Duke Nukem Forever
The hardest part of reviewing Duke Nukem Forever is knowing where to start – after such an incredibly long gestation period, there was virtually zero chance of the much-delayed game ever delivering on all – or indeed any – of its prolonged hype and the absurd expectations that had built around it. It’s a game that floundered in development hell for so long that, at some point, it became a lost cause. But now, after fourteen turbulent and baffling years and with the bitter-sweet taste of retail release on the tip of its tongue, DNF’s run-of-the-mill design conventions and bygone attempts at ‘attitude’ only serve to remind us all that, in the end, the King has actually been de-throned for a long, long time.
To get a good understanding of the general tone in DNF, look no further than the very beginning of the game: the first interaction available to the player is a prompt to hold the right trigger and ‘piss’ into a toilet urinal. Once Duke has finished his bodily duty and zips up, free reign to walk around the environment can potentially result in picking up a ‘turd’ from the inside of a nearby toilet (punctuated by the pleasant ding of an achievement unlocking), just as Duke makes some rather candid remarks about doing so. This can all be done within the first thirty seconds of the game – that is, shortly after the sounds of heavy metal guitar and random sound files of explosions greet with all the grace and subtlety of Duke Nukem himself.
Although the ‘1980s tough guy’ trope remains at the forefront of his persona, there is still a distinct charm to Duke’s self-referential crudeness. Call it ironic, call it tasteless – it doesn’t really matter. Sure, not all the jokes are winners – the freshly-spun jabs at pop culture range from the somewhat recent to the noticeably ancient – and the tactless objectification of women is sewn right into the fabric of the bare-bones story itself. But even still, the uniquely loveable qualities of Duke Nukem as a character never completely went away; he possesses the brand of cringe-worthy panache that occasionally raises a smile in spite of its own dated silliness.
Most of the delights to be found in DNF come about simply by screwing around in the environment. Whilst later events prove less silly by comparison, the first few levels are surprisingly ripe with small creative touches. Whether the Duke is hap-hazardly slinging around a handful of aforementioned faeces or commendably signing an autograph for a young fan, peoples’ admiration for Duke is appropriately farcical. In fact, the unanimously positive treatment that Duke Nukem receives from the world’s surrounding characters is the missing link that could have bolstered the narrative to even campier heights.
The game itself is less desirable, focusing almost all of its action and brief puzzle sections on mechanics that would maybe have been considered viable several years ago. Half-Life 2’s development clearly had some influence on George Brussard and the gang when its style was in vogue: straightforward physics puzzles are a constant in between the Halo-inspired combat, complete with a regenerative ‘Ego’ shield for health and a strict two weapon limitation. Dismembering a greasy pig up-close with a shotgun is admittedly fun, but it’s a violent feat no more satisfying than even the early Soldier of Fortune games; not the mention that the recent Bulletstorm joyfully catered to that specific need with all the requirements expected of a meaty modern day shooter.
Subtantial technical faults are also shamefully abundant: suffering through the lengthy load times is a true test of patience, especially when the level the engine spent so long trying to render is awash with painfully flat textures and jagged, PS2-era geometry. Ridiculously choppy frame-rate is the main offender of all the obvious issues, however, sullying things to a state of unplayability on more than a few occasions during the ten-or-so hours it takes to finish the campaign. It’s all rather inexcusable given that Gearbox had deigned to ‘clean up’ the cutting room floor left in the wake of 3D Realms’ disbandment. As linear as they are, levels are also poorly designed, especially where boss battles are concerned. The feeling of being cheated by the game’s poorly constructed choke points and serious lack of cover crops up more times than is often tolerable.
Multiplayer offers up a suite of generic modes that scale down the already bland visual fidelity, making for adversarial action that is as lifeless to play as it is to look at. All those great multiplayer memories from Duke Nukem 3D should be preserved as just that – the Dukematches in particular are no more than than a window back to 1996 but with all the lag and clunkiness left seemingly untouched. If all else fails, the Capture the Babe mode will happily demean the experience even more, as it casually posits the method of spanking as a means to subdue a shoulder-flung captured babe when she attempts to wriggle out from the Duke’s dominating manly grasp. And no, that’s not a joke.
Duke Nukem Forever is a strange enough novelty all on its own, but when all is said and done, it is a vastly aged shooter that is left trailing in the dust of its modern contemporaries. Beyond any unspoken drama that led to over a decade’s worth of unfinished work coming to an unceremonious and curious conclusion, the end result is a game that ultimately fails to justify its existence as a full-price offering for a variety of reasons. If anything, its arrival is better advertised as a red-letter moment in videogame history, but unfortunately not in the way we all would have liked.
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