Not long after Duke Nukem Forever begins, Duke is seen playing a game starring himself. When one of his “chicks” asks him if the game is any good he replies with the self-referencing answer of, “yeah, but after twelve f**king years, it should be.” And while this should most certainly be the case when taking into account its long and drawn-out development, what should have been a humorous fourth wall-shattering retort merely hammers home the fact that Duke Nukem Forever is, remarkably, a game that really needed more work had developer 3D Realms genuinely intended that it meet the standards set by current-gen first person shooters.
The story is classic Duke; aliens show up on Earth, steal our women and it’s up to Duke Nukem to sort everything out. In theory it should be enough considering Duke’s infamous aptitude in entertaining audiences by doing nothing more than objectifying women and blowing aliens to bits while ripping off quotes from films. However, in the decade and a half since the release of Duke Nukem 3D, titles such as Half-Life 2 and Bioshock have attempted to evolve storytelling in games and it’s when Duke tries to ape these games and deviates from what the series is best known for that its’ narrative falls flat. For example, a certain NPC dies near the end of the game, but it’s hard to care about their demise when their sole purpose is to do nothing more than deliver an endless flurry of obscenities and they’re given no chance to develop as a character throughout the game. Likewise, any other “plot twists” that occur in the duration of the campaign seem unnecessary and in some cases just plain awkward.
Luckily these uncharacteristic lapses in what makes Duke so endearing are relatively few and far between, and the majority of the game’s campaign is comprised of some solid – though by no means spectacular – first person shooting. Movement and aiming is smooth enough and the obligatory mechanics of the shooting genre such as a regenerative health bar and only being able to carry two weapons at once are present and correct. The assortment of weaponry is varied if nothing else; tools of death such as the Shrink Ray and Freezethrower are great fun if only because stepping on pint-sized enemies or kicking their frozen bodies into hundreds of shards never gets old, while the Devastator is a twin-barrelled missile launcher that, well, devastates pretty much anything unfortunate enough to be targeted by it. On top of your guns, you’ll also have access to Trip Mines and Pipe Bombs, both handy for laying traps should you find yourself backed into a corner. On the whole though, Duke’s armoury is far less entertaining than it should be. Most of the weapons lack any decent visual or aural feedback, which makes pulling the trigger somewhat unsatisfying.
Unfortunately, the game’s problems extend further, into sections where the on-foot shooting is thrown out the window in favour of some gameplay mechanics that are either ill-conceived, out of place or sometimes a hideous pairing of the two. Turret sequences, for example, are the very epitome of irritating, requiring absolute split-second accuracy, timing and reflexes or else you’ll be forced to start the entire section over again. Similarly, there are numerous sections of the game that see Duke shrunk down and having to navigate areas by climbing up boxes, running across shelves and leaping between other everyday objects in order to progress. These sections are certainly where Duke Nukem Forever is at its most imaginative but some buggy collision detection coupled with the awkward first person view – never a good idea where precision jumps are required – make for some utterly infuriating trial-and-error moments; I lost count of how many times I tried to jump somewhere, hit my head on something and was inexplicably catapulted to my death. To add insult to injury, whenever you do die in one of these sections, you’ll be subjected to some absolutely atrocious loading times. Having to sit and look at the same loading screen for up to a minute upon every instance of death – be it falling too far, being overwhelmed by enemies or having my body shot to Hell during a difficult boss fight – got old fast and thanks to some of the trickier sections it was something I had to endure time and time again.
[editor’s note – Mark reviewed the 360 version of the game, which has been reported to struggle considerably performance wise and to have much weaker graphics compared to the other versions.]
All of the aforementioned mediocrity is wrapped inside visuals that would have struggled to compete with its peers in the genre had it been released five years ago. To its credit, the framerate stays fairly constant, although it does take a dip whenever any substantially sized explosion occurs on-screen. However, once they’ve garishly popped into view five seconds or so after a player enters an area, textures are more often than not flat, muddy and lacking in detail. Likewise, the effects that occur on-screen when special items are used are outright terrible, not to mention thoroughly impractical; the ill-defined hues of thermal vision and the blurry effect that results in drinking an invulnerability-inducing beer make using these items a lesson in worthlessness. If making a player invulnerable means that they’re unable to see the enemies trying in vain to kill him, then what’s the point? The most visually impressive aspects of Duke are its enemies. The plethora of aliens you’ll face are varied and decently modelled – with the boss creatures stealing the show in terms of both design and scale – although even these are marred by bugs which frequently cause them to get stuck inside scenery, float a few feet up in the air when dead or randomly jerk about when moving too close to certain objects.
Rounding off the package is the Piranha Games-developed multiplayer component, which contains variants on deathmatch, team deathmatch, king of the hill and capture the flag along with an XP system that allows you to rank up and customise your Duke with a myriad of unlockables such as silly hats, outfits and shirt colours. Unfortunately, Duke Nukem Forever’s online multiplayer somehow manages to be even uglier and riddled with more glitches than its twelve-hour long campaign and is genuinely not worth the time and effort required to even consider playing it, let alone actually doing so.
Had Duke Nukem Forever been released ten years ago, I would undoubtedly have been singing its praises in this closing paragraph. Hell, if it had been released five years ago I could have overlooked most of its less fortunate quirks and at least recommend that you give it a go. However, in the past fourteen years, 3D Realms have clearly been keeping an eye on the first-person shooter market, looking at what worked or at what was critically acclaimed and attempting to shoehorn these ideas into their game. Unfortunately, rather than offer a refreshing alternative to today’s more po-faced shooters, the end product is little more than a hodgepodge of gameplay mechanics that don’t gel together as well as they should and while it’s not completely devoid of fun, Duke Nukem Forever’s most impressive achievement is ultimately that it even exists at all and on a personal level it’s the most disappointing game I’ve played this year, if not of all time.
Platforms available – PC, 360, PS3
Version reviewed – 360