In the 14 years since Duke Nukem 3D was released my memory of my experiences with that game have become a bit blurry. I can remember playing it in secret as my parents had strictly banned any games where you could kill people (or people like creatures) which made it one of those taboo joys. From memory it was one of the earliest games I ever managed to actually get multiplayer working on, playing a few games with close friends from up the the street. I even started fiddling around with the level editor, making a few mazes with elevator traps that would crush players against the roof should they take too long to navigate it. I remember it being fun but nothing spectacular with my attention being drawn to Diablo very shortly afterwards.
But here we are, nearly a decade and a half later and we see the release of the sequel to that fated game. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been already been said about the delays that Duke Nukem Forever has undergone so I’ll just jump right into the review.
You play as Duke Nukem, former war hero, babe magnet and the embodiment of everything that is man. The entire first section (not counting the game within a game bit) of the game is dedicated to setting the scene of how much of a rock star Duke is since he beat back the aliens in DNF’s predecessor with nearly every character either lusting after you or idolizing you incessantly. It would be fine if it didn’t drag on for so long with a good 30 mins spent just simply walking around and listening to people talk, something that you’re not exactly looking for when you just want to shoot aliens Duke style. Of course the boring section comes to an end when the aliens who’ve arrived turn out to not be as peaceful as they made out to be, and it’s up to Duke to sort them out.
The rest of the game that follows is then like any modern day shooter. You have a health bar but unlike the health bars of old this one will regenerate should you not take damage for long enough. Thus most of the game is spent dodging in and out of cover like you would in Gears of War, except there’s no actual cover system so you just end up crouching or standing next to something. You can also only carry 2 weapons which is again yet another feature of modern “realistic” shooters. Granted I know why they did this (having more than 2 weapons on a console makes weapon switching cumbersome) but in the original Duke part of the fun was being able to whip out any number of ludicrous weapons to shred your enemies with and finding those game breaking weapons in hidden caches was part of the fun. There’s also various secondary weapons like pipe bombs and trip mines and a few other items that can help you out in certain situations (like steroids that make your melee attacks stronger).
The graphics of Duke Nukem Forever are expectedly poor when compared to other games released around the same time. It’s quite obvious that Gearbox was working with what they had been given as the assets used in the game wouldn’t be out of place if it was released say 3 years ago and redoing them would’ve made releasing the game infeasible. It still doesn’t make up for the fact that the game looks and feels quite dated especially when you compare it to already released games like Crysis 2 or upcoming releases like Battlefield 3. Graphics aren’t everything, Deus Ex still stands as an amazing game today for example, so I’ll be kind and let Duke Nukem Forever be judged on it’s other aspects.
Combat in the game is wildly varied from tense moments where I’d just pull through (and love it) to tiresome, boring and long scenes where I’d get killed by some stupid mechanic at one point because I didn’t know it was there. Some of the combat bits were really quite fun, especially some of the bosses where you’re given an outrageous weapon and unlimited ammunition to punish them with. However there were many times I find myself repeating the same combat scenario over and over again which, after the 5th time, is no longer fun and broke my immersion completely. I’d then find myself wondering why the hell I was playing this game and promptly leave it for the night.
It’s not just the combat that suffers from this problem either, some of the puzzle sections have the same issue. 2 of them stick out in my mind (minor spoiler alert) the first being that section where you have the scissor lift and have to stack barrels in a crane to get it to lower. Should you at any time die, due to any of the 4 combat encounters or just from the crazy physics at some places, you’ll be put straight back to the start of the puzzle and you’ll have to do it all over again. This wouldn’t have been too bad except for the fact that, for some reason, pipe bombs paced in front of the doors before they’re smashed will teleport directly to you after the enemies break in. I died at leas 4 times to this before I realized it was the pipe bombs killing me and not the enemy’s rockets. The second is during the final escape where a pigcop is throwing barrels at you. Since their motion is completely random there’s no way to predict their movement and often you’ll get caught trying to run into the safe nooks on the side by either a stray barrel or piece of geometry that stops you from progressing. Both of these scenarios made me hate the game when I was playing it, to the point of me not wanting to finish it at all.
The humor in Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t make up for it either with many of Duke’s lines being unfunny and sometimes down right fucked up. One section has you walking through the alien labyrinth where they’ve taken all the women where they’re (surprise surprise) being used for breeding. If you have mercy on them and kill them before aliens burst out of them Duke will sometimes make a joke about an abortion. If I’m honest this particular section was probably the most uncomfortable a game has made me in a long time, and that’s not a good thing. Sure there are some redeemable lines from Duke but overall I didn’t find it funny, enjoying the long periods of silence when Duke didn’t have anything to say.
I did however enjoy some of the vehicle section even if it was broken up with combat at random points to stop you from blasting through it all in under an hour. Mighty foot, Duke’s monster truck, is pretty fun to drive around in especially when you’re doing massive jumps over huge canyons. If I’m honest this was the kind of thing I was expecting from Duke Nukem Forever, just awesome over the top mindless fun. The remote control car section was far less enjoyable since you spent most of the time avoiding enemies rather than mowing them down and that section really couldn’t have ended any sooner.
Multiplayer is an obvious quick attempt at adding in some replay value into this otherwise 8 hour game. There are a few game modes (including the controversial Capture the Babe) but most of them aren’t anything above what you’d find in Quake 3. They’ve yet again tried to mirror modern shooters by adding in levels and rewards into the multiplayer experience but all of the things you can unlock in your “Digs” are just in game assets or pictures for your wall. With me taking getting about 1 level per game and not really feeling like playing more than 3 I can’t see many even bothering to slog through the 40+ levels just to unlock stuff that only you can see and don’t provide any multiplayer advantages.
When I first started thinking about this review I wondered if I should give the game any leniency due to its long development cycle and multiple studios that worked on it over the course of its life. Duke Nukem Forever’s story is not one that would’ve led to success for any other company and the only reason this game will recoup any of the development costs Gearbox spent on it is because of the Duke name. In the end I felt that like any other game it should be judged against its peers of the time and unfortunately for Duke that doesn’t bode well.
It’s got nothing to do with the hype surrounding it either. I went into Duke Nukem Forever with no expectations as I had, like always, avoided much of the hype and any demos of the game before its full retail release. The impression that I got was that this game was unfortunately still an unfinished mess that was riding the coat tails of its brand in order to be successful. That’s not to say another year or two of development would have fixed it though as since much of the game is 3D Realms’ original vision for Duke3D’s sequel the whole game really needed to be redesigned from the ground up to really be competitive in today’s market. Perhaps Gearbox could do better with the Duke Nukem Forever sequel, which I’m sure is already in pre-production.
Does that mean the game isn’t worth playing at all? It’s hard to say, Duke Nukem Forever does have its moments and there were times I enjoyed the game quite a bit. However overall it’s a pretty terrible first person shooter, adding in the wrong elements from modern day FPS’s and taking out the things that made the original Duke3D fun. I spent a grand total of 8 hours in the single player and 1 hour seeing if the multiplayer had any redeemable aspects about it only to be thoroughly disappointed. Whilst I don’t regret my decision to buy the Balls of Steel edition (since that’s my thing) I wouldn’t be encouraging anyone else who hasn’t already bought the game to rush out and get it. Still long time fans of the series might get a real kick out of it since I know at least one of my friends is constantly enamored with it. For regular gamers however you’re not missing out on anything special and you can easily wait for this one to come out on special.
Duke Nukem Forever is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 for $79.99, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played on the “Come Get Some” setting with a total of 8 hours played in single player and 1 hour in various multiplayer modes and 50% of all achievements unlocked.