Review by 47pik
"Always Bet on Duke"
It's difficult to be objective in writing a review for a game with the kind of legacy Duke Nukem Forever has. The in-game development timeline identifies it as a 15 year development cycle. This game has been in development longer than I have been playing games. When I started gaming, Duke Nukem Forever was already the infamous joke of the gaming industry. Although I joked that it would never come out, I was sad when it was cancelled. Not because I had any attachment to the series, but merely because it meant the end of the development hell, and the answer to the question "Is it ever going to come out?". Much like Schrodinger's cat, Duke Nukem Forever was both alive and dead until someone opened the box and found out for sure. Then somebody opened the box, and it turned out it was indeed dead, and that was that. Thankfully, this cat seems to have had at least one extra life, if not nine, because the project was revived and seen to completion by Gearbox Software, of Borderlands fame. On June 14th, 2011, Duke Nukem Forever finally released - a momentous occasion indeed, both for fans of the series, and for fans of gaming history. The point of this preface however is not to recap the history, for we are all familiar with it. The point is to say that it is unfair to Duke Nukem Forever to have incredibly high expectations after 15 years - development hell is not good for the final product. In order to be objective, one must ignore the storied tale of it's infamous development cycle - for better or for worse.
The game begins with a dramatized version of the final battle in Duke Nukem 3D, soon revealed to be a video game. "What about the game, Duke, was it any good?" asks one of the Holsom Twins, a pair of Duke's glorified concubines, coming up for air after "servicing" him. "Yeah, but after twelve ****ing years, it should be," states Duke. Clearly, although I may try to ignore the development cycle in my review, the developers don't ignore it in their game. And so the tone is set for the rest of the game - silly, absurd and filled with satirical machismo that borders on offensive. The plot is no less ridiculous - Duke, now world famous for his exploits in Duke Nukem 3D and living the high life, is called back into action when aliens come back once again to steal the women of Earth, and get revenge on Duke Nukem for their previous ass-kicking. A bizarrely out of place subplot involving peace talks between the President of the United States and the aliens is mentioned a few times, but ultimately proves meaningless and unconnected in any real way. But that doesn't matter much, since all Duke needs is an excuse to kick some alien ass and chew gum. And he's all out of gum.
Kicking ass is done from first person, with the typical weapons (pistol, shotgun), as well as the non-typical (shrink ray, ice beam). All in all the arsenal is somewhat limited, containing only ten guns, two explosives and a handful of too-uncommon power ups. It does get a bit stale after a while, but serves its purpose. It's a bit of a shame that a two weapon limit on guns is imposed upon Duke, although for some games that's a good design choice, in Duke Nukem Forever it just feels limiting, especially given that its predecessor allowed Duke to carry all his guns simultaneously. This is but one of the modern shooter conventions applied to the game - regenerative health also appears, as does more linear level design. In fact, the game feels a lot like the Halo games from a gameplay standpoint - albeit with more interesting and engaging environments and level design. Just don't expect to be exploring to find keycards - early on, a security system demands a red keycard, to which Duke replies by prying the door open, commenting "Keycard? I don't need no ****ing keycard!"
Although some may be disappointed in the linear approach, it does work out pretty well for the game - steadily pushing you forward, moving from one location to another, never allowing any one to be too drawn out and monotonous like many in Duke Nukem 3D. The pacing isn't great by any means, but it's not bad either, never exciting nor boring, just keeping you interested enough to keep going. One of the nice surprises was how varied levels were, one moment you're shooting aliens, the next you're shrunk into Mini-Duke, and driving around a destroyed hotel in an RC car, and soon after you're doing platforming. Puzzles occasionally break up the action as well, which is nice and refreshing to see in an FPS. One might be inclined to say that the myriad of elements makes the game unfocused, but I say it adds some much appreciated variety and personality; a Ritalin addled Duke Nukem Forever would not be nearly as enjoyable. This is perhaps one of the benefits of development hell - there are a whole bunch of ideas crammed into this one game.
Further emphasizing the game's ADHD tendencies, players are encouraged to search levels for interactive objects such as dumbells, urinals, pornography magazines and fully functional pinball tables in order to perform "Duke-like actions" which increase Duke's ego, which serves as his health bar. This means that the player can increase their maximum health, even though it's a regenerative system. This is a nice touch, but it doesn't fully address the problems of the regenerative system - don't get me wrong regenerative health in general has been a good addition to the FPS, but it just doesn't work well in Duke Nukem Forever. Sure, there's the obvious problem; hiding behind cover until health is restored is a mechanic at odds with the Duke Nukem character who's all about going in guns blazing. Furthermore, it doesn't make any sense that hiding would restore your health, when health is ego. But the problem is deeper than that - some sections of the game just don't work properly with regenerative health. At several points in the game your movement is restricted to a very small area with no cover, while you fight multiple enemies that have projectile attacks with a huge area of effect. In such a situation, regenerative health simply is not an adequate system, and leads to a fair amount of frustration. It is then baffling why a mechanic that restores ego upon killing an enemy was not used - not only would it feel more appropriate in a Duke Nukem game or make more sense as far as restoration of ego is concerned, but it would eliminate the problems related to staying alive in certain sections. Clearly it occurred to the developers, as performing executions on enemies fully restores Duke's ego, but executions can only be performed when an enemy is weak, and at close range, and thus are not by any means reliable.
Generally however, the gameplay is quite solid. Guns feel alright and levels are interesting enough to traverse. Duke Nukem Forever doesn't do anything terribly new or exciting, but what it does, it does with acceptable level of competence. It would be fairly bland if not for its style and attitude. Thankfully, it has both in spades. Duke's one liners are enjoyable to hear in combat or interacting with objects, and more varied than in previous games. Some may fall flat ("I've got balls of fail"), but generally they're pretty amusing. One oddity is that Duke, and his familiar voice and attitude are strangely absent while being yelled at by a certain character - one would imagine Duke would have some sort of vulgar retort, but no, he never does. Sure, some of the jokes are in questionable taste and questionably funny, but it is, for the most part, humourous. And of course, it wouldn't be a Duke Nukem game without pop culture references, parody and Easter eggs abound. I don't wish to give anything away, as discovering these is amusing, but it brings a smile to my face to walk in a room and see "REDRUM" scrawled on the wall in blood opposite a mirror or to realize that a certain character is a subtle parody of Marcus Fenix from Gears of War. All this stuff makes the presentation of the game, and it needs to - the graphics certainly aren't doing it with the game's murky low quality visuals that still somehow manage to have severe texture pop-in issues.
Additionally, Duke Nukem Forever contains a multiplayer mode. It's not something I expect will ever be very popular, and it certainly isn't going to be the next big thing you sink hundreds of hours into, but it's a surprisingly fun little diversion. It has only four modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill - called Dukematch, Team Dukematch, Capture the Babe, and Hail to the King respectively. There's nothing new here, although Capture the Babe is much funnier than it has any right to be. What really makes the multiplayer is the maps - although there are only 10, they are all decent enough, and some - specifically Hollywood (based on a Duke Nukem 3D map), and Duke Burger (where mini-Dukes duke it out in a seemingly giant kitchen) - are pretty great. Much like with the single player campaign, variety is a large part of the enjoyment to be had as most of the maps have a very unique and distinct feel. Surprisingly, in contrast to the single player game, the multiplayer in Duke Nukem Forever feels very retro. There is still regenerative health, but there are no loadouts. Weapons and powerups must be picked up from specific points on the map, ammo is plentiful, and you'll find yourself jumping around with an opponent trading shotgun blows. If this is the kind of gameplay you've been missing in this post-Call of Duty era, then there's something to enjoy here. Just don't be surprised when a guy with a jetpack and a Devestator kills you seconds after you spawn.
Considering that most people will probably ignore this mode completely, there's a startling amount of auxiliary content related to the multiplayer. Although there are no killstreaks, perks, loadouts, or anything else of that nature, there is a levelling system and challenge system in place. Completing challenges gets you more experience points for level-ups, in addition to unlocking vanity items for your Duke to wear when fighting online. There are dozens and dozens of these items and they are almost all ridiculous. Levelling up nets you items for Duke's house, including "babes" which can be "oogled". There's no point to decorating the house at all, but it's fully explorable, so for the five people who really want to arrange Duke's paintings, or watch polygons strip, this is kind of cool.
Duke Nukem Forever is not 15 years amazing. It's by no means a bad game, but it's not terribly impressive either. We can point fingers about who is to blame for the long development cycle, or complain that all that time, and all those resources only added up to an average game. But what's the point? There isn't one. When it comes down to it, Duke Nukem Forever is an enjoyable experience and that's about the best I can say for it. It won't blow any minds with any innovative gameplay mechanics - it's quite basic. But it's basic with some nice quirks that make it unique, and has tons of personality. You might say that this is a matter of style over substance. You'd be right. But lest we forget that its beloved predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D wasn't exactly an innovator either. It had basic gameplay, and outdated graphics too. What it did have was style and personality. Duke Nukem Forever carries on that torch, cranking it's attitude up to eleven. The level design is linear instead of maze-like, the health is regenerative instead of medpack based, and that one dead space marine is Issac Clarke instead of Doomguy. But it's still Duke Nukem. And it's still more fun than it should be.
5.5/10 - Average
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 06/20/11, Updated 07/14/11
Game Release: Duke Nukem Forever (US, 06/14/11)
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