I'm going to start this off by saying the obvious: Duke Nukem Forever is not a good game. I'm not here to say it is. I'm not going to say that any of the positive things that I say about it make up for the myriad shortcomings. What I am here to say is that if you scrape back the layers of negative hyperbole surrounding the game, you might find something worthwhile underneath.
Duke Nukem Forever turns back the clock on game design, simultaneously to its credit and to its detriment. Nobody makes first-person shooters where you spend most of your time not shooting anymore. Exploration and simple puzzle-solving are a major focus, with a good amount of platform jumping in-between. I legitimately believe that this is not a bad thing. Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite games of all-time and DNF almost shamelessly cribs a lot of its exploratory gameplay from it. Hell, it even has a few physics-based puzzles of its own. I'm certainly not saying that DNF comes anywhere close to the quality of Half-Life 2, but it's nice to see that style of gameplay emerge again. The first-person platforming is almost always painless, though there are a few path-finding issues to be sure. Something about it just genuinely felt exploratory in a way that not many games this generation have. Sure, you're funneled through a very tight path with only one way out, but the levels are well-realized and give you a sense of place throughout Duke's journey to rescue his babes.
Believe it or not, it actually gave me something that Half-Life 2 did not: a strong personality from the player character. This is something that a lot of games intentionally lack, due to the player being able to more closely relate with the character the less that they speak. That's all well and good, but it seems weird to me that in these strenuous circumstances someone like Gordan Freeman or even Chell would have absolutely nothing to say. Almost all of my favorite FPS's work this way. Even a lot of games where the player character does speak, that character is either bland and forgettable or does most of their speaking in cutscenes that are no longer in first-person. Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, is an identifiable character with his own personality, but I know more about his personality from when the focus was on him (like any of the dialogue sequences) than I do from when the focus was through him. Say what you will about Duke's personality, misogynistic and puerile as it is, at least it's there. At least the player character is someone who actually reacts to his surroundings, whether it's with a first-person middle finger salute or some sort of grizzled retort. I'd like more games to give this a shot. Games like The Darkness were quite successful with this. Most of the memorable moments were of Jackie Estacado reacting to his surroundings in first-person with the player literally witnessing it through his eyes. Duke speaks often enough that you never forget who you are and, love it or hate it, his personality permeates the entire experience in a way that few other games manage to pull off.
The idea of fully interactive environments has seemingly been lost in the current generation, as well. I'm always looking for a games that allow me to react in small ways to the objects around me. There's a real thrill in walking up to a vending machine and watching it work or turning on all the sinks in the bathroom. One of my favorite moments in the entire game is when a little boy asks for your autograph, leaving you to control the marker and write whatever you want in his copy of your autobiography. For that moment, you are Duke. You have the power to decide what gets written in this boy's book. It has absolutely no consequence on anything later in the game and the dialogue remains the same no matter what you put in there, but that tiny bit of freedom immersed me into the game more successfully than almost anything else I can think of. I was legitimately role-playing, trying to figure out what Duke would actually say. And I loved it. This probably plays off of that sense of character I was talking about earlier. If this were like most games, I would have no idea what my character would do in that situation. Since this is Duke Nukem, though, I knew to write the most offensive, most obvious catch-phrase of yesteryear. Other interactable objects are scattered throughout, like pinball machines and air hockey tables, and you're actually blessed with maximum health increases for seeking them out and using them. Clever design, in my opinion, because some of the game's major appeal is walking up and interacting with everything you can find, and the game actually rewards you for messing around with that. I love that.
One of the best, most positive things I can say about the game is that it comes with a wide assortment of videos and screenshots of the game during it's ridiculously long development cycle. It was really informative to play through the entire game and then sit down and watch videos of early builds of the game. It's something that most game developers would keep under wraps, never wanting their fan base to see the changes and iterations that went on under the hood of their game, but here it gave a strong sense of what happened with the project and how it continuously changed over the years. The game even comes with a Duke Nukem soundboard, whose inclusion gave me one of the biggest laughs of the entire game. Just seeing that it was in there legitimately gave me a smile.
As a labor of love to the series and to its fans, Duke Nukem Forever will slap you in the face, knock you down, help you back on to your feet, and then give you a pat on the back. It somehow manages to be endearing during its abuse, much as Duke is represented as being in the game itself. He could not be more terrible to his women, but they love him anyway. Duke Nukem Forever replicates that abusive relationship with its audience perfectly by showing you that what you remember doesn't work in a modern context, but giving you enough self-knowing winks and nods that sometimes you don't even care. It gives insight into the industry that a genuine high-quality product could never give and manages to be entirely relevant in its irrelevance. As much as I can not say that DNF is a good game, I also can't say that I didn't enjoy it. For anyone who is even slightly interested in the industry and knows the context behind the game, it is 100% necessary to play through. Whether you enjoy your time with it or not, it plays out as an episode of What Not to Wear: Game Design Edition, as enjoyable for its flaws as it is for its triumphs.
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