There was once a time when Duke Nukem Forever could have been the next big thing. That opportunity was 14 years ago.
When the sequel to 1996 first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D was first shown at E3 1998, it impressed with scenes of vehicular combat, large environments and cutting-edge graphics (powered by the Unreal Engine). Developer 3D Realms intended to make the sequel in two years, instead it took nearly 15.
As a result, the game is running on a graphics engine from 2004 (a modified Unreal 2.5) and plays like a game from 2001 (Halo, mainly). Dukeís crude humor hasnít aged much better. Overall, itís an okay game. Itís not worth the 14 year wait, but what game is?
As Halo and Call of Duty swept the market, a handful of passionate developers soldiered on in an effort to get Duke Nukem Forever released. After legal disputes, a new publisher, a new graphics engine and a tangled history that will remain largely unknown, DNF is finally here. As a result, the long-delayed game that once elevated Dukeís status as a legend will now end it.
Dukeís latest outing might not have the flashy setpieces of Killzone 3 or Black Ops, but it brings back many good memories of early-00s shooters, along with the bad ones.
Forever drops the originalís Doom-inspired open environments and keycard-hunts for a game that plays like Halo with Half-Lifeís platforming and physics puzzles thrown in for variety. When you consider both of those games came out during DNFís early-stages of development (1996-2002), it shouldnít be a surprise that more recent series arenít as big of an influence.
Like Halo, DNF throws the player into a narratively-driven campaign where the direction is always linear but the space you play within varies from lengthy sereis of corridors to large expanses of dessert. Unlike Halo, Forever never seems to take advantage of the latter and does a poor job of directing you toward your goal -- no mini-map or marker is given. Youíll often need to search every corner of the map to find where to go next.
With the addition of rechargeable health and being limited to two weapons, youíd think you were playing as Master Chief if it werenít for the steady stream of crude one-liners. The scale of combat is never as tense or expansive as youíd like, but the smaller, in-door environments offer strategic encounters you donít often get in a post-CoD shooter.
Despite originating as a PC game, Forever plays best with an Xbox 360 controllers -- however, you may want to stick to PC due to the console versionsí terrible load times. Even with a controller in your hand, the aiming isnít of Call of Duty quality even if all the button-mapping is identical. Even after fiddling with the controller sensitivity, the game felt awkward. Also, the weapon zoom has a weird depth perception that blurs out anything that isnít directly under your crosshair.
Throughout the game, Duke pokes fun at Gears of War and other modern shooters only to throw the player into a poorly designed turret sequence or boss fight a moment later. An underwater boss fight with a giant Octabrain, near the end of the game, will go down as one of 2011ís most frustrating moments in videogames and the other boss fights donít fair much better. The turret sequences seem poorly tested, spiking the difficulty level that will cause all but the most masochistic player to switch to an easier mode.
The core of the game still revolves around shooting, taking cover and exploring. All of these things are good enough to keep the gameís eight or so hours engaging, even with its annoying segments. Duke doesnít have any new weapons in his arsenal but firing the Shrink Ray and stomping on a miniaturized enemy is still amusing. The Freezethrower, Pipebombs and the rest of Dukeís weapons return and feel as good as ever.
You also have access to Dukeís old items, hidden throughout the game, such as Holoduke, which creates a virtual clone of yourself to distract enemies, and Steroids, which increase your melee strength to the point where a punch causes an enemy to explode. Youíll rarely be overwhelmed by enemies, but the changing environments and variety in combat keep things interesting.
All of the enemies from the original return in some form, although they are rendered without the charm and humor of the original. Pig Cops are now naked beasts that leap at you, while the reptilian Assault creatures and creepy Octabrains remain faithful to the original. Most of the encounters are horribly lit, partly due to the engineís fault but also due to bad light source placement within the maps.
There is a distinct lack of color in both the models and environments, which clashes with the gameís juvenile protagonist and cartoon logic. Most of the game takes place in dimly lit corridors, whether its the Hoover Dam or an alien hive. The game is at its best when you are exploring rat holes as a miniature Duke at the Duke Burger or firing your shotgun in-between slot machines in a Vegas casino.
The platforming and physics puzzles in the game arenít any thing Half-Life and itís sequel havenít done better, but these segments give some variety to action and vary the pacing. You throw barrels onto some type of holder to weigh down another platform, which lets you progress. Itís more of a road bump then a challenge of logic. The platforming and driving sections are much more entertaining, most of which involve controlling a shrunken Duke with pitch-shifted vocals -- one of the few moments in the game that elicited a chuckle out of me.
Many have lambasted Half-Lifeís platforming sections, but I always loved them. Dukeís are very similiar and your enjoyment of them will depend solely on how you feel about first-person platforming. The vehicle sections are reminiscent of the escape scenes in the Halo series, where you drive through the environment as fast as you can while chaos surrounds you.
Itíd be easy to call the game sexist with Dukeís offensive one-liners and ability to shoot moaning, naked girls encased in alien cocoon's but Duke Nukem Forever was mainly written by two women in their 30s which kind of makes all the gameís crude moments more unsettling. Duke once stood out for having his finger on the pulse of pop culture when the original was released. The gameís juvenile humor was amusing to the younger audience playing the game. For the older audience, it was easier to look over the gameís misgivings in a time when computer games werenít compared to films -- ďHey, at least Duke is TRYING to be funny!Ē
But, now Duke is a sad, broken man misquoting films and referencing events that were timely not even five years ago. Even worse, the sexual innuendo and portrayal of female characters is tasteless and one-dimensional. Forever has no self-awareness, which completely ruins what could have been a funny game. If the gameís characters reacted to Dukeís antics with the disgust the player felt, there could have been some genuine laughs. Instead, everyone from the President to squadmates talk in the same vulgar language as Duke.
Also, referencing a funny line from a film is not a joke. ITíS PLAGIARISM!
If you can look past the gameís alien wall boobs, panty-less strippers and lame humor, Duke still carries that bravado and stupidity that made the original fun. Duke was never about high-brow humor, anyway. Heís an 80s action hero with the comedic sense of Pauly Shore. When he isnít making a joke in bad taste, it can still be fun to tag-along with Duke and punch jetpack-strapped aliens to tillí their heads explode.
Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for over half of my life. As a result, itís gratifying to even be able to play 3D Realmís holy grail. If youíve been following Forever out of curiosity, rather than anticipation, then you wonít be let down. However, if you were hoping for a return to Dukeís glory days or a revolutionary step forward, you will be sorely disappointed.
When you strip away the legendary development story, 2Kís hype machine, the recent PR meltdown and Gearboxís efforts to help finish this game, you have what is essentially a passion project by an incredibly dedicated and small 20 or so person team at Triptych Games. They sold their cars, worked for nothing and slaved away for years after original developer 3D Realms went under.
The fact that the game even exists on store shelves is a testament to the passion of the developer, but Foreverís soulless, hit-and-miss nature is more indicative of the stress and pressure Triptych went over.