is likely thanks to my privileged position: even if I don't find the joke funny, I'm not the butt of it.

Still, I feel as though I am making an exception in this case. Were this a completely new IP, I probably would not play it based on what I know about it -- at least, I would not seek it out -- but I can't imagine not playing Duke Nukem Forever. Why?

The simple answer is legacy. Duke Nukem 3D was a seminal game. It's a part of my DNA, just as much as Contra, Mega Man 2, and Super Mario Bros. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Fifteen years on, it's easy to focus on what was crude about Duke 3D. Scat humor, gyrating strippers, dick jokes -- Duke 3D was as lowbrow as it gets. I was 14 when it came out, which put me smack in the middle of the target audience. I'd like to say that I enjoyed the game in spite of its excesses, but if I'm to be honest, I really did spend a disproportionate amount of my playtime giving dollar bills to strippers and peeing in urinals.

But adolescent content isn't the totality of Duke's legacy. You cannot minimize what Duke Nukem 3D accomplished for video games. Not only was it technologically advanced for its time, its gameplay philosophy was one that that some games still struggle with -- that the world should feel real. Light switches should work. Toilets should flush. Glass should break when you shoot it. Fifteen years later, we're still playing games where a rocket launcher doesn't even make a dent in the side of a building. Duke 3D had higher ambitions.

In a time when online play still meant connecting directly between two modems*, Duke 3D brought unprecedented depth to the multiplayer experience. When we played Duke, we leaped out of windows on jetpacks. We circled around each other through shortcuts. We shrank one another and set traps. This was far beyond the experience of Doom, in which we ran around some rooms real fast and shot at each other. As simple-minded as the story and the characters were, they inhabited a sophisticated game.

Duke 3D was a great game, and an important one. It also exemplified the culture that produced it. Similar to how a modern filmgoer can appreciate the craft and artistry of Birth of a Nation while cringing at its naked racism, a modern gamer should be able to accept Duke 3D on its own terms. When most gamers really were teenaged boys and 20-something men, and "extreme" was the buzzword, Duke Nukem captured the zeitgeist. More to the point: if you had skipped out on Duke 3D in its time, your reasoning may have been sound, but you would have missed out on some incredible new things.

Of course, we're not talking about a relic anymore. We're talking about a new game (albeit one that seems to have slipped through a wormhole from another place and time, like the Romulan ship appearing at the beginning of the Star Trek reboot), and it should be judged by 2011 standards. If Birth of a Nation were made today, nobody would give a shit about how great its cross-cutting is, and when Duke Nukem Forever comes out in a week and a half, nobody will care if it is competent in ways that every other contemporary FPS is competent. It has to be good for 2011, not for 1997 or 2001 or whenever else it was supposed to come out.

So I guess Pitchford does have a point. It is impossible for anyone steeped in gaming culture to ignore DNF's protracted development. When Chuck Klosterman reviewed the Guns 'n' Roses album Chinese Democracy, which followed a similar trajectory, he started it by saying:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?
Swap out three words in the first sentence and you could just as easily be talking about DNF. So what is the answer to Klosterman's last question? If Duke Nukem Forever is half as revolutionary for its time as Duke 3D was, then it will get terrific reviews regardless of content. If it is the perfected version of George Broussard's vision circa 1997, ignoring the intervening decade and a half of progress, then, sure, it probably won't get very good scores. Why should it be any other way?

Duke Nukem Forever may be an embarrassment. It may be the unlikeliest comeback story ever told in gaming. It probably is a bit of both. I won't know until I play it. And I have to know.

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