It's time for Duke Nukem to return.
Though I didn't hate Duke Nukem Forever as much as many of my peers -- my expectations were incredibly low and I actually enjoyed the whole embarrassing thing in parts -- there's no denying that Gearbox' critically-panned shambles poisoned the franchise something awful. But now that I'm reviewing Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition on Vita, reliving the entire legendary Duke Nukem 3D campaign again with fresh eyes, I'm convinced that the Duke deserves another shot at the big-time.
There's so much to love about the legendary game, and so much it can teach us about how first person shooters have arguably lost their way. More than that, though, it's effectively a step-by-step guide in how a studio brave enough to take it on could create a truly worthwhile new Duke Nukem shooter. Because I don't have time to play with myself, and the gum situation is looking pretty dicey, here are three simple rules for bringing back the Duke if the endless bickering over the licensing rights finally come to an end.
Rule 1: Back To Basics!
The golden rule for any studio brave enough to take on Duke Nukem is that we don't really need the Duke himself. Rather, we need what Duke Nukem 3D represents, the classic old-school shooter formula that drew us to the genre in the first place. Namely:
- Huge intricate levels that encourage exploration with complex geometry, limited resources and plentiful secrets
- A massive arsenal of deeply satisfying weaponry
- Brutal no-holds-barred gameplay
- A little risque humour - but more on that later
As we know, Forever fumbled this badly. You could blatantly see how each successive developer tried to copy FPS conventions that were popular at the time, from turret sections and vehicles to the gun limits and led-by-the-nose Call Of Duty level design. The fact is that, while we have a soft spot for the Duke himself, what we actually need from a sequel is the gameplay that made it great in the first place!
However, you'd need a specific kind of developer, not to mention publisher, to be able to pull this off in today's market. Which leads us to rule number 2...
Sorry, but I don't think that Duke Nukem will work as a traditional AAA title.
We know all too well that triple-A games come with extraordinary costs and have to play it safe, pandering rather than pushing, due to the ridiculous excesses of large teams, cutting-edge visuals, extravagant marketing campaigns and ridiculous hype to live up to. Publishers often feel that they have to please everyone, and more importantly, the product ends up with so many different hands on it that the result can often be unfocused without decisive leadership.
So what Duke Nukem needs is a small, lean, hungry team with everything to prove. Budgets tight enough to deliver a tightly focused experience that knows what it is, with the safety of knowing that the money can be made back up with relatively modest sales and word-of-mouth marketing. And with a development team compact enough to push forward rather than pull in different directions as a publisher stays as hands-off as possible. Perhaps developing for PC first and foremost, before looking to adapt to console marketplaces when they're ready.
In a perfect world, I reckon that Gearbox -- or whoever owns the rights -- should have a big chat with Devolver Digital. They published the Megaton Edition, but more to the point, they have strong links with Croteam (who developed Serious Sam and clearly love Duke Nukem, hell, there's even several Duke Nukem easter eggs in the franchise!) and Flying Wild Hog (who successfully brought Shadow Warrior into the 21st century without compromising what made it great). Go on, Gearbox. There's no way gamers will trust you again with the franchise.
Rule 3: It's Not A Comedy!
Duke Nukem 3D was hilarious. From the one-liners to the flushable toilets, tongue-in-cheek enemy designs, posters and babes galore, there's no denying that it was funny.
But. BUT! It was not a comedy game. The all-important gameplay was ruthless, tough to the point of being punishing and balls to the wall hectic. The humour came from the disconnect between the hardcore action and the zany imagery; the jokes themselves stayed in the background, the art design, the audio track, optional interactive scenery or slapstick elements cleverly woven into the gameplay itself (such as the shrink ray). It kept our higher brain constantly active and engaged while our lizard brain was desperately trying to keep us alive, and the result was a big laugh. Critically, the action never stopped just so the game could tell a joke.
Duke Nukem Forever got this dead wrong. Sometimes the gameplay hit a brick wall just so the game could make a terrible gag or attempt to parody other games, and too much of DNF was devoted to simply being 'funny.' The result was that it became a parody of itself, trying far too hard and ending up as a desperately unfunny if not slightly tragic experience. And cheapening everything as a result.
Concentrate on the action, think about ways that the Duke could be portrayed in a slightly more ironic fashion this time around, and the humour will write and design itself. The laughs should enhance the experience, not compromise it.
What would you want from a Duke Nukem sequel? Who should make it, and how? Have your say in the comments and stay tuned for our Duke Nukem Forever: Megaton Edition review!