July 18, 2011

Hail to the (New) King, Baby

Hail to the (New) King, Baby

“Come get some!”

I keep firing my chain gun at the rapidly retreating figure as it rounds a corner in the space station, switching to my launcher and ricocheting a few grenades around the corner for good measure.  Activating a pack of steroids to increase my movement speed, I race to the corridor and strafe around the corner, loosing a volley of grenades at the smirking Duke waiting there, feeling a victorious rush of adrenaline from catching my quarry, only to have it dissipate in front of me to the sound of jeering laughter and Beavis and Butt-Head quotes.

HoloDuke.  Seems to work every time.

It’s 10:30PM on a school night, and I’m sitting in the family computer room with the lights off.  The glow of the CRT monitor sheds just enough light for me to see the keyboard in front of me, but I respond to the ensuing attack reflexively, dodging out of the way and switching to my freeze ray without taking my eyes off the screen.

“Breaking the law!  Breaking the law!”

A tinny voice taunts me through the speakerphone receiver next to the Windows 95 Compaq personal computer.  My adversary thinks he can pull ahead in the kill count with some fast moves, but we’re pretty well-matched in skill, and it’s anyone’s game.  So I do what any other reasonable, 14-year-old action hero for hire would do.

I dodge around another corner in the level and ogle the table dancers, clicking on the pool table to marvel at the billiard physics.

These are the kinds of Duke Nukem 3D memories I have, playing over a dial-up connection with my school friend and neighbor, using the most rudimentary form of voice chat by talking smack to each other over the phone as we played.  In a weird way, Duke’s crassness, over-the-top sense of violence, and unfortunately, misogynistic machismo went hand-in-glove with the Mike Judge cartoons, Arnold movies, and Mortal Kombat games that were a mainstay of my adolescent entertainment.

I can’t say that I was excited for the eventual release of Duke Nukem Forever after its fourteen-year mess of a development cycle, but I can tell you that it piqued my interest in the way that a sequel to Beavis and Butt-Head Do America would.  That is to say, it seemed interesting, and a valiant effort to recreate a project from another era, but looked about as tired and relevant as an X-Band modem (believe it or not, the same friend and I were in the beta test for that company).

I’ve followed most of the press and drama leading up to Gearbox Software’s taking up and completion of the “modern” iteration in the Duke series, as well as the reviews and poor scores it’s gotten since launch.  I haven’t played the game yet, and don’t presume to give the game any sort of rating without doing so, but I can say that I’m not surprised by the overall reaction to it.  Most opinions I’ve seen have said that it’s very formulaic and boring, having outdated game mechanics and social commentary in a sort of tasteless patchwork hodgepodge of a game.  Sounds about right for a game that was started over a decade ago by 3D Realms, delayed so many times that it was thought to be vaporware, and finally picked up by Gearbox, who should be commended for getting it out the door.

I think the long development cycle may have a lot to do with the general negative sentiment around the game’s approach, rather than any inherent distaste for recycling intellectual property.  I loved the re-imagining of Mortal Kombat that came out this year, for example, and so did most people, if reviews and sales can be believed.  Similarly, you’d better believe Nintendo fans will pay anything for remakes of Mario and Zelda games (and everything else).  The resurgence of games like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3DS, Halo: Combat Evolved, and every movie ever, is evidence that gamers and movie-goers are fine with picking up new experiences in older territory – as long as there are some modern bells and whistles to keep us interested.

For me, the thematic aspects of Duke Nukem 3D are represented and – for lack of a better term – more mature in games like People Can Fly/Epic Games’ Bulletstorm and Gearbox’s own BorderlandsBulletstorm has definitely got the over-the-top violence and potty-mouth sense of humor going for it (not to mention the Duke-style gravity boot), and Borderlands has some of the most satisfying shooting mechanics and loveable characters of any of the current generation FPS titles, at least of those that take themselves less seriously than your Halo’s and Call of Duty‘s.  To be fair, even the self-conscious and sometimes witty testosterone humor in Bulletstorm got on my “get-off-my-lawn” nerves after a while, and neither games have a true competitive multiplayer mode.  Still, I think they draw from the same type of pedigree that Duke’s earlier games helped develop, which in turn were inspired by tongue-in-cheek Bruce Campbell movies and sort-of-self-serious Arnold movies and the like.

Games like Bulletstorm and Borderlands manage to capture the same irreverence and quirkiness that Duke brought to the table by keeping the same ridiculous and campy approach to storytelling and shooting while updating core gameplay mechanics, art direction, and level and world design to be more in line with current generation standards in the industry.  The former does some great things with the “skillshot” system and has some huge, incredible set pieces that flow naturally with the story, and the latter has some very crunchy loot mechanics and action-oriented RPG elements that compliment its core shooting.  Neither are perfect games, to be sure, but they capture the heart of what made games like Duke 3D, Doom II, Hexen, and Shadow Warrior fun, and put into practice the lessons learned in game development since their predecessors ruled the PC.

I’m interested in playing Duke Nukem Forever, although I’ve heard it does none of these things, and is understandably outdated, tired and boring.  Truly, I might get more of a kick out of playing Duke 3D or the original Duke Nukem in the same way that I can watch Army of Darkness over and over.  I think that there’s a reason why some franchises are classics, and why we’ll keep paying to ride new versions of the same rollercoaster, watching Daniel Craig order a vodka martini or helping Link save the world from Ganon yet again.  These movies’ and games’ producers and developers continue to evolve tried and true themes while keeping up with modern and post-modern approaches to conveying those stories.  Yet, for my money, it’s the new franchises, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s, the Borderlands‘, that can sometimes surprise us by offering age-old stories in fresh and exciting ways and are becoming the new Kings and Queens of one-liners.

Or, as claptrap will tell you, “Hey.  Hey!  I pooped right where you’re standing.”


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