Duke Nukem Forever begins in a casino bearing the Duke’s name. While slowly making your way through this marble-clad tribute to a hero of decades past (I hesitate to use the word “fighting”), you’ll pause to sign autographs. You’ll get a blow job. You’ll control a remote control car. Twice. You’ll complete a “puzzle”, you’ll do some platforming, you’ll talk to some people and you’ll even shoot some pigs.
All in the space of an hour or two. All in the one area. And this game quickly moves beyond it to greener pastures, such as the streets of Las Vegas, enemy sex hives, deserted mining towns and the Hoover Dam.
When was the last time you ever played something so ambitious? So full of ideas, such a dedication to pack a first-person shooter with as much peripheral crap as could possibly fit inside a genre in which you normally only do one, maybe two of those things?
Never, that’s when. And there’s a very good reason why.
First announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever was mostly developed by 3D Realms, the franchise’s creators, and was originally destined to be released in 1998. That never happened. For the next decade the game was stuck in development hell, its indecisive director George Broussard blamed for endlessly making alterations to the title, which included a number of engine changes and complete content overhauls.
Finally, in 2009, the plug was pulled, and the game seemed destined for the dustbin of history. Which is probably where it deserved to stay. It has, however, been rescued by Take-Two and Gearbox Software, who have polished up the “game”, given it a marketing campaign and done the unthinkable, putting Duke Nukem Forever in the hands of paying customers.
Ah, there I go again. Using “game”. Here’s why: Duke Nukem Forever is little more than a collection of concepts, demonstrations, half-finished levels and half-formed ideas bolted together crudely at the seams and passed off as a coherent, completed project.
Playing through Forever is like being hung, drawn and quartered, its many fundamental failings in a constant struggle to get your attention as the single worst thing about it.
Many things you take for granted in games today simply aren’t present in Duke Nukem Forever. Like enemy AI. Or convincing environments that look like actual places. You’ll also be constantly reminded of its age by the crude character models you encounter at dangerously intimate distances, boring multiplayer modes and the poor pathfinding you encounter when scripted events required to progress aren’t very well scripted.
Games of course don’t need all of those things. There’s an argument that they’re surplus to requirements here, that Duke Nukem Forever is not trying to be Modern Warfare, or Halo, or BioShock. “It’s a throwback!”, that argument will type angrily on an internet forum. “It’s a reminder of when games used to be just about the fun, about shooting shit!”.
What’s saddest about the game, then, is that it fails even as such a nostalgia project. While much of Forever is full of parts you’ll be able to identify as dating back to 2004, or even 1998, there are just as many where you can see where a designer has played a competing product over the past ten years and crudely bolted another’s mechanic onto his own game in places and ways it was never meant to be bolted.
One example is a series of puzzles you must complete towards the end of the game, rearranging steam valves to clear a path through a level. At one point, Duke grumbles “man, I hate valve puzzles”. It’s supposed to be a joke, and yet comes off as anything but. People love Valve puzzles in games like Half-Life 2 and Portal because they’re intelligent and well-integrated within a level. Forever’s puzzles are bland and interrupt what little momentum the game is capable of mustering with its broken pacing.
Worse still is the influence of Halo. Old-school shooters, and this is definitely trying to be one of those with its basic AI and lack of cover mechanics, always had two great things going for them: speed and a ridiculous arsenal of weapons. You’d be carrying 6-8 guns around with you at any one time, and when the need arose, you’d switch between them, all the while spinning madly around a level.
Forever eschews this in favour of a plodding pace and two guns. You can only carry two at any one time, just like Halo, so you have to pick and choose which you’ll take and which you’ll leave. Like the Valve puzzles, though, this is implemented terribly. In Halo, weapons are left according to need and what’s coming next. In Forever, they are not.
Somewhere, sometime, between 1997 and 2009, Duke Nukem went from being a walking man’s man parody of action movie stars to a monotone sex predator who makes decade-old pop culture observations (and WMD jokes) as though they were still, by virtue of the game’s development time, somehow relevant or witty. His gameplay has fared little better. Duke Nukem 3D, this title’s predecessor, was a fast, well-designed shooter, its eccentricities and environmental interaction obscuring the fact most people at the time enjoyed it for being a great shooter.
Yet environmental sideshows, like being able to throw a turd and put a rat in the microwave, are thrust centre stage here, along with a greater emphasis on smut that existed only on the fringes of Duke 3D. Duke Nukem Forever revels in these misplaced priorities, confusing what made DN3D memorable with what made it enjoyable. And as a game, this suffers as a result.
By the time development on this game originally shut down in 2009, it was claimed at the time that Duke Nukem Forever had been almost completed, with only the loosest of ends needing to be tied up before it could be called a finished game. That call was very optimistic. While some individual levels segue neatly enough into another, the entire product feels horribly disjointed, as though – and this is likely the case – the game was nowhere actually being finished, polished or honed in any way, and what was playable in 2010 was simply strung together in the hopes the game’s name and fanbase would sell a few million copies before anyone noticed. Or cared.
Across the game’s three main locations (Las Vegas, the highway and Hoover Dam), you encounter vehicle sections, puzzles, combat arenas, boss fights and even tedious fetch quests (in a strip club, no less) in what feels like completely random order, no consideration given for how each ties into the other in terms of pacing or how everything ties together into a coherent whole.
The fact the game was a complete mess by the time Gearbox got its hands on it may be a reason for this, but it is not an excuse. Duke Nukem Forever can’t even give players the dignity of a decent ending, a tedious boss fight being followed by a closing sequence so short and pointless it’s the equivalent of somebody pissing on the grave of the 7-9 hours you sacrificed to complete the singleplayer campaign.
There’s a point, around two-thirds of the way into the game, flying over a freeway in a transport, manning an explosive cannon while enemies deploy below, when you feel instantly at home. Similar sequences in Halo and Call of Duty have taught you that these are a way to let off steam, a chance to kill a ton of enemies at a distance with a gun far more powerful than that you’re normally able to carry around.
Almost immediately, however, things here don’t seem quite right. A frantic radio message lets you know that your intended landing zone is “too hot”, overrun with bad guys, so you’re going to have to go around and find somewhere else. Upon flying over this original area, you see… a handful of cars, and at most, three enemies on screen at once.
It’s a contrast so stark it’s a laugh-out-loud moment, the developer’s intent so far from its delivery that you could drive Duke Nukem’s ego through the gap, in his monster truck, and it wouldn’t even scrape the sides. And it’s one hell of an ego.
Once the laughs die down, though, you realise that as absurd as it seems, this is as good as Duke Nukem Forever gets. It’s a game entirely undermined by its development time, its antiquity forcing it to repeatedly lunge from the grave at influences from more contemporary, successful games that it simply cannot hope to replicate.
In the end, I had to take it for what it is: a video game released in 2011. And in that respect, it’s an abysmal failure, a monument to everything that the first-person shooter genre has left behind – with good reason – over the past fourteen years. Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford may have said of this game in its defence “sometimes we want greasy hamburgers instead of caviar”, but the last time I checked, McDonalds wasn’t charging $60 for a hamburger.