Duke Nukem Forever Hands-on Preview: Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum

The King of Crass is back. In production for 15 long years — development began at 3D Realms in 1997 — Duke Nukem Forever sees the self-adoring and universally revered Duke Nukem save the world from yet another alien invasion. On Tuesday at New York City’s Gansevoort Park Hotel, I played an hour or so of the game. Packing a hefty arsenal guns, babes, and expletives, Gearbox Software’s Duke revival is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a lot of fun regardless.

In Forever’s narrative, 12 years have passed since Duke last saved the world, providing plenty of fodder for lengthy development jokes. “After 12 f*cking years, it should be [good],” grumbles Duke in one scene. Framed photos in the penthouse of Duke’s Ladykiller casino — floor #69, naturally — depict what the wisecracking, hyper-masculine tough guy has been doing in the meantime: scaling Mount Everest, winning the World Series of Poker, running his Duke Burger chain and so on.

The preview demo kicked off with “Operation Cock Block.” Duke ascends from tight, dimly lit corridors into a giant football stadium occupied by a 30-foot Cycloid alien. Gameplay is fast-paced, run-and-gun action; Duke grabs a gun (with a 69-bullet clip, just to keep it classy) and starts blasting away. Playing an Xbox 360 alpha build, I used the left trigger to aim and the right trigger to shoot. The Cycloid wielded a massive machine gun, but it was no match for Duke. When I finally depleted the boss monster’s health bar, I ran up to the creature to engage in a quicktime execution. To add insult to injury, after ripping out the alien’s eye, I punted it across the arena for a field goal.

Duke’s health is measured by his ego. Performing actions like lifting weights, hitting punching bags, playing pool and pinball, and admiring oneself in the mirror all raise Duke’s maximum ego the first time they’re executed. Since the environments are populated with tons of interactive elements — many of which provide ego boosts — it’s valuable to take your time and thoroughly explore each locale. Also, if you perform an execution on an enemy — which typically involves smashing them into oblivion with Duke’s rock-hard fists — you’ll return to maximum ego.

Further on in the game, Duke shrinks down to toy soldier size and drives an RC-car around the ground floor of the Ladykiller casino. In this segment, I weaved around the feet of giant aliens and launched off of environmental jumps to progress. Occasionally, I hit a roadblock and was forced to exit the car to perform a platforming puzzle. These sequences were relatively rudimentary, but nonetheless provided a nice change of pace from the tireless run-and-gun action offered elsewhere in the game.

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Duke Nukem Forever Shrinkage Trailer

Eventually, Duke “de-shrinks” and is forced to face a crew of flying, teleporting aliens. Luckily, Duke’s trusty shotgun is capable of turning their slimy hides into lifeless corpses. The sheer knockback factor of each shot — the aliens go flying when they’re hit — is tremendously gratifying. In fact, all of the guns, from the M1911 pistol to the three-barrel ‘Ripper’ machine gun, are a joy to shoot. Duke Nukem Forever is one visceral, bloody game.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite look the part. Forever’s visuals are far from atrocious, but they’re not very impressive for a game in development for 15 years, either. I played a three-month old build, however; the game’s assistant producer told me the final product will have an extra layer of polish not present in the demo. While the game is slightly lacking on a technical level, it’s stylistically sound. Practically every corner of the neon-soaked city is populated with Duke’s burly visage, which is definitely appropriate for "the world’s greatest hero." I also quite liked Forever’s color palette; the game eschews the grays and browns of most modern first-person shooters in favor of a range of yellows, reds, greens, and blues.

Though I didn’t get to try them out, four multiplayer modes will be available in Duke Nukem Forever: classic Dukematch (Deathmatch), Team Dukematch, Capture the Babe (Flag), and King of the Hill. Meanwhile, the single-player campaign is supposedly a meaty 15 hours or longer, so there’s definitely plenty of content available on that front.

Duke Nukem Forever is not for gamers with delicate sensibilities. It’s extremely violent, sexist, and crude. If that’s your thing, though, it works here. I dislike games where developers toss in tasteless expletives that distract from the main story arc, but here, that’s the entire point. If you want to spend some quality time kicking ass and chewing bubble gum, you should check out Duke Nukem Forever when it hits store shelves in the U.S. on June 14, 2011.