Duke Nukem Forever: A Posthumous Review
Duke Nukem Forever might be one of history’s most infamous games. It began life in 1996 under the lazy eye of 3D Realms, who had perhaps grown too comfortable off that sweet, sweet Duke 3D money. So comfortable, in fact, that they worked on the game for an alarming 13 years before someone finally noticed that the lights were still on in their office and shut them down for good. A year later in 2010 Gearbox Software acquired the smoldering heap, polished it up a bit, and released it in June 2011.
A couple weeks before the release of DNF, Gearbox finally made the demo available to members of their “First Access Club”. I had a code that was included with the Borderlands Game of the Year edition, and was super excited to be getting an early demo for what I was sure would be a great game. And then I went like this.
The demo was pretty much three funny things followed by the worst shooter I had played since…well…the mid 90’s. I immediately registered my disappointment across the Internet and then began betting with my girlfriend on when the game would hit $15. Turns out “before August 8th” was the answer, and she got me a copy for my birthday. Now, $60 Duke Nukem Forever was kind of a joke. But free Duke Nukem Forever was something else entirely, and I immediately bumped it to the top of my backlog queue. Now I’ve finished it, and I feel like I should take back some of the bad things I said. And I never take back bad things I’ve said, so listen up.
This is all in all a pretty great game, if you keep the bloated timeline in mind. I tried as I played it to pretend like it was the late 90’s, and in that context it’s fairly mind-blowing. If you still enjoy Duke Nukem 3D there is very little that would prevent you from liking Duke Nukem Forever. The gameplay is pretty similar other than the more linear maps and omission of keycards-a major staple of the 90’s first person shooter genre. Although there is a keycard reference. The major changes are regenerating health (or EGO, as it were) and a maximum two weapon carrying capacity. Both of these seem like unnecessary concessions to more modern franchises such as Halo and Call of Duty, but they don’t really hinder gameplay that much. The maps are absolutely littered with the full variety of weapons to allow for frequent changes, and to be honest I don’t really miss hunting for medkits. I also thought it was cool that you can permanently boost your health bar by taking part in such ego-enhancing activities as racking up a huge pinball score, smoking a cigar, or getting a lapdance.
I found myself consistently laughing at the various jokes and one-liners, but be aware that your mileage may vary on this. My favorite films lie along the lines of Terminator and RoboCop, so tough guy one-liners and thinly veiled sexual references are pretty much what I love. One entire level takes place in a strip club owned by Duke Nukem himself, and it is 100% jokes. There are no enemies and the attack button is disabled the whole time. It’s basically just looking at oddly-animated strippers, drinking some beers, and maybe playing some air hockey.
Don’t get me wrong though, the humor doesn’t always work. For example, about midway through the game you will find yourself inside an alien hive, where several bound and topless ladies have been involuntarily impregnated by said aliens. Now, aliens are known to do this. We’re on familiar territory here. But what isn’t normal is having your hero continue to crack jokes at their expense, while leaving you the player with two options of dealing with the situation. You can either leave these women alone and get to listen to their cries of despair (if you can hear them over the jokes), or you can pistol whip them to death. I’m going to come right out and say it, whoever designed this level is a sociopath. I am one of the hardest people to offend that you will ever meet. I have backed my stolen car over a hooker in Grand Theft Auto to get my $20 back. And still I can easily say that this is the most deplorable thing I have ever seen in a video game. I can’t believe this made it past so many people and into a finished product, or that even one person though it would be fun for anyone else. Okay, let’s move back onto something more positive.
Something that I found refreshing was the combat system, which is pretty much pure 90’s run-and-gun. Sure, modern enemy AI and intricate cover systems are nice, but basically every game has those things now. When’s the last time you ran in circles around a 30-foot boss while pummeling it with about 500 rockets? Don’t you kind of miss that? Or not having to worry about which enemy is vulnerable to which weapon? They’re all weak against bullets and explosions, end of story.
Unfortunately that action kind of breaks up whenever you hit one of the game’s handful of gimmick levels. These can be basically broken down into two categories: “driving” and “platforming while tiny”. There are two major tiny platforming areas, where Duke is reduced in size and forced to navigate a larger world a la Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. I get where they were going with this, but it doesn’t end up being fun. Basically all first person platforming is horrible, and there’s no way around that. If you have to get onto a tiny platform in the middle of electrified water, and you can’t see your feet, you are having less fun than you should be in a video game. I was also mystified by a loading screen “hint” that tells you to listen for the distinct sound of enlarging platforms if you should find yourself shrunken down. Well…I don’t know how to tell you this game developers, but every instance of being shrunk begins with that variety of platform and then ends with the enlarging one. There’s not much to look for in the way of platforms of either type. The gimmick is interesting though, and fairly unique to the series.
Then there’s the driving. Not too much to say here, as most driving is also horrible and unwelcome in first person shooters. The one positive is that the game mercifully has your monster truck run out of gas on a regular basis so you can get out, shoot some aliens, and look for more gas. Those are the best parts. Oh, and in a major innovation there is a part where you drive while you are also tiny. Which again doesn’t present you with options, it’s just “you’re small, here’s an RC car, drive until we tell you to stop”. Also on the subject of driving, Gearbox for some reason decided that “clunky desert monster truck level” should be in the demo. Explain that to me, Gearbox. You have a game with a gigantic target audience but one which is the cause of much skepticism and hesitation. Then you get people really hyped up for an early demo. Then you make that demo one of the worst levels in the game, and proceed to be surprised when sales are noticeably less than anticipated. Well played, gents.
It might sound at this point like I’m giving a negative review, but I’m really not. I think one of the major weaknesses of Duke Nukem Forever is that its negative qualities are more tangible and easily verbalized than the positives. If you’re really a fan of old-school 90’s FPS action (and thus in this game’s target demographic), you’re probably going to find something here to enjoy. You get some solid old-timey gunplay, gratuitous nudity that isn’t of the freakish Castlevania boss variety, and a wide variety of level types (even if they don’t always pan out).
Basically as a $60 game with the full force of Gearbox hype and 15 years of anticipation behind it, Duke Nukem Forever is a wreck. But if they’d released at $30-40 and then come out and said “look it’s an old game and we didn’t really fix it, but if you buy it we’ll use the money to make a better one”, I think they’d be left with a lot more happy customers. Because there is quite a bit of fun to be had here in between the failures. And because I firmly believe that, deep down, everyone wants to bet on Duke.