Duke Nukem Forever Review14 Jun 2011  by
Almost 15 years. That’s how long it’s been since Duke Nukem Forever was announced. That is, quite frankly, a staggering amount of time, and it’s hard to really understand just how long it is. There’s a marvellous, marvellous little site cataloguing all sorts of stuff that happened in that time period, and I highly recommend you give it a read. Did you know, for instance, that the Beatles formed, released every album, and split up in less time than it took to make DNF? Did you know that every single Grand Theft Auto game was released between DNF’s announcement and launch? That page puts things into a horrifying perspective.
But now, finally, Duke Nukem Forever is here, and there are questions. Questions like: “Was it worth the wait?” No. Don’t be silly. No game is worth nearly 15 years of waiting.
The logical second question, then, is: “Alright, smartarse. But it any good?” No, for a variety of reasons on which I’ll elaborate shortly, but with the caveat that plenty of people are going to enjoy it anyway.
Honestly, the biggest problem faced by Duke Nukem Forever is that it’s a 15 year old game. Everything it does – a lot of which would’ve been quite clever and fresh back in the late 90s – is now old and dated.
Worse, it suffers from a hybridisation between old and new; this isn’t the Duke Nukem that fans of Duke Nukem 3D will remember, but equally it’s not nearly up to the par set by the games from which it stole the two weapon limit, regenerating health gimmicks, and physics puzzles. Even when DNF manages to make use of both its new mechanics and its history to create fun moments, they either outstay their welcome or they’re overshadowed by the competition.
Most examples I could give fit this bill. One extended sequence sees Duke driving a monster truck through a desert, running over aliens and smashing through wooden shacks and buildings. On the one hand, enjoying destruction is something I think is pretty much inherent to most gamers, and there’s an undeniable thrill in romping over a pack of aliens and then careening through the supports of a tower.
On the other hand, the section in question lasts longer than most other levels in the game – easily long enough that, every time I got back in the monster truck after a short shooter reprise, I sighed – and, well, we’ve seen superior driving and destruction in a variety of games, from Halo and Bad Company 2 to Red Faction. An earlier segment has a miniaturised Duke driving an RC car, and what should’ve been a short section worth a grin becomes a long, drawn-out, and intensely tedious affair.
Bluntly put, there’s no art. It might seem weird to cite a lack of art as a problem in a game as deliberately crass as this, but that’d be misunderstanding the genius of its predecessor. Say what you will about the masses of clichés and the wholly immature humour (embarrassingly, I rather enjoy it, for the same reasons I still like watching Commando) but Duke Nukem 3D was a fantastically designed game.
Everything about Duke3D raised a smile: weapons were inventive, secrets were rewarding to discover, levels were surprisingly open, and enemies and locations were both varied and ridiculous. The game had so many little touches tucked away that exploring the levels was a joy. It was stunningly well-designed and consistently surprising, and it was clearly made by a team full of love for their creation.
Duke Nukem Forever, by comparison, borrows too heavily from its history and adds nothing. Most of Duke’s witticisms are all-too-familiar, and more likely to raise a groan than a smirk. Almost all of the enemies are taken from its forebear, and so too are all but one of the weapons. Worse is that, as a by-product of the two-weapon limit, the more interesting toys like the Shrink Ray and the Freeze Ray tend to be used only for special occasions. Unless you make a concerted effort, you’re going to end up ditching them for old standbys like the Shotgun and the Ripper.
There’s plenty of stuff that just doesn’t fit the game, either. I never took Duke to be the type of chap who’d spend five minutes wandering around a construction yard, picking up heavy blue barrels and putting them into a freight container to unbalance it so he could climb to a higher level. Wisecracks about “hating valve puzzles” – haha, yes, let’s poke fun at Portal – aren’t worthwhile if it means putting a puzzle involving turning valves and moving pipes in a Duke Nukem game. And much as you can make jokes about not needing red keycards anymore, it falls flat when you’re instead shuffling around looking for other items needed to proceed. Game logic rears its ugly head here, too: while Duke can rip steel doors open and wrench shutters upwards (which, with crushing inevitability, involves hammering the space bar repeatedly), simple wooden doors are impassible obstacles if the designers want you to take a more circuitous route.
This isn’t the only place where the level design is uneven. Another of the great little things about Duke3D was that there were plenty of things to interact with, often eliciting little surprises. You could use the toilets, and stick your fingers in plug sockets, and tapping ‘Use’ on the pinball machines gave a quip! DNF puts the majority of these interactive moments into the first two levels (both of which take place before the action kicks off, and do at least set the scene rather well) and the rest appear in a frankly bizarre strip club level in middle of the game. This level, incidentally, serves no purpose whatsoever except to let you play pinball and air hockey, presumably because the level designers couldn’t figure out where else to fit these interactive bits in the game.
On the plus side, said interactive bits have a purpose. Winning at air hockey, smoking a cigar, or flicking through a skin magazine increases Duke’s maximum health, referred to here as “Ego” – which, in hindsight, is brilliant. Duke’s ego is so huge it actually lets him survive multiple gunshot wounds, simply because he doesn’t believe he can die. It’s one of the (very) few genuinely funny moments of the game.
There are some brief shining moments, admittedly, but they sputter and die all too quickly. Another mid-game section is set in a sort of wild west ghost town, and it features not only some hugely chaotic gunfights, but a number of optional little side areas to explore. Brilliant. There’s a wonderful miniaturised firefight in a fast food restaurant, with mustard and mayonnaise jars as exploding cover. Excellent. A couple of sections in the late game again give you scope for slapping down trip mines and having frantic shotgun battles with pig cops. That’s what we want.
Then, inevitably, these bits end, and you’re suddenly in one of the game’s unbelievably terrible underwater sections, or another over-long driving section, or another sodding platforming section, or just a very brown stretch of disappointingly dull and uninspired shooting.
The shooting isn’t always dull and uninspired, admittedly. On the rare occasion in which the game gives you scores of enemies and a nice wide area to fight them in, it elicits memories of the frantic and frenetic blasting that underscored the old Duke Nukem experiences. All too often, though, you’re following a linear path along brown and cracked streets or a brown and cracked desert, shooting aliens, hiding behind cover and popping out again to shoot. I can put these constraints down to replacing quicksave with checkpoints, and changing to a regenerating health mechanic that requires you to spend time hiding behind obstacles in every gunfight, but understanding why something exists doesn’t mean it’s good.
By and large, the shooting simply doesn’t click. Few of the weapons feel big and hefty, and regularly cowering behind obstacles feels somehow wrong for this game. Other games have done linear shooting far, far better.
The final nail in the coffin, for me, is the multiplayer. Playing on familiar Duke3D levels with familiar tools like the jetpack and the Devastator sounds great, and I’m fairly certain it’d provide a bit of entertainment were it not for the shockingly bad netcode. Every multiplayer game I’ve tried has been a clusterfuck of frustration and stop-motion movement.
The graphics (which are mostly fine in single-player) seem of a far, far lower quality in multiplayer. Other players don’t walk from place to place, instead jerking on the spot for a moment and the suddenly appearing somewhere else. Aiming quickly becomes a nightmare, and judging by how rarely I was shot I’d assume it’s the same for everyone else. This, incidentally, was with an average ping of 40. I’m going to hope this was just a horrible set of coincidences.
If Duke Nukem Forever had been released at a budget price I’d probably be far more lenient, and might even recommend it as a look at just how far shooter design has come. It’s certainly an interesting piece of history, being that it very much feels like a game that’s at least a decade old, and for a lot of people this is going to be more an event than it is a game. That’s fair enough. They might well enjoy it. More power to them.
But it is a game, and as a game Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t succeed at being a good modern shooter, a good retro shooter, or even a worthwhile successor. The shooting is bland, the level design is uninspired, the jokes and ideas are old and tired, and the synthesis between old-school PC shooter and modern console shooter has resulted in a hideous chimera that rarely works as either. It’s not utterly without merit, but it rarely manages to raise itself above mediocrity and often falls well below. Unless you’re desperate to once more kill the aliens and save the babes with Duke, there’s little here for you.