Well here’s a day I honestly never thought I’d live to see – the day I come to play, and review, Duke Nukem Forever. With such a long and troubled development cycle, I’d long ago written the game off as a lost cause. How could it possibly be any good after so many years and after being handled by so many studios (seriously, there are five of them in the opening credits)? Gearbox took on a seemingly impossible task and somehow managed to deliver an actual product. But is Duke Nukem Forever actually fun, or is it too little, too late?
Duke Nukem Forever begins in a bathroom. The first thing you do is take a nice long piss in a urinal, and immediately following, you have the opportunity to pick up, and throw around, a wet turd. With Duke spouting such gems as “a turd in the hand is worth two in the bush”, it’s hard to not feel strangely compelled by this singular lump of feces. It also sets the tone for the rest of the game – no, I don’t mean that it’s shitty like so many other critics are asserting, I mean it’s full of clever and unexpected environmental interactions.
The story in DNF is set some 12 years after the events of Duke Nukem 3D. Duke is a world renowned hero, having fought off the alien invasion, and is idolized by many. As he’s about to make an appearance on the talk show “Damn, It’s Late!”, the aliens return to take their revenge and manage to kidnap Duke’s babes. What follows is a twisting tale of betrayal, emotion, friendship and…ok, that’s not really true. The story can’t really be considered one of DNF’s strong points, but in Duke’s long history, it never really has been.
Gameplay, the area where it really counts, is something of a mixed bag in DNF. In many ways, Duke feels like a relic from a time in gaming’s past. Whereas shooters today are just straight run and gun affairs for the most part, DNF still employs a heavy amount of puzzle solving and platforming – the latter being a bit too pervasive. You’ll be doing a lot of platforming during the single player campaign, and though much of it is fairly easy, first person platforming is something that has simply never worked all that well in any game except for Mirror’s Edge.
The puzzles mostly fare better than the platforming does. While you’ll sometimes see barrel or box moving puzzles a la Half-Life 2, there are some here that are genuinely clever. One such example is rotating and moving the arms of a giant Duke statue to provide a ramp to the next area. Another even better example has Duke realigning pipes to send a deadly plume of steam toward the alien shrubbery blocking your path. Of course, when he twists the valve to start the steam flowing, Duke mutters “Man, I hate Valve puzzles”. Sort of ironic considering so many of Duke’s puzzles take after Valve’s particular brand of puzzling, though.
One of the things Duke Nukem 3D pioneered was environmental interactions, and Duke Nukem Forever has expanded upon this notion in a lot of clever ways. You’re given permanent Ego (health) boosts for interacting with certain objects in the environment, so there is real incentive to go exploring. Everything from microwaving some popcorn, to bench pressing some weights, to air hockey, to making a photocopy of your own ass, to slapping grotesque alien wall-boobs, the game has no shortage of things to play with in the environment. It’s easy to get caught up playing video poker or Alien Abortion (whack-a-mole) and the game is packed full of these interactions.
Of course, the meat of any shooter is, well, the shooting. DNF is definitely a shooter of the “twitch” variety, meaning the aiming is fast and the goal is to just shoot everything that moves without concern for general strategy. The weapons at your disposal – mostly returning favorites like the Ripper, Shrink Ray and Rocket Launcher – are joined by new additions such as the powerful Railgun and alien weapons like the AT Captain laser or the Enforcer gun. There are also separate buttons for throwing trip mines and pipe bombs now, making it easy to access them in a pinch. Strangely, there is usually not a lot of cover to be found in combat situations, which can be frustrating since Duke takes damage relatively quickly. Sometimes, bosses will pound you from all angles and it can be very difficult to find a spot to recover your Ego.
After about 10 – 15 hours, quite lengthy for a shooter these days, DNF’s campaign reaches its inevitable conclusion and ends with a whimper, rather than a bang. You fight the Cycloid Emperor (who looks just like the other 2 Cycloids you fight during the game), and *spoiler alert* Duke appears to die. He doesn’t, of course, saying “What kind of lame ending is that? I’m not dead! I’ll be back, baby.” then roll credits for the next 10 minutes. Pretty underwhelming, frankly. Single player also has some serious pacing issues as well, as you’ll spend just as much time not shooting as you will spend in combat. One odd non-sequitor sees Duke knocked unconscious and places him in the Titty City strip club. You are then tasked with a fetch quest and are given free reign to play all the games there or get lap dances. It just goes on for too long and the way it’s thrown in there seems very out of place.
Fortunately, DNF’s multiplayer fares better than its somewhat disjointed single player. Spread across 10 maps and 4 modes, DNF multiplayer has a fairly standard assortment of features. Duke Match and Team Duke Match are your basic deathmatch and team deathmatch respectively, and serve as a fast paced and fun way to play. Hitting someone with a shrink ray and stepping on them is a joy that never fades. Capture the Babe mode serves as capture the flag, with a couple of twists. For one thing, babes like to fight back and will put their hands in your face to obscure your vision. The cure for this is the controversial “reassuring slap”. Also, unlike most capture the flag games, you can capture an enemy babe even if the opposing team is already carrying yours. Hail to the King mode serves as king of the hill – players are limited to their fists and explosives and the hill moves every 30 seconds or so.
In addition to the standard gameplay modes, DNF also sports a player progression system. It’s similar to what you can find in most modern shooters, along with an assortment of XP boosting challenges. Duke has also got his “Digs” to decorate. Basically a giant bachelor pad, you’ll unlock items to place around your Digs – some merely cosmetic like bronze babe statues, others more functional like a working basketball court and game room. It gives the player a nice bit of extra incentive to keep leveling up.
On a technical level, Duke Nukem Forever fares much better on a PC than it does on PS3 or Xbox 360. While it’s not exactly the graphical belle of the ball in this day and age, that doesn’t stop it from running at generally unstable framerates on consoles. The aliasing and load times on consoles are also pretty bad, with the Xbox version in particular taking upwards of 30 seconds to load areas. Better hope you don’t die a lot, cause you’ll be waiting through a lot of load screens. PC is definitely the way to go here, as the load times are super quick and the graphics look much sharper. Consoles just got sloppy seconds this time around.
When all is said and done, Duke Nukem Forever is a very difficult game to judge. Had it arrived 5 or 6 years ago, it probably would have been hailed as a revolution for the shooter genre. As it stands, its design is decidedly antiquated and will probably not appeal to the average fan of modern first person shooters. The biggest issue is that there were simply too many hands in the pot here which resulted in a disjointed single player experience. However, for people who were fans of Duke Nukem 3D back in the day and can appreciate the generally crass sense of humor, there is plenty of fun to be had aside from pure nostalgic value, particularly with the game’s multiplayer. After 12 years in development, what we’re left with is not a great game, but not nearly the unmitigated disaster the rest of the gaming press seems to believe it is. Just make sure you play it on PC.
Duke Nukem Forever was released on June 14th, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.