’s early going lulls you into a false sense of security. You’re enjoying the sights, having fun with the environment and laughing despite yourself at the penis jokes and caricature characters. Then the actual gameplay starts and it’s all downhill from there. Archaic is a good word to describe it, perhaps retro if you’re feeling generous. If you thought platforming elements in shooters were best left in the 90s prepare yourself for quite a shock. There are nearly as many jumping puzzles as there are aliens to perforate. When, oh when, will game designers finally abandon the jumping puzzle? It’s such a relic of gaming days gone by.
But noooo, why bother designing another set-piece action sequence when you can artificially extend a game’s playtime by collapsing yet another floor or setting another room on fire, forcing the player to navigate the environment for 5 minutes until he finds just the right sweet spot to make that blessed jump to freedom? Duke Nukem Forever takes this design philosophy to extremes very early on during an extended miniature car racing segment which is nothing but a constant stream of jumping puzzles for a painful 20 minutes or so. It was an incredibly bad idea by the designers to include this sequence so early on in the game, you’ve barely gotten a feel for the shooting before you have to get through this tedious series of events.
Not that the shooting in Duke Nukem Forever is something you’ll be anxious to get back to, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the game only allows you to carry two firearms at a time. What the hell, guys??? This isn’t a Halo game, it’s a Duke Nukem game! Half of the fun of Duke Nukem 3D was having a wild arsenal of weapons at your disposal that you could whip out whenever you wanted. It’s a minor saving grace that Forever’s weapons at least manage to be decently entertaining, pipe bombs are still as fun to use as ever, especially in multiplayer, and the shrink-ray still elicits a few worthy chuckles. But more often than not, you’ll find yourself in situations where the shotgun would come in handy only to sigh impatiently as you realize you’re not carrying the right tool for the job.
Second of all, Duke Nukem Forever can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a retro shooter or a modern one. The Halo-style weapon selection is one symptom. A rebounding health/ego meter is another. While your ego does get bigger (tee-hee!) as the game goes along, for the first few hours of game play, even using the lowest difficulty setting, enemies still do a shit-ton of damage. The very first bad guy I encountered took me down to half health with a single swipe of its claws. Yes, your health fills back up if you duck behind cover long enough…but what kind of Duke game is this where I need to hide like a pussy every single time I get a booboo? Forcing Duke to cower like a girly-girl every five seconds really takes a lot of fun out of the character. I know that health packs are considered stupid these days but they would have made a lot of sense in this game.
It’s ironic that an early gag takes a cheap shot at Master Chief and the Halo franchise. Upon being offered a very Spartan-like suit of armor for protection, Duke lets it be known that “Power suits are for pussies!” Perhaps. But at least a power suit gives me a shield that opponents need to whittle down before they start chipping away at my health. As it stands, Duke is an incredibly fragile protagonist, rather than the spectacularly macho He-Man he’s supposed to be. Then again, he is 12 years older. Perhaps Duke needs to take his little blue pills too.
As you can imagine, this girly-man fragility makes gunfights against a large number of aliens a difficult proposition, since several opponents firing from different directions can easily overwhelm your defenses. Fighting is made even more difficult thanks to the idiotic enemy A.I. which is stuck firmly in the early 90s. Enemies, armed with guns or unarmed it doesn’t matter, will almost always seek to engage you up close, running right into the path of your bullets to try and hit you with melee instead of at range. A truly nightmarish alien spawning system will constantly drop bad guys right behind you, where they’ll proceed to drop your health down to nothing in 1-2 cheap shots before you even realize they’re on your six.
A rather annoying breed of teleporting alien will beam out each time you score a hit, forcing you to scan your environment until they port back in. Wash, rinse, repeat to infinity, all the while dodging other enemies while you try to finish just one of the porting bastards off. Battles quickly become a monotonous routine of circle strafing, ducking behind cover when your health gets low, running out of cover when a bad guy spawns on top of you, circle strafing some more…
After waiting 12 years for Duke Nukem Forever, you’d think the one aspect of the game its creators would have gotten perfectly would be the shooting. Instead, we get a bizarre mishmash of current-day shooter mechanics with some of the worst aspects of end of the 20th century game play. If I wanted to play a game from the 90s, I would have re-installed Duke Nukem 3D.
I know I sound harsh. You always hurt the one you love. (Which probably explains my daily booze/drugs and reckless masturbation regimen.) And there is a whole lot to love about Duke Nukem Forever. Unfortunately, most of what’s there to embrace wholeheartedly is in the domain of tone, décor, low-brow humor and a general willingness to offend anybody and everything. But as far as actually playing Duke Nukem Forever? Your mileage will vary depending on your patience for outdated game play, stupendously dumb enemy A.I. and a Duke so fragile he might as well be made out of glass.
Duke Nukem Forever does take a few potshots at some of the outdated game mechanics. One joke involves a computer telling Duke he needs to locate a red key card to get a door open. Duke characteristically replies with “I don’t need no fucking keycard!” and proceeds to force open the door with his bare hands. While this is a cute little jab at the key card hunting stupidity from games of the past, ( Why I need a key when I’m carrying a rocket launcher I’ll never understand.) there’s a saying about people in glass houses and the throwing of stones that applies here. Forever contains so many of the poorly thought out mechanics of yesteryear that it really shouldn’t make jokes.
Duke Nukem Forever provides gamers with many on-rails or stationary turret sequences. While these are always nicely done they, much like the jumping puzzles, feel like yet another method of artificially increasing the game’s length. If you took out all of these distractions and kept only the pure shooting segments, Duke Nukem Forever would be a pretty short game indeed. As it stands, I managed to finish the single-player experience in a single sitting, roughly 5-6 hours.
Duke Nukem Forever’s multiplayer somewhat redeems the lackluster main campaign. I have fond memories of rushing home from high school to partake in Duke Nukem 3D’s classic online mode. Pipe bombs are still as deviously evil to use as ever. Laser trip-mines still bring a smile to your face whenever some poor schmuck runs into the beams. Forever’s online modes are pretty standard fare for the genre. You have your deathmatch, your team deathmatch, capture the flag and king of the hill modes. The only minor twist is a “capture the babe” match, wherein your team must kidnap the opposing group’s babe, smacking her on the ass whenever she gets uppity with you during her abdudction. Classy!
While not a graphical marvel by any stretch of the imagination, Duke Nukem Forever’s visuals are still powerful enough to provide more than a few “Holy shit!” moments during the game’s bigger action scenes. Bosses tower over the tiny Duke, the early Vegas sequences are colorful and engaging and overall set design is impressive. A tour of Duke’s penthouse suite reveals a ton of cute little touches that really bring his world to life. There are posters of The Dukettes, a burlesque group of sexy dancers based on our hero, decorating the wall, awards of all sorts commemorating his world-saving antics, framed magazine covers…and this.
However, if you’re expecting a graphical masterpiece along the lines of Crysis 2, I recommend you go play that game instead. Duke Nukem Forever won’t give even lower-end machines any heart palpitations. Character models are blocky and lack detail. Environmental destruction effects are very poorly animated, with big pieces of the scenery just peeling off the main body without any bang. For a game that prides itself on its gory antics, the blood sprays in Duke Nukem Forever fail to give one the impression of doing any damage at all.
My biggest complaint is just how empty the entire game feels. Maybe it’s because the engine simply can’t handle huge crowds, maybe it’s just laziness on the part of the programmers, but you’ll never be amazed to see a flood of enemies running towards you or big waves of innocent civilians fleeing for their lives. In fact, once the action starts, apart from the occasional doomed red-shirt tagging along, it oftentimes feels as if Duke is the only person inhabiting the game world. City streets are empty, casinos are vast wastelands and apart from an entertaining visit to a titty-bar, you’ll be hard pressed to interact with any of the people you’re supposedly fighting for.
Duke Nukem Forever is NOT a bad-looking game, I want to make that clear. The engine provides just enough juice for what it needs to do and not a drop more. At this point it would be stupid to suggest that the game could have benefited from a longer development cycle and yet…there’s a general lack of polish and overall scale that could only have been improved by switching over to a better engine and spending more time on populating Duke’s world.
The only audio aspect of the game worth mentioning is, of course, the legendary Jon St. John’s performance as Duke Nukem. While his voice, much like Duke himself, as aged considerably, he still delivers the countless one-liners with appreciable gusto, tongue planted firmly in cheek. The rest of the cast does an adequate job, even if a few of the performers don’t seem to realize they’re in a parody of action movies and play their roles a bit too straight.
Duke Nukem Forever is not a bad product. It’s just a terribly outdated one, a relic of gaming days gone bye-bye. Had the game made its original release date twelve years ago reviewers would have been falling all over themselves to praise its merits. But we, as gamers, have evolved considerably since the days of Duke Nukem 3D. We demand more out of our shooters. Better graphics, better mechanics and, oddly enough, juvenile humor without a proper world to anchor it doesn’t float our boat anymore.
Duke Nukem the man was always a parody of action movie heroes. Duke Nukem Forever the game is a parody of Duke Nukem himself. And not a very flattering one, at that. I recommend playing the game simply because it needs to be played. After 12 fucking years, you can bet I’m going to suck every last ounce of Duke Nukem goodness out of it…who knows how long we’ll have to wait until the next one?
Your faithful reviewer,