Gaming | Film | TV
Gaming | Film | TV

Duke Nukem: Can he rule again?

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From an industry icon to a sad joke, Duke Nukem has left his size-13 bootprints on both sides of the “cool” spectrum  

Something strange is happening to gaming’s washed-up bad-boy, Duke Nukem. Lawsuits and accusations are being thrown around like pipe-bombs between the camps of Gearbox Software- current owners of the Duke Nukem IP and 3D Realms- the original creators. Squabbles over who now owns the IP, or at least certain games in the property, have brought development on the latest game in the series to a screeching halt. There is much to be said about the lawsuits alone, but what I want to put into words is the confused and fractured feelings of one fan who desperately wants to believe that Duke Nukem can be redeemed.

While many gamers were rocket-jumping through Quake’s dank corridors, I was exploring every inch of Duke Nukem 3D’s interactive and recognisable world. Quake may have had a fancy 3D engine and Nine Inch Nails, but Duke had a voice, an attitude, and environments that felt real. As the years flew by waiting for Duke Nukem Forever, I maintained an ammo-clip-half-full attitude, despite teasing from my gaming peers. Those years of waiting have now passed, and while I still have a soft spot for the resulting game, even I can admit it was a barely functional mess, duct-taped at the seams, and blasted with a freeze ray until it held together just enough to be considered a finished product.  Now, seventeen years after first sniggering at pixellated boobs in Duke Nukem 3D, I find myself hoping that Duke can one day regain some of the respect he has let drown in the pool of dick jokes and thrown faeces that was Forever.

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The king has been intercepted

In February, independent developer, Interceptor Entertainment, unveiled alloutofgum.com, which brandished a countdown to a game announcement. The coded message on the site was soon deciphered by fans and was revealed to be offering details about Duke Nukem: Mass Destruction, an isometric Action-RPG starring Duke on an intergalactic quest to rescue the president. As a fan of Interceptor’s loving reboot of Rise of the Triad I was excited, but cautious. Although Interceptor have worked tirelessly to address them, Triad had its generous share of technical faults. Still, those who have followed the company’s history will know that they are huge fans of the Duke, having first come together in an attempt to remake Duke Nukem 3D in UnrealEd3, as the currently on-hold Duke Nukem 3D: Reloaded.

Days before the website reveal, Interceptor’s CEO and game director, Frederik Schreiber, had created a stir on the forums over at Duke4.net, after he said, “I’m personally tired of Pigcops, Turd Jokes, and a Goofy Duke Nukem. I would love to see a Duke Nukem game, taken in a completely new direction. A way more serious and “Badass” Duke, with an epic plot. Something that really brings back Duke as an Action Hero. That reminds me of how tired I am of strippers, babes etc. in Duke Nukem games, which only degrades Duke’s intelligence even more (there is nothing wrong with Duke Liking strippers and babes, but it shouldn’t be the main plot of a game). Give us a Duke game without strippers, a great sinister villain than can break Duke (Think Bane from DK:Rising), a slightly older, and way more badass/gritty Duke, and a galactic plotline that can be taken seriously, and I’m Sold!”

It seems Mr. Schreiber has shown his hand quite clearly regarding what gamers can expect from an Interceptor take on Duke, and many punters on various Duke-related forums didn’t welcome Schreiber’s idea of a grittier, stripper-free take on the character. What is left of Duke Nukem if we remove the pigcops, the goofy humour and the strippers? Does Mr Schreiber really want to turn Duke into Marcus Fenix in a red tanktop?

Won’t somebody think of the strippers!

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I would say that Schreiber’s intentions here are good. What gamers must remember is that in Duke Nukem 3D, Duke’s character was a gruff parody of the ‘roided up action stars of the 80s and early 90s. The frat-boy mentality of Forever’s “Douche Nukem” (as fans have come to name him) was minimal and the “jokes” were mostly just quotes from movies the likes of Army of Darkness and They Live, with the odd dig at contemporary games of the time (“That is one DOOMed space marine”). The humour was an added side dish to a main course comprising of a well-designed, incredibly fun first person shooter. However, gamers responded to the humour, and this ended up being the game’s big talking point. This pushed the developers to one-up themselves in the writing of Forever until we were left with a game that was gags first, gameplay second.

Think of The Simpsons. Remember when the crazy cat lady was a one-off character – the punch line for a joke in only one episode? Apparently the writers found her far funnier than anybody else did, because now she seems to have an obligatory cameo in every new episode. In a similar way, Duke has become a victim of his own irreverence. What started as a John McLane-style nonchalance in the face of violent threat has devolved into National Lampoon’s territory, generating more groans than laughs. Anybody working on a new Duke game would be well served to remember the lesson learned here. Jokes have to be the sauce and not the steak.

What can I play with here?

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Something that is understated in explaining Duke’s appeal is one of the core features that made Duke3D stand apart from its contemporaries; interactivity. Duke Forever made attempts to recapture this, but the occasional shoddily created pinball machine and pool table did little to add the same sense of exploration and fun that can be found in Duke3D. This might be because the game surrounding those things was a linear and ugly corridor. Something that has been forgotten since those build engine days is level design where the player feels as though everything in the environment can be played with, and will search every nook and cranny for another humorous movie poster (perhaps hiding a secret powerup) or some kind of minigame. Should Interceptor’s game ever be released it will be interesting to find out if they keep this aspect of Duke’s world in mind while designing the levels of their Duke ARPG (DARPG?). With the sense of exploration inherent in RPGs, we could find ourselves controlling Duke through “dungeons” comprised of sports bars, air-ducts, military facilities and alien architecture, where hidden slot machines and beer kegs reward the player with extra experience points or loot, as well as fun minigames. On the other hand the game could be like many other ARPGs and boil down to levels that are merely a series of interconnected battle arenas where the aim of the game is kill-loot-repeat. Let’s hope we will get to find out soon.

The bigger they are…

It’s worth remembering that – according to CEO and president Randy Pitchford – Gearbox Software acquired the rights to the Duke Nukem franchise with plans to develop their own games in the series after releasing Forever. Pitchford himself began his career designing some superb levels for The Birth episode of the Duke 3D Atomic Edition, so naturally has a personal affiliation with the character. As the developer of the violent and humorous Borderlands series, Gearbox seems like a logical foster parent for the Duke. The real question here  is whether the AAA shooter market is the place for Duke in this post-Forever age.

The Duke franchise hangs on the brink of becoming one of the industry’s biggest jokes

My view is that it’s not. Fans have been burned, critics have had their say and the Duke franchise hangs on the brink of becoming – or  remaining – one of the industry’s biggest jokes. The fanbase that I proudly consider myself a part of exists but it is minimal. The chances of a new mega-budget Duke Nukem FPS turning a profit are slim. There is no evidence yet that this is what Gearbox plan to make, but it is what they are known for.

If you want to play any of the older Duke Nukem games, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a platform. Duke I, II, 3D and Manhattan Project are all readily available on Steam, and some of them have enjoyed releases on IOS, Android and the XBOX Arcade.  The audience for Duke still exists and is willing to part with some cash. This smaller, cheaper, digital space can be seen as a proving ground for Duke moving forward, and this is the space that Interceptor currently occupies.

Shrink-ray those expectations

I would love to see a AAA Duke Nukem blockbuster shooter in Unreal 4, with all the bells and whistles of next-gen. However, I am a realist, and think Duke’s place in the gaming landscape is likely to be far smaller than the character’s mammoth ego. Only characters as big as Sonic the Hedgehog can remain popular in the wake of terrible games, and Duke is not that big. Duke’s contemporary, Lo Wang, recently kicked back into the gaming world in Flying Wild Hog’s superb re-boot of Shadow Warrior. This lower budget, independent shooter is a delightful mix of the old and new that sends a clear message to any developer dealing with forgotten and flagging franchises. Enter the braver world of the low-mid budget, find the core of your character, and make sure he does well at what he is known for.

Duke can reclaim his throne, but it will be the seat of a far smaller kingdom.

Images: Facebook, 3D realms, 2K games

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