Face-Off: Duke Nukem Forever

Sub atomic.

- Xbox 360 PlayStation 3
Disc Size 5.7GB 4.6GB
Install 5.7GB (optional) 4427MB (mandatory)
Surround Support Dolby Digital Dolby Digital, 7.1LPCM, 5.1LPCM, DTS

There's nothing quite so welcome in the retro community as the release - or leak - of a hitherto unpublished game, the chance to check out a slice of gaming history that, for whatever reason, was never released. Duke Nukem Forever in its final form is not a good game, and yet it is one that should be played for precisely the same reason that retro addicts crave those unreleased Mega Drive and Saturn titles: it's a fascinating episode of our gaming heritage, and it's a miracle that we're playing it at all.

The story of Duke Nukem's resurrection in the wake of 3D Realms' demise in 2009 is remarkable in itself. In the wake of 3DR's implosion, eight developers began work piecing together the existing assets into something approaching an actual game. That outfit named themselves Triptych Games, who then relocated to the offices of Gearbox Software and worked with Randy Pitchford's team in finishing the game, farming out console duties to Piranha Games, previously credited with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Bearing in mind the decade-plus development cycle, it's perhaps not surprising that Duke Nukem Forever looks and to a large extent plays like a game from long ago. Overall quality of the art often seems as if it hails from the late PlayStation 2 period, although we occasionally see a level of complexity akin to a year-two Xbox 360 title. Texture quality is often extremely low, suggesting that even the target PC spec for the game is somewhat ancient.

In terms of gameplay, there's a range of hit and miss "one hit wonder" ideas peppered throughout the campaign, which at least keeps things interesting, but the more magpie elements in the design aren't quite so welcome. The notion of being able to wield just two weapons (patently and obviously nicked from Halo) just doesn't sit right in the overall scheme of the game.

Perhaps it is best to view Duke Nukem Forever almost as a retro piece, and at a stretch you might even call it an HD remaster of a game that never came out. Unfortunately though, despite the simplistic graphics, this game doesn't actually run in a high-definition resolution on either console platform.

Duke Nukem Forever compared on 360 and PS3 - use the full-screen button for 720p resolution, or click on the link below for a larger window.

What we're seeing here looks like an 1152x640 framebuffer on both console versions, without the benefit of any kind of anti-aliasing whatsoever. The game is a mess of shimmering jaggies and high-contrast edges and there's very little in the way of post-processing (for example, motion blur or bloom) that would help to mitigate the very visible aliasing, which is only exaggerated as the game is upscaled by the consoles to a 720p output.

In truth, there is very little to separate the two versions of the game in terms of artwork and effects - as you might hope, bearing in mind the overall antiquity of the visuals. The biggest difference seems to be in the implementation of the shadows - in many places, there's a feeling that they are missing on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It takes a bit of effort, but you can see that they are there, albeit very faintly, suggesting that there is an offset bias issue at work, similar to what we think is happening with Final Fantasy XIII where the shadows are pushed back into the surface they should be cast onto.

In the Duke Nukem Forever comparison gallery, the biggest point of differentiation seems to centre around texture quality. However, these isolated snapshots of the game don't tell the full story: the game seems to have serious issues in streaming textures, to the point where sometimes it seems as if the code gives up, leaving ugly low-res artwork on-screen instead. It even happens on the PC version, albeit very rarely.

Overall, the games appear to be fairly evenly matched on console in terms of imagery, but it's a whole different ballgame when it comes to performance. The Xbox 360 version of Duke Nukem Forever is nothing short of unmitigated disaster in this area, and easily one of the ugliest and most poorly performing shooting games we've tested in quite some time.

The frame-rate analysis tells the full story.

While overall image quality is much the same on both platforms, the PS3 dominates in terms of performance with a relatively consistent 30FPS frame-rate and minimal screen-tear. The 360 game suffers somewhat in comparison.

It's a night-and-day difference between the two consoles. The Microsoft platform runs the game with an uncapped frame-rate, presenting some of the worst screen-tear we've seen in recent times. It seems that the people in charge of the conversion could only manage to get any semblance of a 30 frames-per-second refresh by updating the framebuffer as soon as a frame was rendered, and even then we still see some alarming drops in overall performance. The result is an unwelcome assault on both the look of the game and the way it plays.

The contrast with the PlayStation 3's showing is remarkable. In an interview with the PlayStation Blog, Randy Pitchford talked about "amazing optimisations" for the PS3 version courtesy of Piranha. The PlayStation 3's ability to run at what is effectively a locked 30FPS with only very minor outbreaks of screen-tear creates a remarkable difference to the experience of actually playing the game. While it's still objectionably ugly in many ways (hardly "amazing" bearing in mind the standard of the average FPS these days), at least the game provides a consistent level of visual feedback to the gameplay experience, with controls that feel solid and dependable.

In Eurogamer's damning Duke Nukem Forever review, Dan Whitehead points out that the game does have its moments, and that there are sections where interesting concepts provide a kind of experience very distinct from the usual FPS offerings. The PlayStation 3 version of the game makes these sections more fun to play, and even the meat-and-drink gunplay basics just feel better in comparison with the unfortunate 360 version. Performance is the key difference here, and the PC game is better still.

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