Sunday, June 19, 2011

All Duke'd Out?

A common problem with Japanese games (particularly jRPGs) is domination of the design process by big wigs who insist it being their way or the highway. Hence basic innovations often get left by the wayside in lieu of the director's singular vision resulting in a title that has badly outdated gameplay filled with self-indulgent story elements. But the truth is the opposite extreme, design by committee, has it's own share of pitfalls. No more apparent than in Duke Nuke'em: Forever.

The Duke has always been a womanizing, narcissistic, dick waver so I will ignore all the criticisms labeled against him with regards to misogynistic undertones and cheesy referential humor. People who criticize those aspects of Duke either grew up (good for them) or failed to take off their nostalgia goggles (not so good). Those points aside Duke Nuke'em: Forever has problems. Most notably the game play is lackluster, and not simply because it's dated. Rather the odd mix of new and old is what makes the big blonde's return mediocre.

Circle strafing, non-linear level design, and platforming bits are hallmarks of old-school shooters which is okay. But then we have these newer design elements mixed in like the limitation of only being able to carry two weapons at a time. Why? It not like they were going for realism here. Then there's the "Ego" life bar which has a surprisingly bland presentation. Couldn't they have made a nuclear symbol graphic or something more thematic than a simple green bar in the upper corner of the screen? Also, what's with the recharging mechanic? Duke running and hiding so his ego can recover doesn't really jive with the character. On the other hand lifting weights, drinking beer, admiring himself in the mirror, and collecting Duke memorabilia is. Why not take the concept a bit further and have Duke's Ego bar go up every time he wastes a bad guy? After all what could be a bigger ego boost than crushing your enemies?

Ken Levine (the director of Bioshock) once said that he hated focus groups because the end result of trying to please everyone is you end up pleasing no one and sadly Duke got himself trapped in this pothole. Will he get a chance to try and drive himself out? That depends on Gearbox software. I for one hope that if they bet on Duke again though they decide on a vision and go all in on the concept rather than watering down the experience with a "neither here nor there" design philosophy.

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