The impossible has happened: After 14 years in development hell, Duke Nukem Forever is a reality. Long synonymous with endless delays and empty promises, this butt of countless internet jokes is finally, undeniably here. Whether that’s a good thing is another matter entirely.
Picking up 12 years after the events of 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D, the long-overdue sequel forces foul-mouthed cardboard-cutout Duke out of retirement to fight off another alien invasion. Or maybe it’s just the second half of the same alien invasion, seeing as how the aggressors are updated versions of the familiar Pigcops, assault troopers and Battlelords that menaced players in DN3D, now here to kidnap Earth’s women and make Duke look like a chump.
Of course, it’s all just a flimsy backdrop for silly, gruesome alien carnage and crude gags – or at least, it should have been. DNF starts off promisingly enough, with a current-gen re-creation of the final boss battle from DN3D, but quickly goes downhill when it’s revealed to be a game Duke is playing. Now retired and living in a 69-floor (hurr) Vegas casino/monument to his own ego, Duke has to travel downstairs and try to appear on a talk show before the alien invasion happens, at which point you have to run to his secret “Duke Cave” to initiate a lengthy conversation and a turret-shooting sequence. All of this, incidentally, will take around 20-30 minutes to play through, and it’s peppered with dated pop-culture gags and annoying NPCs.
Above: Ha ha, remember when Christian Bale yelled at that guy? Like two years ago?
So, OK, that’s just the intro. Lots of games take a while to get off the ground, and given DNF’s surprisingly long run time – anywhere from 12-16 hours, depending on how good you are at staying alive – it’s a pretty small chunk of the game. But it’s also an introduction for some irritations that stick with the game throughout, like textures that are either slow to pop in or just plain blurry; inexplicable visual stuttering; women who are uniformly depicted as squealing airheads; and occasional stabs at lame jokes.
Oh, and the load times. Easily the worst thing about Duke Nukem Forever, the loading screens that pop up after every death or transition to a new level tend to take 30 seconds or more. And while they’re a minor irritant at first, you’ll eventually learn to fear them. Late in the game, after your fourth or fifth death at the hands of the same cheap-ass boss, they’re an infuriating roadblock that makes playing through the game significantly more frustrating. (And in case you’re wondering, installing the game to the 360’s hard drive did nothing to shorten them.)
Above: Also, we’re pretty sure alien motherships shouldn't look this blurry in 2011
When the shooting finally starts, things definitely improve – but even then, DNF’s a mostly average shooter, with rare moments of brilliance. Decapitating pigcops with a shotgun is fun, sure, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before – and even if that’s all you really want from the game, you’re probably still going to be disappointed.
Some early reviews have said that DNF hasn’t really changed since the days of Duke Nukem 3D, and that’s partly true. The enemies look and behave more or less the same as they did in DN3D, and while a few unspectacular alien guns have been added to Duke’s arsenal, the weapons you’ll actually want to use – which range from shotguns and pipe bombs to shrink rays and freeze rays – are nearly identical to their DN3D counterparts. (A couple of the non-weapon items from DN3D return as well, specifically the Holo-Duke decoy and a bottle of steroids, and they’re joined by beer – which makes Duke tougher – and Duke Vision, which enables him to see in the dark.)
Above: Actually, wandering around blind here might be less creepy
At the same time, DNF actually has undergone a lot of changes from DN3D. It’s just that they feel like strained attempts to fit in with modern shooters, and very few of them are for the better. Where Duke once was able to carry a full arsenal everywhere he went, he’s now limited to just two guns at a time. Where he could previously soak up bullets like a sponge, he’s now at the mercy of his “Ego” health meter, which is quick to recharge, but so fragile that it can’t take more than a few hits before he’ll need to scramble for cover. (You can permanently add onto it by finding “ego-boosting” items, however, which helps a little.) It's all very Halo, and it diminishes the feeling of being an overpowered, steroid-pounding badass.
Worse, the shooting’s been broken up with faintly annoying seesaw-physics puzzles (i.e. throw some heavy barrels into this shipping container to make it tip over and form a ramp you can climb), which crop up almost as frequently as the unnecessary, button-mashing quick time events. And where Duke once had the choice of paying strippers to flash him, or cruelly blasting them into gibs, he’s now forced to put up with the company of numerous invulnerable NPCs – almost none of whom are strippers – who don’t even have the decency to flinch when shot.
The real clincher, however, is the impact you now have on your environment. While DN3D filled its levels with interesting, incidental objects that invited experimentation and destruction, DNF mostly settles for giving you a lot of things to poke at – like answering machines, calendars, playable pinball machines and a couple surfaces you can draw on – and leaving it at that.
A perfect example of this is the toilets. In Duke Nukem 3D, it was possible to find a toilet, piss in it, blow it up with a pipe bomb and drink the resulting geyser of water for health. Maybe you’d even blow up the wall behind it, if you were lucky, and find a hidden cache of cool stuff. This time around, toilets are indestructible, and good only for a useless, one-note pee joke and maybe – maybe – the occasional floating turd that you can grab and fling around uselessly. That’s kind of interesting, I guess, but throwing shit simply isn’t as much fun as breaking shit.
That’s all disappointing, but again, DNF does have some cool moments, most (but not all) of which come toward the end of the game. A handful of the levels shrink Duke down to the size of an action figure, for example, which turns otherwise unremarkable environments into enormous jumping puzzles, filled with similarly tiny enemies (or, more menacingly, full-sized ones that aggressively try to stomp Duke flat). One of these levels even gives you a little RC car to pilot, although driving it through floor after floor of a burning casino gets kind of tedious, especially considering you’ll have to frequently stop and figure out some puzzle to clear the way for your ride.
Other bright spots include a couple of memorable boss battles that actually require a strategy beyond “empty your guns;” a fun (but somewhat overlong and confusing) drive through the desert in a monster truck; and a surprisingly not-awful underwater level. Again, though, these take a while to get to, and given the game’s overall length, they’re relatively short and surrounded by a lot of filler (like bits where you’re just crawling through trap-filled tunnels for long stretches of time, for example).
To be fair, the game’s lengthy campaign isn’t all it offers; it wouldn’t be a real Duke Nukem game, after all, without multiplayer Dukematches. However, while multiplayer was a huge, lasting draw in Duke Nukem 3D, there’s very little about it here that’s special. Sure, there are jetpacks (absent from the campaign), and it’s possible to shrink your enemies and squash them into paste, but otherwise the multiplayer action feels like any other shooter’s, with four modes (Dukematch, Team Dukematch, king of the hill and a bimbo-centric version of capture the flag), 10 maps and support for up to eight players.
There’s also an obligatory leveling system, which grants players trophies that can be worn or displayed in a walk-through penthouse, although probably the best thing multiplayer offers longtime fans is the remastered return of DN3D’s first level, Hollywood Holocaust, as a sprawling multiplayer map.
Above: Hey look, they put an old thing in the new thing!
Even with that homage to the past, though, Duke Nukem Forever is bound to disappoint Duke’s remaining fans. A 14-year wait can build up expectations to terrifying levels, and so it might be tempting to brush off any criticism as simply a disappointed reaction to a good, but not amazing, game. Honestly, though, our expectations were pretty much zero at this point, and we would have been perfectly happy with a game that was just good. Instead, Duke Nukem Forever is just a few ticks above mediocrity, with glitches and performance problems that are inexcusable in a linear, $60 shooter. After spending so long in development, that makes for an incredibly sad punchline to one of the internet’s longest-running jokes.
Is it better than…
Bulletstorm? No. While both games take a raunchy, tongue-in-cheek approach to over-the-top violence, Bulletstorm’s a lot more playable and fun. Where Duke’s content to simply mow down grunting aliens the same way he did 12 years ago, Bulletstorm invites you to yank enemies around, kick them to pieces and murder creatively. And while Duke’s humor gets a little sharper toward the end of the game, he never utters anything quite as memorable as Bulletstorm’s “kill your dicks” line.
Prey? No. In spite of its age, 3D Realms’ other recent shooter at least had some unique ideas that kept it interesting, like its early use of portals, weird gravity effects and the spirit-world sequences used to bring you back to life. Prey had personality, while Duke is almost gratingly one-note, and while Prey showed a willingness to experiment, Duke sticks with what’s already worked for other shooters.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard? Yes. Whatever DNF’s faults, it at least outshines the game that tried to imitate Duke back in 2009. Eat Lead arguably had a cleverer (if sadly less profane) sense of humor, but gibbing pigcops and octabrains is, even in its most annoying moments, a hell of a lot more fun than creeping through endless warehouses shooting at interchangeable, rock-stupid soldiers.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Duke Nukem Forever’s world-record development time has produced an ugly, buggy shooter that veers back and forth between enjoyably average and outright boring, with occasional surges of greatness along the way.
Jun 13, 2011