Duke Nukem Forever took 14 years to arrive between the time it was originally announced in April 1997 by 3D Realms, and was finally released in 2011 by Gearbox Software.
It finally put years of message board speculation to rest, for which we’ll be grateful, but you have to seriously question whether all the time, effort and money invested by 3D Realms, Gearbox, publishers Take Two and anyone on the internet was worth it at all. Duke Nukem Forever has two core problems which mean it’s a joyless, unpleasant experience which is only really interesting as a historical document rather than an actual game.
The first problem is the game design, which appears to have been unchanged since 1997. The lengthy campaign levels involve platforming sections, awkward underwater controls, and seemingly endless identical corridors which make you rethink Halo’s Library levels as a thrilling roller-coaster ride.
You get a range of weapons, including the still-satisfying shotgun and shrink rays, plus a shield-meter titled Ego, which is expanded by interacting with various items and mini games in the game world. But the ‘old school’ design means that you essentially wander along endless identical levels with mindless enemies charging straight at you, with no consideration for tactics or cover. Every so often, you’re rewarded with a boss fight, which requires turrets,RPGs or Grenades, but these beats aren’t graphically impressive enough, or tactically interesting enough, to break the monotony – for instance, bouncing your rockets off trampolines to hit them rather than firing straight at them.
The range of Ego-building opportunities is pretty big, from playing pool and pinball, to lifting weights, shooting basketball hoops and smearing poo on a toilet wall. Unfortunately the variety of mini-games doesn’t make up for the fact some of them aren’t particularly great, and it almost suggests more time was spent on them than the main game itself. There’s no shortage of decent pool and pinball games just a click away on any platform.
The second major problem is the plot and humour. When Duke Nukem 3D originally arrived in 1996, the FPS genre was pretty new and multiplayer gaming often meant putting your 486PC in the back of your car to set up a LAN party at a friends house. Doom has arrived 3 years earlier with a nameless hero in a space prison which is overwhelmed by demons. So the mixture of decent gameplay, pop-culture references and macho humour was pretty impressive, particularly when Duke (voiced by Jon St. John) was constantly wisecracking.
But to put it into context, I was a teenager back in 1996. In 2011 my life has moved on pretty significantly, and even the briefest look at FPS games in the intervening years shows how life has changed. Goldeneye appears in 1997, Half-Life in 1998, Halo in 2001. The 14 year development hell of Duke Nukem Forever took as long as Call of Duty (2003), Call of Duty 2 (2005), Call of Duty 3 (2006), Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009), Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 (2011).
I’m not suggesting that Take Two and 3D Realms/Gearbox could or should have tried to match the CoD or Halo juggernauts, but it’s plenty of time to absorb how things have moved on.
Which is what makes the plot and humour of Duke Nukem Forever marginally more depressing than even offensive. The idea of Duke as a worldwide icon could have made for great self-aware humour, but instead makes him sound like a sad, pathetic one-dimensional character that needs to constantly tell everyone how great he is.
That doesn’t make for a great hero to identify with, and the contempt you feel for Duke is only magnified by the macho sexism that goes from lame jokes to slapping boobs and killing babes.
The creepiest parts of the game take place in the alien hive area, where Duke comes across as some deranged sociopath. First you discover some human-looking boobs sticking out of a wall, which you can then slap while Duke chuckles to himself. Then you’re required to kill babes who are already impregnated by the alien hive, while Duke continues to make wisecracks all the way through. It feels weird enough typing it, let alone playing it. That level also probably best shows the use of identical corridors which stretch almost to infinity, leaving you trying to remember which identical alien sex organ door you’ve already forced your way through.
Even the pop culture gags are so old that they can easily pass you by, and if not, then it’s nothing you won’t have already seen parodied on TV or in a million Youtube videos (which also launched while Duke Nukem was in development – in 2005 in fact).
There’s multi-player. It’s up to 8 players and features Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Capture The Babe (Capture the Flag). And it feels as dated as the rest of the game, without the map design of the original which encouraged trip mine and pipe bomb traps.
Duke Nukem Forever is summed up by the fact it’s taken us so long to get around to reviewing it, as every time I planned to insert the disc in the Xbox I kept accidentally finding more entertaining things to play.
The Duke Nukem Forever: The Doctor Who Cloned Me DLC did expand the game with new weapons, enemies and bosses, plus 4 new multiplayer maps, and the villain from the original 2D Duke Nukem game, Dr Proton, which turned out slightly better than the core game, but still isn’t enough to redeem it overall.
It’s hard to think of any reasons to justify time with Duke Nukem Forever, besides as a games history lessons showing how much better FPS games are today. If you happen to spot it for sale for a couple of pounds or less, then you’ll probably get some value for money, but it’s best viewed as finally bringing an end to debates and arguments on message boards around the world.