Duke Nukem Forever has been released to the chorus of a thousand tomatoes thrown by generally rational critics and even more thrown at critics by gamers who have waited so very long to finally experience the newest incarnation of Duke in all of his ego-driven glory. Although the game generally has been given negative reviews for such elements as mediocre graphics that are evident of the game's time in development hell and shameless rip-offs of so many other games from years ago that did the same thing but much better, there is a huge group of gamers - typically male, typically in their 30's and above - who cling to the notion that because Duke is such an iconic image and because the game took so long to be released, it is permissible to put one's blinders on and praise the good aspects of the game rather than tear down the overwhelming amount of negative elements found throughout it.
Yet if we are to really examine and understand the phenomenon of Duke Nukem and his popularity, we have to first examine Duke's origin story.
In 1991, Apogee Software released a game known simply as Duke Nukem. This game featured the iconic image of our titular hero minus the shades, but with the blonde hair and somewhat discernible shit-eating grin intact. However, very little else of Duke Nukem then resembled anything of the later incarnation of Duke that would survive up until the modern day. The original Duke Nukem more closely resembled many of Apogee's other characters, such as Commander Keen or the hero from Bio Menace.
He was simply a sprite-drawn character with a shallow backstory used as a catalyst for another platformer/collect-a-thon. In Duke Nukem, Duke is found running through a devastated cityscape, chasing after a mad scientist and his army of Evil Robots (known as 'Techbots'.)
Only after Apogee's 1993 sequel did Duke begin to form a character that resembled anything like the Duke Nukem of today. In the second game, Duke is kidnapped by aliens called Rigelatins while he's interviewing about his autobiography, "Why I'm So Great." This is all backstory, covered mainly by barely animated images with text inlaid below. Once the story begins, the game is once again a platforming collect-a-thon. Granted, Duke Nukem II improved greatly upon the original formula, with much more fluid graphics and animations. For all intents and purposes it was a pretty rad game, yet it still didn't really separate itself very deeply from other Apogee titles, especially the sequels to their other franchises that featured very similar gameplay (such as the Commander Keen series.)
Three years later, after 3D Realms had picked up the rights to the Duke Nukem franchise, this all changed. Duke Nukem 3D was born, and with it came a new pop culture character. The Duke Nukem of 3D Realms design was both a satire of action heroes and a sincere nod to much of pop culture at the time. References ran rampant throughout Duke Nukem 3D, including references to Star Wars, Jaws, Evil Dead II, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But what made Duke Nukem 3D most compelling was the innovative gameplay. I clearly remember being a kid and playing through Duke Nukem 3D with my best friend, both of us loving the fact that we could interact with so many environmental elements and something would happen (hell, I thought it was cool I could flush an in-game urinal back then.) The game even begins with a sense of excitement. Duke lands back on Earth after the events of Duke Nukem II, and instantly he is propelled into action and is forced to battle mutant pig cops and grotesque aliens who enslave women in slimy pods who want nothing more than to end their misery.
The game also kept the story incredibly light, and any misogynistic undertones were downplayed by the sheer goofiness of the whole game in general. Of course, it was also the mid-90's, when Howard Stern was popular and being crude and generally 'manly' was thought of as cool for the male gamer, even if it meant carelessly disregarding those of the female persuasion, since the consensus then was that women and girls generally hated video games and fun anyhow. Or at least, this was true for most male gamers who had moms.
No one can deny that Duke Nukem 3D was actually a pretty well done game, especially for it's time. Yet if we put a critical lens on Duke Nukem Forever, there really is no excuse for how terribly the game got botched, or how it's biggest crime is simply that it is mediocre and hasn't aged well at all by comparison.
I won't write too much about Duke's current iteration as it has been already exhaustively detailed, both by Sterling's review and other critics all around the web, and by giant threads of arguments between gamers (including myself, I must guiltily admit), yet what I will do is compare Duke Nukem 3D, as it was received then, to the new 'mold of Duke Nukem - Bulletstorm as it is received now.
To begin with, Bulletstorm is a game much in the same vein of Duke Nukem 3D; relatively light on the storyline yet with a heavy emphasis on innovative gameplay ideas and generally fun weapons. Where Duke 3D had Shrink and Freeze Rays, Bulletstorm has the Flail Gun and my personal favorite, the Penetrator. Where Duke Nukem 3D had interactive environmental elements, Bulletstorm ups the ante even more through rewarding the player with skillshot points based off of clever uses of environmental elements.
Duke Nukem 3D contained a storyline that gave nods to pop culture references and had a couple of possibly offensive and/or vulgar moments. While Bulletstorm doesn't contain too many references to anything within pop culture itself, the dialogue is rife with ways where it is obvious that the developers had a ball trying to think of new uses for swear words. This humor may not appeal to all, but I certainly found myself giggling throughout the game at some of the ridiculous things that Grayson Hunt and his party utter. Then again, I grew up with two brothers and the three of us often made up new swear words for each other to fit the situation, so I suppose in a way the game's ridiculous dialogue was made for someone like me.
Yet where Bulletstorm excels and takes it's place as the new king of games in the Duke Nukem mold isn't the innovative gameplay or the vulgar and offensive humor. It is in the recognition of modern society and culture and how the face of videogames have changed. Sadly, Duke Nukem Forever's hugest failure comes in the fact that Duke Nukem himself as a character has become such an iconic satire of himself that he seems to fit better as an alcoholic loser who generally proves to be an asshole time and time again. Yet because the game is so modeled after Duke's celebrity status, somehow every character in Duke Nukem Forever is able to put their blinders up much like the rabid gamers who defend his status, even when he's proving to be the most worthless, callous, and generally detestable human being out there. Taking steroids and running away repeatedly from enemies will not truly refill your ego, no matter how much you want to believe.
In Bulletstorm, Grayson Hunt is an alcoholic, a loser, and a generally detestable human being. There is no illusion to this fact, and in many ways his loyal friend Ishi Sato is his only real Superego and moral hold on life, and thus a relatively compelling relationship is explored between the two characters. Yet even so, the player revels in trying to find as much alcohol to consume and as many gruesome ways to kill enemies and generally destroy shit. Ishi doesn't scream in your ear "HEY! LISTEN!" every single time you do something he doesn't agree with, but he does generally show his contempt for your behavior throughout the game.
Another important aspect of Bulletstorm and it's nod towards current trends in society is that it features a kick-ass female lead. Sure, she may still lack totally realistic feminine body proportions, but Trishka makes up for it by truly kicking mutant ass and taking names. In today's gaming culture, female gamers are a prominent phenomenon and we have come to a point where female gamers are accepted as equals in the competitive field of gaming. Hell, my twin brother used to get his ass kicked routinely by a girl gamer known as 'Apache Girl' on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 until he finally joined sides with her to learn her secrets and strategies. Yet Duke Nukem Forever seems totally oblivious to this fact, and in fact insults women everywhere with the detestable female characters that Duke generally uses and discards with no real concern for except that the aliens are taking all the babes so that Duke can't pursue his hedonistic pleasures anymore.
Finally, what really stands out for both Duke Nukem 3D and Bulletstorm is that they both came out of left field in a way as 'generally' new FPS IP's (though both take their cues from earlier games of their kind), and both intrinsically understood what makes a game good in the first place. And that is simply that it is a fun experience that is worth replaying over and over, and that it will most likely be able to stand the test of time for it's innovative and fun elements.
While Duke Nukem will continue to thrive in the future based on sales of the recently resurrected franchise, I only hope he opens his eyes for once and notices the world around him, a world that is demanding more out of a game than crude references to pop culture, vulgar objectification of women, and wholly unoriginal and mediocre gameplay.
Or perhaps Duke's wearing of dark shades is a symbolism for his blindness to a gaming culture that is evolving far faster than his old steroid-ridden body can keep up with.
Only time will tell, as the continued success or the eventual failure of his franchise and the success or failure of IP's like Bulletstorm will truly prove what gamers themselves really enjoy out of a game.