When we first got word that Duke Nukem Forever had a release date - May 2011 - gamers could have been forgiven for thinking it was some kind of joke. Officially in development since 1997, DNF has spent most of the past decade declining further and further into a shambolic, regrettable reminder of the excesses of the late ’90s golden age of PC games development.

After 3DRealms laid off the DNF development team in 2009, it was assumed by many to be the final nail in the coffin for the game. The fact that it wasn’t is why there was an air of surreality about the hands-on event Gearbox and 2K Games threw, somewhat appropriately, in a slightly seedy strip club in Las Vegas earlier this week.

For many present, DNF has been in development for well over half their life, and easily all their working life. And yet here it stood – albeit in beta form – menu screens twinkling on a battalion of plasma screens hooked to Xbox 360 consoles.

The opening Pitch

The big question on everybody’s mind is whether Gearbox Software head and some time magician Randy Pitchford could pull the ultimate rabbit out of his hat: Making Duke relevant to gamers.

The father of Borderlands, Pitchford is a big believer in the Duke franchise, having had his first games industry job working for 3DRealms in the mid nineties. He estimates that there are three to four thousand bugs yet to squish before the game ships. But there are things that can be fixed by a final quality assurance push – such as a jumpy framerate – and things that can’t. After our time with Duke Nukem Forever, it’s the “things that can’t” column which gives us cause for concern.

One of our main concerns with DNF goes to the very heart of the game: How its play sequences are strung together. DNF makes liberal use of puzzle and platform sequences - playing “fetch” and basic physics-based challenges amongst them.

A segment where a shrunken Duke is racing about in an RC car is a prime example. Duke exits an elevator only to step into a gooey alien substance that shrinks him down to miniature size. He locates an RC vehicle and then zips around in a level reminiscent of the old Re-Volt racing game. As the player, your path is fairly easy to plot out – you make a beeline for the nearest ramp – there's usually only one, and your retreating path is often blocked off as you progress.

Overstaying your welcome

Instead of the sequence being a small break from running and gunning on foot, it's stretched out into 10 to 20-plus minutes of zooming around, jumping over a chasm to a new area, navigating to a new jump point, and repeating. Integrating these “flavour” sections with traditional shooter gameplay is something of an art. The most recent Call of Duty titles - Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops - did an especially deft dance. Both titles didn’t make the mistake of equating the time they spent making a unique gameplay twist with how much time gamers had to spend on it. DNF, however, does.

There are a few negative outcomes when players are forced to spend too much time on any non-core activity in a game like this. For starters, it makes many just want to tear through the game that much faster. The false economy in throwing more level design here becomes apparent when players tune out and just want to get it done.

Secondly, it robs the player of much of the desire to explore or be diverted. This is especially a problem in Duke because Gearbox and 2K Games want players to poke around. Pushing FPS players through fiddly, pixel-perfect first-person physics puzzles and prolonged diversions often work against the notion of inviting free-roaming play.

The irony is that all these intermediary chunks of play serve to lead into the game’s boss battles that are truly the highlight of the DNF experience. Here you’ll find shades of Shadow of the Colossus and while we won’t spoil matters by going into specifics, these encounters are where Duke earns his pay. They’re challenging, fun and have (believe it or not) a similar vibe to going up against raid bosses in an MMO, only solo. Boss-specific attacks, movement phases, spawn management - its all here. The trouble is what you have to plough through to get to them.

A guy walks into a strip bar...

Then there’s the humour element of the Duke equation. Gearbox reps we spoke to claim the humour transitions well to a modern audience. One rep pointed out there’s no shortage of female gamers “Liking” the game on Facebook. Fair points, however in action Duke’s signature potty humour comes across as being a little desperate for attention.

Take the very first interactivity the game offers you once you start play. You’re facing a urinal. “Piss” appears on your screen, with a corresponding button icon. You can spend the opening stage - set in the bowels of a sports stadium - wandering around peeing in toilets. Walk up to a bank of showers and, yes, you can turn on the shower. The ropy, 2D-looking “water” texture that emits from the showerhead probably will have you switching it off pretty fast though.

The remainder of the opening sequence sees Duke walk into a briefing session for “Operation Cock Block” (where he can scrawl on a whiteboard) before eventually running out onto the stadium turf for his first boss encounter with a truly humongous robot.

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