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Late Post PAX Write-up

At the end of August a friend and I hopped on a plane to Seattle for our first PAX. I’ve never had so much fun spending three days with 70,000+ people in a confined space, but sadly it seems that those number of people bring in larger numbers of diseases which is what has delayed my PAX write-up for over two weeks. So, as a first time PAXer with a delayed write-up, I thought I would approach the issue by writing about what has stuck with me most about PAX 2011 now that some time has passed.

The first thing that comes to mind in remembering PAX was how the first day lineup for the keynote with David Jaffe, the Q&A with Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik the creatures of Penny Arcade, and finally the Rooster Teeth panel was amazingly worth waking up at 6:30 in the morning. After waiting in line from 7:30 until the opening at 10:00, we had made a new friend in line, got second row seats, and all three panels were very entertaining. David Jaffe (creator of God of War and Twisted Metal), who I have no great interest in as a gamer gave an entertaining keynote-turned-motivational-speech about finding and following the inner voice that drives you forward and leads you to a life you are proud of and enjoy. I think some of the audience may have found it cliché but I found it to be a positive and entertaining start to an Expo that is really all about doing what you love. The following Q&A with Jerry and Mike was truly a highlight of the show, with people from all around the world standing and asking questions that ranged from serious good questions about Penny Arcade to “could you ask Wil Wheaton, to ask Felicia Day to look at my manuscript” disasters. After that comical hour, finishing off with the Rooster Teeth panel provided a preview of their new episode of Red vs. Blue and a welcome amount of silliness.

The Firefall logo. Look familiar to anyone else?

Once we hit the show floor a few booths visually dominated the others. The Firefall booth stands out to me as the biggest over-selling of a game at the show. Their booth was huge and there were signs with the Starcraft-ripoff Firefall logo everywhere. However upon playing the game, it struck me as a fairly generic shooter that was developed primarily for 3rd person while it had no reason not to be in 1st person. The game felt felt a bit like Team Fortress meets Halo: Reach, only not as nicely tuned as either.

A quick photo I snapped of the Skyrim dragon. I want one for my lawn.

On the other hand, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim deserverd the giant dragon looming over their booth. We were able to rush to the line first thing on the last day of PAX getting far enough ahead that we only had to wait about half an hour to try Skyrim. I spent the entire 10 minute demo trying to climb as high as I could up a mountain, found and defeated some bandits, and in the end barely scratched the surface of everything I wanted to try in that world. The game is gorgeous however, and for fans of Oblivion or previous Elder Scrolls games it looks like Skyrim will provide another way to sink days and days into a video game.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the new version of Counter Strike soon to hit most platforms, generally had about an hour wait for the short multiplayer demo, but was well worth it for the free shirt and CS:GO beta key. We ran that line multiple times to get beta key’s for friends. I’ve never been very good at CS myself, but the game seems to me to be a well done console friendly remake of the CS experience, intense firefights, weapon buying, bomb planting, and all.

Most of the small or indie games at PAX had lines that tended to be 10-30 minutes, instead of 1-4 hours, and often provided excellent demos. Of these Twisted Pixel’s new Kinect game The Gunstringer was one of the most fun. My friend and I got to play co-op, pointing our right hands at the screen like a toy gun, flicking up to fire, while one of us used our left hand as if we were holding a marionette to control the movement of the character. The Gunstringer seems to be an on-rails shooter with humor only matched by its whimsy, and has largely increased my desire to own a Xbox Kinect. Also of note was Retro/Grade by 24 Caret Games. This space shooter meets music game is very difficult to explain so I suggest looking up videos online, but the basic idea is that you are playing a side-scrolling space shooter in reverse time. Best played with a plastic Rockband or Guitar Hero guitar, players press various note buttons to move the ship onto different tracks, and as time goes in reverse you must strum the guitar to absorb the shots that your ship fired in the past, and dodge the enemy shots coming from behind that your ship debatably already dodged. Like I said, it’s hard to put into words, but the gameplay matches the music and provides a take on the music/action genre crossing I hadn’t encountered before.

There were more great panels to see then there was time, and I missed many that I think I would have enjoyed. Aside from the initial Q&A I’d have to say that I most enjoyed the live Weekend Confirmed podcast, and I’d like to give them a plug. I’ve tried out lots of gaming podcasts and Weekend Confirmed is the only one I never get tired of. Garnett Lee runs an excellent show. Give it a try if you haven’t.

There really is too much much at PAX to mention everything that is good, but these are the games and experiences that stuck with me as the best of the best. Any gamer who can should try to get to PAX at some point, it’s a great place to not only have fun, but I came away with some new friends with similar tastes. Just a warning to anyone who flies to PAX however, bring as much empty baggage space as you can, you’ll need it with all the swag you’ll collect.

This is only some of what I came home with.

Being a God of Nature: From Dust Review

From Dust, an Ubisoft game designed by Eric Chahi (creator of the visually stunning adventure platform game Another World) and released on Xbox 360 as the second part of Summer of Arcade 2011, is in simplest terms a god game. Players control the Breath of a tribe which is trying to follow the path of the ancients from environment to environment. As the Breath players manipulate matter and nature to create safe paths for the tribesman as they found villages, spread foliage around the terrain, and finally reach the portal to the next level.

The game controls simply, movement of the Breath, which is essentially a cursor, is controlled with the joystick, and the left and right triggers suck up various types of matter into a floating ball and dump the matter back onto the terrain. The right joystick and a couple other buttons change camera angles and zoom, and the D-pad provides access to powers provided by certain villages. As the levels progress the Breath can pick up earth, water, lava and special trees. Earth can be removed or placed to shape terrain controlling the movement of tribesman, and water or lava flows. Water can be used to put out fires, or removed from the paths of tribesman. Lava is used to create solid rock that cannot be easily washed away by water but also cannot be easily removed by the breath. The special trees that can be moved by the breath interact with the terrain in various ways creating water, fire, or exploding depending on the type of tree. These mechanics work together in a physics based sandbox allowing the player to manipulate the terrain to their liking to combat the challenges placed before the tribes.

From Dust is one of those wonderful games where even when there is time pressure (in this games case usually from an impending tsunami or volcanic eruption) the game is still relaxing to play. The pacing is such that good planning and terrain placement is more effective than panicked shoveling and quick movement. The tribesman can only move so fast so relying on quick temporary solutions is risky and well-laid plans are the key to victory. At the same time From Dust is really not very difficult which aids in how relaxing the game is to play, but at the same time may hinder its satisfaction to gamers like me who like trickier challenges. I never had to restart an attempt at a level until the second to last level in the game, and rarely even came close to failing any other levels. While I’m not arguing that games should be easy to fail, I did feel like the game could have been more interesting if the levels were less forgiving of stupid mistakes. Luckily the 30 challenge levels unlocked while playing through the story fill in this gap by providing extra challenges with very specific solutions.

From Dust is pretty, and has simple peaceful music, and is overall pleasant to play, however the one thing that made me want to grab the developers and give them a good shake was the camera. Camera complaints are common in game reviews, but usually are an issue for 3rd person action or platformer games where a bad camera hinders character control. From Dust’s camera drove me crazy because for a game with graphics that look great when you zoom into the level of the tribesman or zoom out to a world view the camera is ridiculously limited. The player can rotate the camera freely around the Breath to view from any side, however there are only four angles above the ground the camera can take. The default is a fairly close angled view as shown in the screen shot above, and the second is a view from the same proximity to the ground but from straight above. There is also a zoomed out view that is at a similar angle to the first view, only three or four times further from the ground, and then a final view that forces the camera to follow a specific tribesman. The final tribesman view is just for viewing and the game cannot be played while viewing a tribesman. The zoomed out view is how I played most of the game, but not because I really wanted too. The issue I had was that the first two views did not provide the angle I really wanted. The default camera angle is too close the the ground making hills and trees too much of a visual obstruction, and while the top down view is good for precision work it limits the view of the map too much to be commonly useful. Playing most of the game in the zoomed out view worked great, but I felt that I was missing out on the nicely detailed graphics From Dust provides. I see no reason that this game couldn’t have had not only multiple levels of zoom but a full dynamic camera that would allow the player to choose and change their viewpoint on the fly.

Aside from my issues with the camera I would certainly recommend From Dust to gamers who enjoy a good god game. Being able to control a physics based natural world is something that I would like to experience more in video games, and From Dust’s unique powers such as turning water into gelatin or creating a heat wave to evaporate water are brilliant. The tribal approach to the story was interesting, but not truly gripping, leaving me to hope that From Dust gets a re-imagined sequel that brings the amazing nature bending powers into a deeper story with larger levels, and more complex goals. I’m really glad to see a modern entry into the god game genre and hope it starts a new trend because while From Dust isn’t quite there yet the genre has the potential to be amazing.

Bastion Review Part 2: Final Words

Upon finishing Bastion my worries that the narration would grow stale were unfounded. The game changes things up enough both in gameplay and it’s topic of narration that the gravely voice telling the story is always providing more insight into the world. My other worry after playing only a few hours was that the story wouldn’t live up to it’s potential. Now that I’ve finished I would say that it could have had a more complex deeper story and benefitted from it, but it didn’t need it. The story is simple in execution, easy to follow, but deep enough to stay interesting and make the player feel invested. In the end Bastion did not let me down in any way.

One game mechanic I had not yet encountered when I wrote my first impressions is something I’d like to highlight now. At a certain point in the game The Kid can build a Shrine in the bastion. Once built the Shrine allows players to invoke the powers of various gods if they choose. The powers of the gods are all designed to make the game harder, but for each god invoked the player receives bonus experience and shards (money) as they play. This mechanic is something that I wish many more games would use because it allows players to set a custom difficulty for the game, and be rewarded for it. It has become standard in video games for difficulty selections to be made at the beginning of the game and often higher difficulties provide no reward except for the satisfaction of the challenge. Through the Shrine Bastion provides difficulty that can be modified on the fly, it rewards players for choosing to make the game harder, and also changes the game in creative ways. I hope that game designers everywhere take this as inspiration for how to customize difficulty.

My final comments about Bastion will be spoiler ridden, so if you have yet to play through Bastion and don’t want to know about the ending, consider this a positive review and stop reading now. Within the last bit of the game Bastion provides the player with two binary choices, whether or not to save someone who betrayed The Kid, and whether to end the game by resetting time and preventing The Calamity that started it all or to continue living in the ruined world. The latter choice is interesting to anyone who gets invested in the story, and I’m assuming changes the visuals and narration of the ending. I have only finished the game once so far, and I chose to continue living in the ruined world, holding on to the friendships made by The Kid on his adventure and avoiding the possibility that the Calamity would just happen again. The former of the two choices, whether to let the betraying character live or die was extremely well done. I chose to save the man, and The Kid had to put down his weapon to carry him. As The Kid marched slowly forward holding the unconscious body enemies lined their walls and shot at The Kid. As the player I was forced to use my healing items one after another and just when I ran out, and the game had me convinced that making this choice was going to kill me, the enemies seemed to realize that The Kid had chosen not to fight anymore and that he was trying to leave peacefully with the unconscious man. The enemies stopped firing. One enemy failed to hold his fire and started shooting again but was quickly knocked out by another enemy behind him. It is rare for a game to give me as strong of an emotional reaction as this did, and in this moment Bastion guaranteed it’s spot in my personal top games of 2011 list.

I recommend Bastion to anyone who can enjoy an action RPG. The graphics, music, story, and narration come together to create an experience that stands above many. I can’t wait to see what Supergiant games comes up with next.

Bastion Review Part 1: First Impressions

Bastion, a new Action RPG by Supergiant Games, was released on XBLA yesterday, July the 20th. The trailer for Bastion had caught my eye at E3 and I downloaded the game yesterday afternoon and got a chance to play it in the evening. After just an hour or two of time in the world of Bastion, I can’t wait for more; honestly I’d rather be continuing my adventure in Bastion than writing this article. I will do my best to discuss my first impressions with Bastion without spoiling anything important, but beware minor spoilers if you like to dive into a game without knowing anything about it.

In Bastion players take control of The Kid, a young(?) man who wakes up after the events of what the game calls the Calamity. The Calamity seems to have torn the colorful world into pieces, leaving only a few floating paths and platforms left. Setting out for the safety of the Bastion, as The Kid pushes onward what little is left of the world pieces together as paths allowing him to progress. After reaching the hub-like Bastion, The Kid must search for the world’s Cores which have the power to rebuild the world around the Bastion. Though this premise is simple, and not a new idea for a video game plot, it is The Stranger that makes the game truly special. The Stranger is the narrator of the game, and from the first moment that the game begins this easy-on-the-ears drawl tells The Kid’s story. The narration is very well written, and dynamically responds to the player. For example, within the first 30 seconds of gaining control of The Kid, I accidentally walked off of the edge of the precarious world and without missing a beat The Stranger said something along the lines of “And then the kid fell to his death…just kidding” as I was dropped back onto the platform sustaining a small portion of damage. Within the first couple hours of the game The Stranger’s narration is varied and consistent. He does not repeat himself when The Kid does something repeatedly, but instead narrates the players story as often is as interesting and entertaining.

Backing up the excellent narration is a soundtrack that so far I am loving. The music so far is not extremely catchy – I didn’t wake up this morning remembering a theme song – but I remember that it was beautiful and fitting for the world. If the music continues to provide variety, I will not hesitate to purchase the soundtrack if it becomes available. The graphics of Bastion are special in their own right, an interesting style that reminds me simultaneously of cartoons and water colors drawn into a world formed of floating chunks high above the distant ground. The sound design and graphics create a world that I want to play in, so of course I must discuss just how the playing goes.

As an Action RPG Bastion’s gameplay is somewhere in between the hack and slashing of the Diablo series, and the combat mixture of Devil May Cry. While Bastion does not have a complex combo system and long move list like DMC, The Kid carries two weapons, usually a short range weapon and a long range weapon, can easily use a shield, and has a dodge roll ability. The rapid transitions between beating on enemies with a giant hammer, firing off arrows, dodging enemies and blocking attacks remind me of the combat decisions in DMC but are paired down to a 2D plane and Diablo like viewpoint. The Kid does level up, as the RPG part of it’s genre claim would suggest, but instead of a complex stat upgrade system, leveling opens up new slots for special distilled beverages. Each drink provides a unique status boost such as increased health, loot magnetism, or extra damage, and players can swap which beverages they fill their level slots with anytime they have access to a Distillery (which is often – you can build one in the Bastion hub-world). Combine the many beverage choices when you level, with a rapidly expanding list of special abilities, multiple long range and close range weapons each with their own choices of unlockable upgrades, toss in a variety of aggressive enemies and I think Bastions fighting system will be entertaining until the games end.

I plan on finishing the game before coming back to do write my final opinions on the game, but so far Bastion seems to be a fun and artistic game with no obvious flaws wrapped up in excellent narration. My only worry at this point is that the narration and story won’t continue to be as unique and special as the game continues, and that the truly great fantasy story I am hoping for won’t be there. 

Bungie Celebrates a Final Halo Bungie Day

Bungie, known as the creators of the Halo franchise, have long held a fascination with the number 7, and as such on every July 7th they celebrate Bungie Day with their community. To make things more exciting they are simultaneously celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. After creating their final Halo game Bungie is using this Bungie Day to say farewell to the franchise by playing with the public. Today only, there is a Bungie Day matchmaking playlist in which Bungie employees are playing. Those who are lucky enough to get matched against one of their teams can attempt to earn a steaktacular (by beating the Bungie team by 20 points or more) and earn real steak. Bungie has said that, while supplies last, they will send out a pair of steaks to every player on teams that successfully beat them by that margin. This seems like a great way to thank the community, and from the time I’ve spent on the playlist everyone seems to be having a good time.

So here’s to Bungie! Thanks for making great games, supporting your community so generously, and preventing hunger with steak!

Happy Bungie Day and Happy Anniversary!


Sonic 3 & Knuckles Retro Review

When Sonic the Hedgehog 3 released in early 1994 it was really just the first half of the game originally planned by Sonic Team. The third game in the Sega Genesis flagship series was not on schedule for completion by Sega’s planned date, leading Sonic Team to split the game into two parts, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic & Knuckles which released later the same year. The Sonic & Knuckles cartridge for the Genesis launched with the rather unique ability to “lock-on” to other cartridges. (The top of the cartridge could flip back allowing for another cartridge to be plugged in on top.) Depending on what cartridge was locked on players could use Knuckles in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (attaching Sonic 2), access extra special stages (attaching Sonic 1), and most importantly to combine Sonic 3 with Sonic & Knuckles to create Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the game Sonic 3 was meant to be.

My opinion of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is positively biased by nostalgia, because I absolutely loved it growing up and played through it many times. However, I will do my best to write a fair review based on replaying it recently with a friend. We blasted through the whole game in two sessions, playing Sonic and Tails together. It was a game he had never finished as a kid, so I felt he should see the entirety of the classic at least once.

Playing Sonic and Tails brings up an immediate complaint about cooperative play. For the sake of preventing frustrating, having Tails be unable to detract from the players life count or lose rings is a great design choice that lets a less experienced player be included without frustration. The fact that Tails cannot ever die permanently also makes the Tails player perfect for recklessly assaulting bosses, though this can take away the challenge and therefore possibly the fun of a boss fight. The big problem with Sonic and Tails cooperative play though, is how hard it is too keep tails in play with Sonic. Tails is able to leave the screen and get left behind, and this happens every few seconds in the hectic speedy parts of the game. After getting far enough off the screen Tails resets, and will come slowly flying back on screen with his two tails. This return is far to slow to keep a Tails player in play for much of the game however, and I think the cooperative aspect of the game could have been greatly improved if Tails had simply quickly jumped or run onto the screen and was immediately back in control.

The speed that leaves Tails behind so often is of course iconic for Sonic the Hedgehog. With loops, bumpers, jumps and a variety of power-ups players will rush through Sonic 3 & Knuckles at great speed. However the speed is tuned well enough that an attentive player can respond to a trap or enemy that comes into the screen before Sonic reaches it preventing frustration that often comes with fast games. Also, there is much of the game the game that cannot be played at full speed, such as dangerous platforming segments, and rooms that have some form of switch or control to be found before the exit opens. The parts that force the player to slow down provide a welcome change of pace and keep the parts that are fast from going stale. The level design can be complemented not only for it’s pacing, but for its multiple paths and lack of cheap death pits. Sonic 3 & Knuckles provides large platforming environments that often have two or three branching paths through them, and some paths are only accessible with Tails ability to fly, or Knuckles ability to climb and break through rock on contact. These various routes are laid out in such a way that the lowest route rarely has any gaps that would allow the player to fall out of the level and die. This means that in most circumstances if Sonic or another character misses a jump and falls, they land in a lower area of the level instead of dying. The exceptions to this are usually found in levels that are meant to be high in the sky, and the death pits are use to symbolize falling off of the level entirely. In the end rushing through levels is very satisfying but there are plenty of secrets and obstacles to discover and avoid at a slower more exploratory pace.

The game controls as all of the original Sonic games do, very simply and responsively. There is only one button, jump, which is also used to get a speed boost with a “spin-dash” if tapped while stationary and pressing down. If jump is pressed when Sonic is airborne a brief flash of lightning surrounds sonic protecting him from damage and slightly expanding his effective diameter which is very useful in attacking enemies. Tails can fly temporarily with his two tails if jump is pressed rapidly while he’s airborne, and Knuckles is sent into a gentle glide which allows knuckles to latch onto walls and climb. All three characters control with an excellent balance of momentum and control, allowing players to be agile without feeling like they are weightless.

The environments are colorful easy to look at, and while some textures are repetitive for a game made in the mid 90s there is as much detail as I would expect in any platformer. The character animations for Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles are fluid and vary greatly depending on the situation. Some rotating platforms will spin the characters displaying sprites from all angles, and the way the characters are animated through different running speeds and poses is quite smooth. The enemies are more simply animated, but are well done sprites nonetheless. Playing through recently I did encounter some sprite layering glitches where Tails was behind the background instead of in front which creates some pretty poor visibility issues, but this seemed to be a fairly uncommon glitch that only occurred in specific circumstances.

The portrait on the back wall is a prophetic hint at the optional final boss.

To people who grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog games, the music is often considered memorable and high quality. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is no exception, and the music for most levels is catchy, fitting for the environment, and loops quite well. Fans of old video game music will probably appreciate the soundtrack. The sound effects of the game are simple and effective, also well matched to their causal action. Sadly, one of my biggest complaints about Sonic 3 & Knuckles relates to music and sound. The loop of music that plays when a character becomes invincible is too short for the games good. If Sonic opens an invincibility power-up, the excited musical loop plays for a bit, but the power-up does not last long enough for the repetition to become an issue. However, if a player is good enough to collect all of the chaos emeralds hidden in special bonus stages throughout the game, Sonic can turn into the golden colored extremely fast Super Sonic, which also triggers the invincibility music. When this happens, Sonic is invincible to most forms of damage but his rings (the common collectible in Sonic games that are dropped when Sonic takes damage) count down. When they reach zero Super Sonic reverts to normal blue Sonic. However, a good player can collect rings as they rush through a level, and stay in Super form for quite a long time. The music punishes these good players by forcing them to listen to the short loop of invincibility music the entire time, overriding the much more varied and tolerable music from the zone Sonic is in. This seems like a major oversight in sound design to me. [Anyone who already knows they like Sonic music, or people who are interested in it and like video game music, should check out Project Chaos which is an entire album of remixed music from Sonic 3 and Knuckles.]

Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a game is a solid piece of work. Environments are pretty, exciting,  and dotted with mini-game special stages to gain power-ups and rings, as well as special stages where Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles is controlled from behind while running on a giant sphere to collect blue orbs and unlock a chaos emerald. When players progress from the levels within the Sonic 3 cartridge to the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge new super emeralds unlock leading players to even greater power. The story is told through brief character interactions and level transitions. While still a simple story like most platform games of the 90s, the bits that are there help provide a sense of connection between the different levels, and display the plans of the evil Dr. Robotnik in a quick understandable way. Collecting rings and finding power-ups feels important for the sake of survival, but being without isn’t frustratingly deadly. The boss fights against Dr. Robotnik’s robots are extremely varied, but fair in difficulty. No one boss should stump a decent player for too long once they recognize the pattern. A final touch to make this game stand out, especially considering the time it was made, was that the game saves automatically, allowing players to start on the level they left off, it has multiple save files to provide for the variety of character choice and multiple players, and when a game is completed in a save file, players can then use that save file as a level selector to replay the game from any point with whatever chaos emeralds and extra lives they had collected.

The game begins with a brief cut scene in which Sonic loses all the chaos emeralds he collected in Sonic 2.

Replaying Sonic 3 & Knuckles let me realize just how well designed it was even by todays standards. Sure, games today are often much longer, and obviously the quality of graphics and sound has greatly increased over the years, but for it’s time Sonic 3 & Knuckles demonstrated the strength of good game design, and is one of the best examples of the platformer genre in the 90s.


Do Endless Games Trade Satisfaction for Replayability?

As online multiplayer has increased in popularity and variety, and as small flash and mobile games have become easily accessible, endless games seem to have become quite common. First I should clarify my meaning of “endless.” Though some games are truly endless, like MMO’s in that you could play them forever and the game never ends, I’m more specifically referring to games that do end, but don’t have an ending. These are games where the only way out is to fail, die, or quit, otherwise the game would go forever. Some of the popular multiplayer examples of this class of games I’m referring to as endless are Call of Duty’s Zombie mode, Halo ODST’s Firefight mode, and other so-called “Horde” modes. On the flash game and mobile game end there are many games that are arguably endless; any auto-run games such as Canabalt where the player helps a character avoid obstacles while running non-stop and jumping games like Doodle Jump all continue until the user fails, quits, or the time runs out (if applicable). All these endless games tend to have great replayability but often seem to provide far less satisfaction than games that end.

I find that a large part of feeling accomplished at anything is completion, whether it’s a part or the whole of a project. Endless games subject players to a lack of the great feeling of completing a game. There may be minor feelings of accomplishments after beating certain levels, getting certain scores, or surviving certain challenges, but never that feeling of being truly done. Variety in games is certainly not a bad thing, so I wouldn’t say endless games shouldn’t be made. I’ve had my own share of fun with a variety of endless games. But I worry that they are becoming to popular and people are forgetting (or never learning) how good it feels to complete a “beatable” game. I would like to propose to game developers that while optional endless modes are great for a change of pace, the core of games should be beatable and completable when we desire them to be, so we aren’t infinitely stuck with that feeling of “I could have done better.”


Duke Nukem Forever Review – Good Fun with a Mediocre Game

Anyone who follows gaming news will know that the first person shooter Duke Nukem Forever has been in development since 1996, the year Duke Nukem 3D was released, and that the 15 years of delays have become quite the joke. Finally released on June 2nd of this year, Duke Nukem Forever was released by developer Gearbox Software, and has been met with generally mediocre reviews. My own experience with DNF was quite positive, but I wouldn’t say that it is a great game. The game feels like a strange combination of outdated design and graphics, modern gaming mechanics, misogynistic humor, and spoofs of modern games all rolled up into a ball of inconsistent difficulty.

I should provide perspective on how I played DNF; I sat down with a friend and played the Xbox 360 game on the “Come Get Some” difficulty (the third hardest of four, and the one I would call “hard”) passing the controller back and forth whenever we finished a level or died. I greatly recommend this approach to playing DNF because much like movies that are “so bad they are good” DNF is far more fun when you have a friend laughing with you at the games humor and flaws. With this method we plowed through the game over the course of four evenings in a row.

Low resolution textures become obvious up close.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t had fun completing Duke Nukem Forever, but I would also be lying if I said it was a great game. The Xbox version of the game had poor graphics, especially evident in the low resolution of textures when viewed up close. Halo 2 for the original Xbox could compete with DNF in terms of texture quality, and it would completely crush it if you compared character animation. Early in the game you can “admire” yourself in the mirror at the press of a button, causing Duke to say a cheesy line and increasing your max Ego which acts as your health bar. Looking in the mirror it is immediately evident how cheap Duke’s animations are. His torso doesn’t move as he runs and when you are switching or reloading weapons his arms move so simply it looks like a he’s a minimally jointed action figure. The game does present a greater variety of lighting than some shooters, some levels contain areas that are pitch black providing a use for Duke’s sunglasses’ night vision power. Sadly this night vision lights everything up in a painfully bright light blue and white color scheme, and emits an annoying high pitched note when it’s used.

"Duke Vision" comes with an annoying sound effect and too-bright whites.

DNF’s sound effects are pretty standard overall, the one major flaw I noticed being the silly grunt Duke emits every time he jumps. The witty/cheesy/terrible lines from Duke during gameplay like “Hail to the king, baby” and “Squeal, piggy” were surprisingly varied. By the end of the game I certainly started to notice a lot of repeats, the frequency of his statements and the number of them was balanced well enough that they never became too repetitive which is a rare plus for a talkative protagonist. The soundscape did have one gigantic flaw however, music. The music wasn’t bad, actually some of it was actually pretty good for a FPS, but there simply wasn’t much of it. Many levels in the game had no music at all, and as the game wasn’t otherwise endowed with ambient noises DNF isn’t so much hard on the ears as it is incredibly boring for them.

The gameplay heart of the game was unbalanced to say the least. As a practiced FPS player, I found enemies predictable and easy to kill. Most of the mid-level deaths my friend and I encountered were caused by enemies we didn’t see because of the surprisingly narrow field of view, or because we took the wrong approach to a fight on our first try. Generally, cautious play made most fights easy. In contrast, a few of the boss fights and one turret sequence are so hard on the difficulty my friend and I played that we had double-digit attempt counts between the two of us. It didn’t help that the controls on the Xbox 360 are poorly calibrated. The reticle movement on the analogue stick barely has any speed between slow and fast, and that combined with poor aim assist made high speed accuracy difficult. To make matters worse picking up ammo from ammo crates requires that the gun reticle is pointed straight at them while you hit a button, which forces players to look away from the enemies to grab for ammo.

Many elements of the game feel modern. Duke has a recharging “Ego” bar that works exactly like shields in Halo, absorbing damage until it is depleted at which point you can only take a couple shots before dying. Only two guns can be carried at once along side a a handful of grenades and other single use items like the ego reinforcing beer. The design on the other hand feels outdated, with lots of relics from old gaming clichés like move-the-barrel physics puzzles and jump pads. Levels mostly consist of narrow hallways connecting slightly bigger rooms with sporadic fights and platforming sections spread throughout both. There are some fun driving sections of the game, but because running enemies over instantly kills them and the aliens aren’t smart enough to get out of the way these driving sections are incredibly easy and don’t make for any interesting battles.

Driving Levels could have been great but are far too straightforward and easy.

All in all however, Duke Nukem Forever can be good fun in a simple minded laugh-at-how-bad-it-is sort of way. The way it strangely crosses old and new game design provided me with a strong feeling of nostalgia for older shooters like Goldeneye and Serious Sam while taking a small step into the modern space. It would be great if the game was better balanced, controlled better, looked better, and generally felt more polished, but after 15 years of development I’m glad Gearbox Software was able to finally release the game. Hopefully having Duke Nukem Forever off the table will allow a new iteration of Duke to be recreated in modern terms, with modern humor mixed with old references. The acceptance of games like Bulletstorm makes me think that Duke Nukem still has a place in the gaming world, it just needs to have a fresh slate to find that place, and for the first time since 1996, that slate is clean.