I like to think of Duke Nukem Forever as the game that has single-handedly changed gaming forever, not necessarily in a good way, but in a way that has changed the way we work in this industry. I have never seen so much press about a game, and to be fair, there has never been a game that has taken over a decade to finally see the light of day. It almost feels surreal that I am actually playing this game, again not because it is so good, but simply because no one actually believed it would ever be released. Without further ado, I begin something I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime; I am about to review Duke Nukem Forever.
For anyone living under a rock for the past 14 years, DNF is an offensive first-person shooter follow-up to the classic Duke Nukem 3D released in 1997. Saying the game went through development hell is an understatement; passed between engines and ideas for over a decade before finally being picked up by Gearbox and 2K Games. Now we finally have a chance to play through one of the industry’s longest running game development cycles, and I will be honest, the game feels as old and inconsistent as you would expect it to.
From start to finish, DNF is about one thing: kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. The plot is as thin as tracing paper. Duke is back after twelve years living the high life. Aliens return to steal the chicks, and that is when Duke springs to action. No one ever accused the series of having thought-provoking narratives, and Forever does little to change that. Each level feels like an amusement park ride with wacky locales including Duke Burger, The Duke Cave and of course, the local strip club. The first and second acts of the game offer up diversity and uniqueness in their environments, while the third act falls flat forcing you through gray corridors and narrow hallways leading up to the final battle.
The actual shooting in DNF is fun for the most part, but the weapons seem to have lost their appeal over time. The shrink ray and freeze ray are not quite as enjoyable as I remember, and when the best two weapons in the game are the shotgun and pistol, you know things are amiss. Funny enough, shooting doesn’t feel like the core of the action. Instead, DNF uses several dated mechanics to progress certain levels such as vehicle segments and physics-based puzzles, much like you’ll find in Valve’s Half-Life. All of this progression gives the game a vibe that it was created in early 2000, which is fitting considering it was. Some gamers will turn their noses up at the idea, but for me, like others out there, it was actually a nostalgic experience.
This doesn’t excuse the poor design in most areas. The incessant platforming segments really needed to be trimmed down, and some of the puzzles simply feel unnecessary. In fact, late in the game Duke mutters that he hates pipe puzzles, and sure enough there is one right in front of me. I share that sentiment, Duke. Why it was left in is the greatest puzzle of all.
There are plenty of ways to interact with the environments, like in the past game, and these actually do serve a purpose. Duke’s health is shielded by his Ego bar. Think of it as a shield and you get the idea. When it goes down, find cover and let it fill back up. You can extend this bar by doing various things in the environment such as playing pinball, lifting weights and, of course, ogling naughty pictures of ladies. There are plenty of other things to interact with, and some even spark dialogue from Duke, but these tricks definitely show the game’s age, as these small details were only relevant in the early 2000s.
Where Duke will falter is the fact that this feels like a game that should have been released a decade ago. The visuals on 360 and PS3 suffer from poor textures and frame rate issues, and while the PC iteration is superior, it still looks dated by today’s standards. It also doesn’t help that the entire pacing of it feels mish-mashed from the outset. Levels never feel cohesive and, at times, the game feels like a mess of ideas all thrown into a mixer with Forever as the result. I will be the first to admit that the nostalgia alone is worth it to me. The crude humor and pokes at other games are fantastic, and I genuinely still love Duke as a character. If you have never cared for the blonde macho man, Forever is certainly not going to change your opinion. In fact, it might make it worse.
In addition to the story mode, there is also an online component, but like everything else it definitely doesn’t offer anything revolutionary. You have the two standard deathmatch modes and a capture mode that uses babes instead of flags. It’s typical stuff, but I would be remiss if I said I didn’t have some fun with it. Conventional as it is, the levels are interesting and the promise of DLC means I will throw it in from time to time just for kicks, but it certainly won’t replace any other shooter out there.
Another area DNF falls apart is with its visuals. The game is not pretty by any stretch of the imagination and, to top it off, technical problems abound. The game uses the Unreal Engine, and it shows with texture pop-in, but most of the architecture is bland with stale colors. The Duke Burger level is one exception and actually gave me hope for the last part of the game. Unfortunately, the third act is twice as ugly as the first two. Sound wise, things are pretty standard with Duke sounds aplenty, but the star is of course Jon St. John voicing our loveable protagonist. The lines are solid and the references are great. Hearing the theme from Team America really drove it home for me. Duke just isn’t Duke without Jon at the helm.
Duke Nukem Forever is a fickle beast. On one hand, it is amazing that the game is finally out and we actually get to play it from start to finish. On the other hand, the game feels like it was released ten years ago and someone just now found it lying on the shelf. Still, I love Duke. I had a blast with the game, and I think fans of the series will, too. It definitely cannot live up to 14 years of hype, hell it would be lucky to live up to two years worth in this day and age, but the truth was the game entertained me, and that was worth it for me. If you are not a fan, don’t bother. However, if you are like me and just need to experience the game for your bucket list, you will at least find some satisfaction in the ride.
Review copy provided by publisher. Played through on Xbox 360 and PC.