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How is it that Duke Nukem Forever managed to be everything I expected it to be and a bitter disappointment at the same time? Let's review, shall we. Duke Nukem Forever is a very late sequel to a very popular series of shooters released in the 1990s. It is also a terrible, terrible game that has only seen the light of day because of the infamy that comes of being in development for fifteen years. Perhaps a little background is necessary.
Back in the ancient past of 1996 there was a first person shooter called Duke Nukem 3D. Built in an era when we still called first person shooters "Doom Clones," it was a primitive sort of game by todays standards, but stood out from the pack by satirising 80s and 90s macho action heroes while relishing in sex and violence. Truth be told, it wasn't a particularly amusing or entertaining game back in 1996, but despite this it has been remembered rather fondly by a lot of gamers who were teenage boys at the time. Coincidence perhaps. A sequel was inevitable, or so it seemed, and development began on Duke Nukem forever. However fate intervened and my generation were spared a second exposure to the Duke Nukem world. The game languished in development hell for over a decade while refusing to be cancelled outright until it obtained something of a legendary status.
Fifteen years on, a game called Duke Nukem Forever, has been released. We are supposed to be impressed by this, I imagine, but then I'd be very surprised if 2011's Duke Nukem Forever resembles the title planned for the 90s in any way.
So, what is the game like? I wish I could just leave it at "bad" but that probably wouldn't cover it.
Duke Nukem Forever is, like its predecessor, a first person shooter. The game places you in control of macho-man and global icon, Duke as you are tasked with fighting off an alien invasion. There is no real plot beyond that, the game does not take itself seriously, and the brief moments of narrative serve only to move you from one set of crude jokes to the next. I should point out, I am not a prude. I enjoy a bit of adult humour as much as anyone, my only requirement is that it be funny. It never was. Worse still, there is a section of the game about halfway through which was unpleasantly, bizarrely distasteful. I won't detail it specifically as it probably falls under spoilers, but for me it was the point when Duke Nukem Forever stepped across a line from crude humour to just seedy. Again, I have no problem with adult content in games but there has to be some kind of grounding, some sort of context. Duke Nukem Forever just seems to revel in its childish shock tactics because it doesn't have decent gameplay to support it.
As you travel through the game's various set pieces, you'll encounter a range of difference gameplay styles and environments which seem to reflect the game's lengthy development. Early levels feel pretty nostalgic and for a little while I did feel like I was back in the 90s (though that could have been the graphics) but it's when the game starts trying to be funny again that it all falls apart. Fairly early on in the game you'll be forced into an awkward sequence in which Duke is shrunk and you'll have to do some clumsy first person platforming and then race around on a little car. It's not as fun as it sounds. This became something of a growing problem later and I was surprised to find a game that spent so much time giggle at over the top violence was contriving ways to stop me shooting things. By the time I got to the end of the "story" I had completely lost any interest in the game and if it hadn't have been a lot shorter than I expected, I'd have given up before the end.
Graphically, Duke Nukem Forever is a mess. Some bits look alright, in fact the game's opening features some of the nicest looking environments. It's a bit of a disappointment when you start to descend into darkened corridors and things take a drop. By the time you arrive at Duke's casino, the game looks like it has escaped from the Playstation 2 days. This is an inconsistent game, in both style and quality. Character models are probably the worst elements but a lot of the enemies are much prettier. Again, sloppiness and inconsistency can be explained by the troubled development, but not excused.
If there's one area I can probably praise Duke Nukem Forever, then it's in sound design. The voice acting, extravagant sound effects and boisterous music were all a lot of fun and I'd have had a great time with them on a better game. In fact, that really sums up how I felt about a lot of this game. There are times when you feel like you're back in the mid 90s, playing a game where plot isn't as important as killing aliens. Those times are rare, the rest of the game is bogged down with sex jokes, toilet humour and lots of different game mechanics stolen from other games. If anything, Duke Nukem Forever made me long for someone to come along and develop a 90s style shooter properly, with colourful visuals and enthusiastic sound design. Unfortunately, this isn't it. The macho-man joke died out in 96, the humour is juvenile and the game tries too hard to prove itself as a big budget modern shooter to have any real nostalgia value.
A lot of people will play this game out of nostalgia, or to see what a game in development for fifteen years turns out like, but I can't recommend it to anyone. It just doesn't offer even the most basic standard of quality. I know it has had a hard time in the last decade and a half, but this game cost £40 when it was first released. Sure, it's dropped a bit now, but it's already had more money than it deserves. It's a poorly designed, misguided act of greed, that doesn't deserve to exist when there are so many great games out there that just aren't selling.