Review: Duke Nukem Forever

June 23, 2011, Author: Ray Willmott

I took my time in reviewing Duke Nukem Forever. Not because I decided to conduct some weird, parallel ritual to its development time or because I was waiting for others opinion. I did it because I wanted to make sure I got this review absolutely right. That I was giving a semblance of sacrifice through carefully considering my words, hoping it goes some way to help justify the efforts of numerous developers who have worked on this game and have done for the last thirteen years.

No game has ever taken this long in being developed and, as a result, the Duke Nukem name has gone from being one of the most beloved and iconic in our industry to a laughing-stock. Back in ’96, Duke was ripping other games and their developers to shreds, revelling in his own self-worth at how much ahead of the pack he was. Now, he’s fallen so far behind, the competition doesn’t even acknowledge that he even existed.

So, is Forever the comeback Duke needed, or will this be the final nail in his coffin? Can he really make an impact all over again?

I’m back, bitches!
I’ll get this out-of-the-way right now. Do not take this game seriously. Don’t. There’s nothing to take seriously. The storyline is a mockery unto itself. Arguably, it doesn’t do as good of a job as some of the jokes or proposed storylines that have scattered the web over the last decade, but this isn’t a serious game, as is evidenced by pissing in a urinal in the very first scene. Yeah, because that’s how all serious games and films start out.

Duke Forever takes place following the events of Duke 3D. The world is indebted to the steroid-swallowing, chick-dicking, ass-kicking machine and, as such, have recreated shrines in his honor. Duke Burger, Duke’s Titty City, his own video game, even his own musical! The man is a celebrity hero. Everyone wants to be him, everyone wants to know him. Even though he quelled an alien invasion thirteen years ago, (the game is at least keeping synchronised with the real timeline), he’s still everybody’s icon. However, the threat is surging again, aliens are coming back to earth and taking the women. Put it this way, it’s enough to get the Duke back in action and so he goes, once again to prove to the people, he is deserving of their praise.

Duke's back! Should he have bothered?

Although, the ironic thing is that the world around Duke may be more Duke than the King of Nuke himself. It seems the lay-off has affected some of his verbal repertoire. Sure, there are glimpses at past glory, and a few quotes that will make you snigger, such as Duke confronting the three-titted alien and blurting out ‘I’d still hit it!’, however, there are quite a few occasions where you’ll be baffled by what he comes up with. Not because they’re controversial or inappropriate, just, I don’t think they’re a good fit or things he’d really say. I know most of them are ripped from films, but I could think of better lines that would have been more appropriate than what has entered the final cut. Hearing ‘Let god sort them out’ and ‘pork chop sandwiches’ after a few times made me think, where’s the ‘Kick ass and chew bubblegum’ in all this? Is this really the best you’ve got to give me after thirteen years of material?

Frankly, that is an issue that does run through. Some of the in-jokes are badly outdated (Leeroy Jenkins was so 2006!) and it actually reaches a point in the game where the developers just seem to have given up trying to be funny at all. Sadly, this is a bit of a mistake, as the vintage Duke humour is one of the major concealers in favour of covering up the game’s rather weak and stunted gameplay mechanics.

Who wants some?
Duke’s been resting a long time and the face of the FPS landscape has definitely changed. So, with those changes, it seems Duke has been forced to adapt. Ironically though, it may be to his detriment. As expected, your typical FPS controls are here, click in left stick to sprint, right stick to aim, right trigger to fire, yada, yada. There are two major differences in the Duke world you should be aware of.

Only two guns at a time!

First, Duke isn’t living on a health bar anymore. He has a rechargeable ‘EGO’ bar. This works the same as the overshield in Halo or Gears of War. You get blasted to pieces, your screen fills up red, so you need to dart into cover, let the bar fill back up and you’re back to full strength as if nothing had ever happened. Obviously, this changes the dynamic of a Duke game, changing the game from all out carnage to a duck, cover, shoot, shoot, cover, shoot, cover experience. Whether it’s appropriate for Duke is another story. You’ll find yourself in cover a lot as the enemies will pound your health, even on a medium difficulty setting. In some ways, this takes away the Nukem enigma of being an utter bad-ass that can withstand unreal amounts of damage without taking a breather. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably the safer option, and were we forced to run around collecting health kits again, I’m not sure that would be to the game’s benefit, either. It’s just changed the feel of the game considerably, so much that a lot of old-school Dukers may feel a little bamboozled by it.

The clever thing about the EGO system is that you can increase your bar by performing actions that, essentially, boost Duke’s ego. Actions include, autographing a boy’s book, killing a boss and sticking your middle finger up at it, admiring yourself in the mirror, doing some weights, etc. This is a nice creative touch that helps bring the game back to a Duke level and really puts his authentic stamp of approval all over it.

The other big change is weapons and how many you can carry at any one time. Remember in Duke 3D you could select up to ten weapons, anytime you wanted? Well, now that’s changed. Duke can now only carry two weapons at a time. Yep, once again, 3D Realms and Gearbox fallen to their knees in submission and acquiesced to the popular demand of today’s FPS gamer. So, you’ll need to keep a mindful eye on the terrain to see what’s available for you to grab and fight back with. To be honest, I feel Loadouts would have been a much more appropriate fit for the series. They’re more appropriate for Duke’s commando approach, and would add some interesting dynamics to the fights in the game. It’s odd that for a game wanting to bring back the old school, Duke Forever is trying so hard to be current.

Trucks! Drives like crap but breaks up the game.

Another new aspect to the game comes in the form of driving. Yes, driving! There’s a rather large portion of the game where Duke will be at the wheel of a Monster Truck (that doesn’t handle like something sponsored by Monster, by the way) and even a fork lift. For the most part, the driving works, although does get hindered by poor physics and crap handling. However, it’s not so integral to the game that you’ll get infinitely frustrated with it. It does keep things fresh in the gameplay and mixes things up at the right time to save the whole thing getting boring. The game is still filled with typical Duke-isms, getting blow-jobs from a rip off of the Olsen twins. Telling a kid to eat steroids. Aborting alien foetus’ within human women. All in a day’s work for Duke.

As far as the game plays, well, it works. A good half of the game is actually pretty decent, it’s not amazing or excellent, just good. There’s entertainment to be found in Forever, if you’re willing to look past a few problems. Unfortunately, after the game gets rolling from the opening scenes (easily the best parts of the game), Forever really starts to slow down. Frankly, the last ¼ of the game is a chore and nearly got the best of me a few times. The pace slows down, and the annoyances come out in full. I’d been so close to rage quitting and stopping playing the game several times, even though I knew I was right at the end. A little tip, underwater levels with crappy mechanics are a no-no when you’re ready to end your game. A big no-no! At least stick them in the middle or get them out of the way right from the beginning. Better yet, don’t include them at all!

The weapons are barely changed from Duke 3D. You’ve still got the Devastator, the Shrink Ray and the Ripper ready to pour the pain on your foes, but new weapons also make it into the game, such as the Enforcer Gun. I always found the weapons in Duke 3D to be ahead of the game anyway, and in many respects, they still feel very current and cool. It’s still fun to shrink and enemy and crush them with your boot. It’s also fun to freeze them and smash them into itty bitty pieces. Although, the shotgun feels like it has the equivalent power of a pistol, and the pistol is actually damn awesome for firing long distance and bringing down even the biggest of foes. Balance issues there, clearly. Pipe bombs and Trip Mines are also still there, but treated as side weapons and not a main part of the Duke’s arsenal.

Looks like Halo with pigs!

Damn, I’m looking good…
Well, actually Duke, you’re not. There’s some decent looking visuals here (for 2008) but this is definitely not a game to be releasing in the same year as Battlefield 3. Don’t get me wrong, the chicks have better breasts and naked bodies than ever, and they’ve come a long way from the old days of the Red Light District. Some of the boss battles are actually quite awesome in scope and scale, but on the whole, Duke is not a visual wonderhorse. It’s more of a bland pony.

The good news is, the game has very diverse landscapes and you will be seeing a real area variety, whether you’re underwater, at the Hoover Dam, in the Hive or in Duke’s club. There’s a bit of everything in there and it’s all been shaken together to create something that gives a very open world feel. It’s just… half the time, the game doesn’t really hold up. I’ve stood watching an ammo crate having to redraw itself back into high-definition from textures that seemed current in the Quake 2 era.

Put it this way, Duke hasn’t aged well..

Those Alien Bastards are gonna pay…
Jon St John is back and you can tell. Unlike the rest of the gaming package, Jon is ready for action and sounds like he’s been practicing the whole thirteen years. He seems eager and excited to get back in the saddle and it shows. Seriously, one of the highlights of this game is Jon and his enthusiasm for the product. Unfortunately, some of the lines he has been asked to deliver are… just not Duke lines to my way of thinking. I got some sniggers out of many lines, but others just made me blink with surprise. In some respects, Duke is more outrageous than ever, but in other regards, he’s really toned it down. There’s a happy balance here, when I’m not sure there should be one at all.

The classic Duke tune has been riffed up with electric guitars and an ensemble of other instruments. Aside from that, the soundtrack isn’t really noticeable. I found more distinctive tunes in Duke 3D when compared to Forever, and even now, I can hum some of the tunes from Duke 3D as I type this review. Forever? I can’t remember a single track.

Shake it baby!
Then we come to multiplayer, perhaps the worst part of the whole package. The problem with the multiplayer is that it’s so incredibly tired and dated, it’s difficult to even find the incentive to play when there’s so many other great games out there that do the job 20x better. The game does recreate a Duke-Match feel to it, so if you remember and loved those days, you may well find your vice. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed them in ’96, I’m not really clamouring for them in 2011. You’ve got your vintage, Dukematch, Team Dukematch, Hail to the King (King of the Hill) and Capture the Babe (Capture the flag… kind of…)

Capture the Babe probably offers the most giggles and Dukeisms. Your job is to capture a babe from the opposing team’s base and bring her to your own. The girl jiggles and shows discontent along the way, so how does Duke respond? Tapping that ass, that’s how!

Duke suffers from shrinkage...

The games are mostly team based, and up to 8 players can play together online, split evenly between red and blue teams. The problem is that the online is stuttery, the character models look like cardboard cut-outs running (or dotting) around the maps. The maps are generally lacklustre, with one or two notable exceptions.

On the whole though, it’s laggy, it’s buggy, the aiming is so poor your in-game reactions leave a lot to be desired. The only longevity to be found in the online is decking out Duke’s crib. As you go through the game, you earn credits, so you can buy features in Duke’s crib and make it look just as you’d like it. Add a painting here, some vases there, it’s all fair game. Unfortunately, even this isn’t distracting and enthralling enough that it pulls you away from the absolutely mediocrity that is the DNF multiplayer.

All outta gum?
When Forever was first announced, I was just a teenage kid and the game had the potential to be the greatest thing ever made. Thirteen years on, I’m 28 and times have definitely changed. So much so, I’d forgotten about the game and how much of a desire I had to play it. Perhaps that was for the best, because had I been sat refreshing the 3D Realms web page religiously every day for the last 13 years, I’d be really fucking disappointed right about now. Duke Forever isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel. It’s not meant to break ground or set boundaries. If you were dead-set on those ideals, you should stay far away, because Duke is bringing up the rear (no pun intended… or was it?) when placed against its competition. The thirteen years in development do not indicate an obscene amount of quality.

However, don’t expect more from it and the game will reward you. I understand that it is difficult to not want the world from Forever considering its excessive development time. What some people fail to remember that the thirteen years of development were filled with problem after problem, the game underwent three cold restarts, it experienced lawsuit issues, budgeting problems and much more. The fact that this game even survived development hell is a testament to fan desire and developer passion. Perhaps Gearbox’s excitement to get this finished and out into the world stopped them from overseeing every problem in the game and saw them release a substandard effort instead of an exceptional one.

Naturally, the game is dated in many regards. The online is laughably poor when placed alongside your Reach or Black Ops, the loading screens are cringe-worthy and the textures of some set pieces look older than your Auntie Flo. Even some of the jokes fall flat. That being said, Duke Forever is still pretty good fun! I’m not shy in coming forward and saying I enjoyed it. Forever is just a good switch-off, action-packed mayhem from start to finish. It’s over the top and the campaign is diverse enough with its set pieces and challenges, that it has some entertainment value. It’s worth a playthrough, at least, if only to look at its extras, including a full development timeline, which is absolutely fascinating for the games historian, and a series of trailers, teasers and concept arts collected over the years.

The bottom line. Duke Forever made it. It’s here. It’s not the messiah of gaming, it’s not raising the bar, but it does offer a decent campaign offering that may go some way to saturating the thirteen year hunger of Duke Nukem fans. Let’s just hope the wait for the next Nukem isn’t so long…


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