I recently did a retrospective review on Duke Nukem 3D, so that experience was fresh in my mind as I loaded up Duke Nukem Forever and played it. One of the reasons I wanted to do that was because it is very easy for faded memories to turn into inaccurate assessments and then into unrealistic expectations – so by playing Duke Nukem 3D in 2011 I was able to temper my 15-year old expectations for Duke Nukem Forever with the reality of the prior game. So what are my thoughts? Read on and find out!
Duke Nukem Forever is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) that finally resurrects the infamous Duke Nukem franchise. Designed as a blend of the over-the-top ego, humor, risqué scenarios and UN-PC attitude that players of the original 1990s PC game releases will still relish, with for technological upgrades that modern gamers demand, Duke is definitely back and better than ever. Features include: a gameworld full of interactive opportunities; over-the-top humor; outlandish settings, vehicle driving, and puzzle solving; Duke specific multiplayer modes and more.
If you have even glanced at the internet since Duke Nukem Forever came out, you have heard that it is the worst game ever … or that it is absolutely great and the ‘haters’ have no clue what they are talking about. Neither camp is right.
On the one hand, there have been many worse games released within the FPS genre such as Breed and Kreed and Alpha Prime and … well, you get what I am saying. So people calling it ‘worst game ever’ either have no depth of experience or are misplacing their anger and misdirecting their expectations.
But at the same time there is a reactionary camp who is saying that anyone with anything negative to say about the game simply ‘doesn’t get it’, or is being too politically correct or using the wrong standards or SOMETHING. Those people are delusional.
So how WOULD I characterize Duke Nukem Forever? It is a mess. I don’t mean that in a purely technical sense – what I mean is that you will just see something visually stunning and then get smacked in the face by some mind-numbing 1998 gameplay; just run through an exciting sequence and then have to deal with a physics puzzle that would have been quaint before Half-Life 2 came out.
Duke Nukem Forever was developed over the course of nearly 15 years … and after playing the game you will feel like you have experienced the entire timeline rather than having it all polished and streamlined into a cohesive gameplay experience prior to release.
So yeah … a mess. But that doesn’t mean the same thing as bad.
Duke Nukem Forever starts with an opening sequence that takes you through major events of the last game and reminds everyone of how Duke saved the world last time around. The visual style has a near silhouette Duke with a reddish background and an old film-reel projection style. It takes you on a ‘where we’ve been’ nostalgia trip before getting into the new game, at which point you find yourself urinating in a public rest room (similar to Postal 2), and can actually grab feces and throw them around – again the visual style is similar to 2003’s Postal 2.
From there you engage in passive ‘discussions’, get to use a ‘marker’ to draw a plan on a white board, and work your way to a boss battle. This is a classic arena battle, but augmented by a rain effect across your ‘sunglasses’ and blood effect when you take damage. These help the otherwise 2005-era graphics look much more modern.
There is ‘phantom interaction’ throughout that sequence, which ends with you destroying the boss and kicking a field goal with its eye before the camera pulls back and you discover it was a Duke Nukem video game – and that you have had a set of twins ‘playing with you’ all the while. The graphics here are better but not remarkable. Phantom Interaction means that there are things you can impact, but they are limited and specific – you cannot even pick up a gun from a fallen soldier who was shooting seconds before!
This reinforces what I said before – everything is a mix of stuff from more than a decade ago with technology from recent years, sometimes put together in a way that feels incongruous.
But let me also be clear – I have read people saying ‘some of the graphics actually look WORSE than Duke Nukem 3D’. These people are worse than delusional! Even during my recent play with the eDuke32 front end and High Resolution pack, NOTHING in Duke Nukem 3D looks as good as Duke Nukem Forever.
The soundtrack is pumping full MP3 rock versions of the old music from the original game, and from the beginning that sounds great – it evokes the classics while keeping things exciting and modern. As for the voice acting, in general it is of decent sound quality and the actors get their points across. As for what they are saying … let’s leave that for a later section.
Core FPS Gameplay
Like it or not, GearBox released a FPS (first person shooter) in a world already populated with the likes of Half-Life 2, Call of Duty, Fallout 3, Jedi Academy, and a host of other shooter games that have come out since Duke Nukem 3D arrived. Each of these games added something to the genre, or brought items from other genres, sometimes for good and other times for bad.
Duke Nukem Forever plays like a stock-standard multi-platform shooter from about five years ago. That is not meant as a slam but as a simple observation – it has conventions that didn’t exist in the Quake 1/2/3 eras (basically 1997 – 2005), but also lacks some of the sophistication added in more recent console shooters.
First off, you get the standard WASD & mouse control system for PC, with left click to fire, C to crouch and space bar to jump. Alternate weapons like pipe-bombs are assigned their own key and pressing that key launches the item. You can alternate which main weapon you are holding using the mouse wheel or by pressing the ‘1’ key. Wait – don’t I mean 1 – 8 keys? Nope – you can only carry 2 weapons at a time, as it seems that Duke’s carrying capacity has gone from ‘everything’ to ‘Call of Duty standard’ as he has hit middle age.
Also, there is no leaning, no snap-turns, no snap to cover, and therefore no real tactics aside from dodging in and out of cover. Of course, Duke was never one for subtlety … but wait, what else? Recharging health bar? Yes indeed! You get an ‘ego’ meter, which is basically a combined health and shield meter. When your ego is knocked down by taking damage the bar turns red, when THAT is empty you die and restart at the last checkpoint. The recharging health system is very much a standard of the console shooter sub-genre, and is a feature that favors a ‘peek and shoot’ gameplay style – again very much NOT what you want in a Duke Nukem game.
This cognitive dissonance – where Duke says that armor is for wimps (looking at very much a Halo-style armor set) yet has a health/armor system basically identical to Halo – permeates everything about the gameplay. There are two distinct styles at work – one is Duke Nukem, the other is a generic shooter. They should never meet, but since they do we are left with a game lacking a cohesive identity.
The Story, Characters and Core Structure
In terms of characters, there is Duke Nukem and … well, nobody else really matters, right?!? Duke Nukem was never more than a 2D stereotype with the most base behaviors – babes and big guns. This remains the same, as you get incentives for voyeurism, egotistical behavior and so on. These incentives are ‘ego boosts’, which simply means you can take more damage.
The game revolves around Duke saving the world from aliens (again), while traveling around a world seemingly redecorated in his honor while dropping one-liners that are basically the same as in Duke 3D. Everywhere you go there are boobs to ogle and aliens to kill, and Duke has something to say about both – but nothing of substance. Gearbox should have noted that the dialogue was not exactly praised the last time.
There are three main elements that made Duke 3D fun – the FPS gameplay, the level design, and the puzzles integrated throughout. I already addressed the FPS elements, so let’s look at level design. There was a funny comic that illustrated what many feel has happened through the years:
Obviously an oversimplification, but when playing most modern shooters you seem to never be too far from your next cutscene or checkpoint leading into a set-piece, or so on. The bottom line is that making branching areas is hard and expensive, and publishers have a hard time selling multiple paths compared to ‘cinematic experience’. So we get corridor shooters with cutscenes. Duke can take 100 rockets from a mass of enemies, but if his monster truck lands too hard you will be stuck watching an animation of him getting up and brushing himself off.
Or when you run out of gas for the umpteenth time, you can see the gas can but know there is only one way in, so when the door doesn’t give you an option to open you start looking for the jump puzzle – the designs ARE that trite and obvious. And while it might seem like nitpicking, over the course of a dozen hours, that stuff gets BORING! And when you are bored by a FPS, the designers have failed.
As I mentioned, there are also puzzles to solve similar to the original game. In Duke 3D you would have switch combinations and other quick tests appropriate to the era, but now most puzzles are physics-based and feel like rejects from Half-Life 2. You will be weighing down items on levels, removing weights on rail cars, and so on. It is the type of thing that is fine as a distraction but like too much else in the game occurs too often and overstays its welcome.
In one Duke 3D level there are rotating gears you need to ascend to reach a goal (no, we don’t know why – and never cared!). The rotation was a challenge in itself. Here we are jumping across hamburger patties and periodically sparking stove burners (which we can’t help but think why?) towards a goal. The problem is that as soon as you enter the room you know you are in a jump puzzle room. The design is obvious … which removes the interest.
You have an entire section which consists of a fetch quest in a strip club in order to get a lap dance from someone who greets you when you awake after a boss battle. You wander around the club, which is set up in a way to guide you from place to place, and eventually you find the items – condoms, a vibrator and popcorn. You actually have to ‘make’ the popcorn in the microwave. Then you sit down and get ready for a lap dance, while Duke continues to wonder if it is just a dream … and finds his answer soon after. The basic concept of a non-combat level is fine, but the design and execution are so ham-fisted and gratuitous as to make it much less enjoyable than it could have been.
Enemies, Bosses and Interaction
While I could have mentioned this under the gameplay section, make no mistake – Duke Nukem Forever has a core game design out of the late 1990’s, leaning more towards Jedi Knight than Half-Life. You play a long series of levels that are distinct and self contained and which feature a boss after a long segment. The end of the game is populated by a series of bosses and then you are done. While there is more story than Duke Nukem 3D threading it all together – it is very much a level-level-level-boss format.
The enemies are generally similar to those you fought in Duke Nukem 3D, from type to movement to weapons. That is really not a bad thing – facing ‘pig monsters’ and ‘octobrains’ isn’t a bad thing … unfortunately they also retained the same core AI (artificial intelligence). Octobrains use cheater AI to dodge bullets, while pretty much every other enemy has no sense of self-preservation and will simply come swarming at you until they are dead.
Every now and then you have allies fighting on your side, but that is simply for show – at best they will just stand there exchanging useless fire until you take over, and at worst they will just die. None of your allies will ever do anything effective or taking any action that might impact the outcome of a battle.
The original Duke Nukem 3D was innovative but certainly not unique in the extensive use of interaction throughout the game – there was always something to do in each area that didn’t directly impact the game. Duke Nukem Forever carries that tradition forward – you can lift weights, turn on and off lights, grab specific items (only those deemed usable as weapons), and so on. Many things are very specific – you use the binoculars at a scenic overlook to spy on sunbathing women to gain an ego boost, as an example. Some things are generic – you can pick up any phone and here a tone but nothing else.
But it is limited in scope to the point that it feels like a gimmick – in the area where you use the microwave there are many other items you could possibly use but that are unavailable. Same with people – you can only interact if there is a specific need, at which point it is a scripted cutscene. Finally, while you show the ability to break down doors and also take down barriers, 99% of all doors in the game are inaccessible to you in any way.
As I said, the game follows a level-level-level-boss format, so let’s talk about the bosses. Each boss battle pits you against a massive creature of some sort with a singular weakness and a singular strategy to defeat it. Generally speaking, it is a massive difficulty spike or a trivial fight depending upon how quickly you figure out the strategy and how good your skills are at that specific task. Like most games with this structure, I found Duke Nukem Forever hit-or-miss in this regard, but generally more annoying than anything else.
In the Greater ‘Duke Nukem’ Context
Had Duke Nukem Forever come out in 2001 … how would people have reacted?
Who knows – and who cares?!? The problem with such a question is that it presupposes an answer that the game is actually great but just delayed too long and so through time and expectation-building it is impossible to get a fair shake. Some of that is true – there are those who look at Duke Nukem as some sort of mega-franchise of greatness, ignoring the reality that there were two basic 2D platformers followed by a very good game from very late in the Doom era (considering Quake arrived just a few months later).
In reality, Duke Nukem 3D is a game that is very much of the Doom era in terms of content and structure. Many things attributed to it through the years are simply myths more related to the massive delays in producing the sequel than actual qualities of the game. Duke 3D DID have some excellent levels, great boss fights that fit well in context with the main game, and an overall flippant sense of humor that gave Duke the feel of an actual character.
But simply aping what worked 15 years ago isn’t good enough – and that is largely what happens here: it is like when skits from Saturday Night Live are turned into full-length movies. The result seldom works because the core structure is inadequate to support a fully realized production. The same is true here – flippant one-liners, boobies, self-referential one-liners, and a world built around how great Duke Nukem is … are just not enough.
To an extent I ‘get’ the argument that all people really wanted was a modernized Duke that brought the Duke 3D experience into 2011. But then why the 2-gun limit and recharging health and infinite ammo dumps? None of that stuff fits AT ALL within the Duke tradition, and all of them detract from the quality of the experience.
Despite claims of “multiplayer like no other as Duke re-envisions classic modes of play in his own hilarious and humiliating way”, what you REALLY get is a bunch of standard multiplayer modes from years ago with a bit of a Duke twist but no innovation. There is no co-op mode, which would have marked the game as a more modern console shooter. And even the multiplayer modes I tried out were mediocre – just basic run and gun stuff without any real use for strategy or teamwork, and certainly none of the advancements we have seen in the war-shooters of recent years.
Overall this game will satisfy some because it scratches that ‘politically incorrect’ itch that the original game did 15 years ago, but it left me flat. Despite my wife having pre-ordered the game from Amazon in 2000 (along with the also-canceled PC version of Obi-Wan … lucky her), my expectations were not terribly high – which actually makes my disappointment greater.
Duke Nukem Forever didn’t need to deliver the ‘best of everything’ that George Broussard wanted … all it needed to do was deliver a solid gameplay experience over well designed levels with a light sense of inappropriate humor. Yet it doesn’t even manage that. The game makes fun on console shooters like Halo while borrowing heavily from those very games. It lazily continues using AI models that would have seemed antiquated a decade ago; it features boss battles that are disproportionately challenging compared to the standard game; and the ‘bathroom & boobies’ humor seems forced and contrived as if they thought the correct path wasn’t to broaden and mature the humor but rather to just toss more of it at us.
But ultimately Duke Nukem Forever is all that it could ever be – a game. It is – and never could be – some great icon to be worshiped and revered; nor is it some great evil to be reviled or a sign of … well, something. It is just a game, and sadly, not a particularly good one. However, I still think that all fans of the original need to play this game – they should just wait a couple of months until it hits $20 before grabbing it.
Review: Duke Nukem Forever
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like: Duke Nukem Forever is finally here; some interesting moments; developers try to keep things varied; loads of fan-service
What Needs Improvement: Everything feels pieced together from a scrap pile of ideas from the last 15 years; overall game is uneven in every way; multiplayer is lousy and not worth playing; not worth full price for any but the most rabid Duke fans.