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Finishing the boss reveals that Duke has been playing a videogame all along, in a spa on the 69-floor tower that sits atop his casino, “Lady Killers”. Not that he’s been playing solo – the “Holsom twins” have been busy as well indulging in some oral fixation. This is what passes for comedic byplay in DNF.

The problem is it’s all monotone. By definition, Duke is locked into his parodic being. And whether it’s 3DRealms or Gearbox, from what we’ve seen the game hasn’t been able to develop him beyond the same old swaggering Duke from the mid-nineties. If this is all that there is to him, there’s no chance of players being able to care about his fate for the full length of a game. Duke's not meant to have any emotional depth, which in turn means the humour in the game has to be very sharp, and the writers have to find ways to keep the same running joke fresh. From what we saw, that’s not the case.

When Gearbox tries its hand at playing the pop culture reference card it also comes off too strident and too heavy-handed. References to the Olsen twins or to Christian Bale’s on-set explosion get laboured to the point of exhaustion or just aren’t given enough room to breathe organically. The game frantically waves its metaphoric arm at you to pay attention to the funnies, which isn't needed if the wit is on point in the first place.

Given Gearbox’s success at infusing wit into Borderlands, and stablemate Rockstar North’s sure touch in Grand Theft Auto, we’re wondering how much of what we’ve seen is a legacy of 3DRealms' influence.

Hot or not?

While our takes on the game’s humour – and even parts of its gameplay – could be considered subjective, it’s going to take a brazen character to argue Duke Nukem Forever delivers on the visual front.

It may not look like a game that began development in 1997 but the look of the game and the way it's rendered is one more reminiscent of last decade than this one. Animation isn’t a stuttering staccato mess, but it is limited. Don’t expect hundreds of frames devoted to character animation. It’s a solid, unspectacular effort that if you were bold enough (and unfair enough) to compare it with the output of the 2K Sports team, for instance, would look Stone Age by contrast.

A bigger problem lies in how the game presents itself. Pitchford noted not all shaders were in the version we played, so perhaps the lack of anti-aliasing and texture smoothing will be addressed prior to release in May. There’s also an unpredictable approach to which objects in the game get rendered. Some warrant shadows, some don’t. Lighting tends to be on the basic end of the scale compared to the latest top end game engines, and the net result is of competent, middle of the pack execution – not the “wow” players might be hoping for from a Duke title.

Conclusion

Sometimes a project is prolonged to the point where shipping it intact and playable is a victory in itself. Despite the undeniable passion and talent of the Gearbox team, this appears to be where the coding and design ambition for DNF ends. The result should be a solid, unspectacular game that may well snag heavy commercial success on the back of goodwill, and nostalgia or respect for the Duke name.

Knowing Gearbox as we do, we’re thinking the strategy with the Duke brand lies more in future sequels – when the team can start a project from scratch and deliver it on less grand terms. But to do that, first DNF has to go from “Did Not Finish” to “Duke Nukem Forever”.

We want nothing more than to be shocked by a dramatic change of form at launch. To witness a multiplayer mode (it wasn’t on show at the event) worthy of the Duke aegis; for visuals and wit that leap off the screen at us. It could happen – we were only given the opening stage to play with. But if it does occur, it will be a dramatic leap forward from what we’ve experienced this week.