Review: Duke Nukem Forever (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Duke Nukem Forever
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: 3D Realms, Triptych Games, Piranha Games, Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 06/14/2011

So allow us to forgo, if we can, the assessments about the game’s massive amount of time in development and the astonishment of being able to finally see the day where this would indeed exist, and simply state that fifteen years and four developers later, Duke Nukem Forever exists. That, in and of itself, is a pretty big thing. It’s not that the character hasn’t been in other games since then, or that other games haven’t spent a considerable amount of time in development hell, but it’s just a surprise for anyone who, like myself, was old enough to be alive for the entire development process and remember it. Expectations for the game have been, one would expect, far higher than any game could ever possibly pay off, but with a decade and a half of development under the game’s belt, combined with a developer (Gearbox) at the helm of the final iteration of the product that’s known for some great games, the odds were good that the public could, indeed, always bet on Duke. As it turns out, however, the series hasn’t aged particularly well conceptually or mechanically, and the final product is one that’s hard to really appreciate. It’s not a bad game so much as it’s a confusing one, as it’s equal parts unnecessary innovations and archaic elements, leaving the final product as one that is worth experiencing just to say one has done it, but isn’t really worth owning unless one is both incredibly patient and easily pleased.

So the story picks up about twelve years after the last game, and as the song goes, ol’ Duke’s a billionaire. Living the high life in a penthouse and dating mildly incestuous pop musician twins, Duke has done it all and essentially become the world’s biggest hero-slash-franchise. The Cycloid forces from Duke Nukem 3D have returned around this time, however, and while the initial indications imply that the aliens mean peace this time around, as anyone with some sense would gather, that’s not at all how things turn out, so it’s up to Duke, once again, to kick the hell out of the invading alien horde and save our chicks. Now, some elements of this plot are perfectly fine, and dare I even say sensible, given the nature of the beast. If some random dude showed up clean out of nowhere and single-handedly saved the world from evil alien invaders, you can best believe that every company still in existence would be tripping all over themselves to offer said person endorsements of all shapes and sizes. “Excuse me, mister savior of the world? Would you like to be our official spokesperson?” Just like that. Further, while Duke might be a pig and a jerk, he’s never been presented as an idiot, and it’s quite reasonable to believe that if he single handedly stopped an alien invasion, hey, maybe he’s smart enough to run a burger franchise or a casino or a strip club or whatever. It’s also entirely reasonable to believe that, in a world that was saved by Duke Nukem, dudes would want to be him and women would want to be with him, since he saved the world and all, so, again, that’s easy enough to roll with.

That said, there were three “good” directions a plot for this game could have gone in: develop the character, make the whole thing satirical, or include about as much plot as Duke Nukem 3D. The game, however, chooses to basically take the Duke Nukem character as he is, unaltered, and craft a semi-serious storyline around him, and the results of this are that we’re given a lot more insight into the character, which is problematic, because he’s really kind of a horrible human being. I almost feel like some of the writers were trying to write a satirical storyline based around what Duke represents, but they didn’t tell anyone else about this, so we get this plot that just seems incredibly satirical, but never manages to make it apparent that this is on purpose. Duke is basically a bobbing gun and a series of one-liners borrowed from old movies who makes fun of the deaths of his friends and enemies alike, treats every woman like meat, and generally can be described as a “man-child”. He’s not a likable character in the strictest sense, in other words. Giving him the same amount of plot to work with as, say, Duke Nukem 3D could have masked this, developing a character with a bit more of a personality, like a Dante or a Bayonetta, would have made him a bit more likable, and making the game an obvious satire would have made the character terrible for a reason, but this? This is just… uncomfortable and a bit puerile, to be honest, and that’s coming from someone who thinks Rumble Roses XX and Oneechanbara are perfectly fine, so take that for what it’s worth.

Duke Nukem Forever generally fluctuates visually, and you really get the feeling that four developers worked on the game when you see the different visual quality issues that pop up throughout the game. Duke’s animations that we see are generally just fine, and many of the aliens and their ships are perfectly fine whether static or in motion. The environments are generally variable enough throughout the game that you don’t find them too repetitive, but a few of the sections stay for far too long in one palette type, making for some tedium as the game progresses. The game also suffers heavily from texture pop-in when a stage loads up, and static images, such as the pictures in Duke’s penthouse, are pixilated and strange looking up close. Aurally, the game has a perfectly fine soundtrack for obliterating aliens to, featuring plenty of enjoyable tunes that are fine to listen to, but save for the Duke Nukem theme, not especially memorable. Duke himself is voiced by the incredibly awesome Jon St. John, and as such his voice work is always fantastic, and most of the voice actors and actresses in the game do a solid job otherwise, though there are the odd performances here and there that are weak out of the lot. The sound effects are mostly just fine, featuring plenty of solid alien grunts and groans and powerful gunfire effects, and while the various energy weapons and such lack the punch of the ballistic and explosive weapons, they’re perfectly fine in their own right.

If you’ve played a first person shooter in your life, congratulations, you have a pretty solid idea of how Duke Nukem Forever works. The left stick moves Duke around the game world, the right stick aims at things you want dead, the right trigger allows you to make those things dead, and the left trigger zooms in and allows you to more carefully target those things you’re trying to make dead. Duke can jump with the A button, melee enemies with a weapon with the B button, reload his weapon (if applicable) and interact with the game world with the X button, and switch weapons with the Y button. Clicking in the left stick allows Duke to sprint forward, clicking in the right stick allows Duke to duck down, and the bumpers throw out either remote detonating pipe bombs or laser trip mines, depending on the button. You’ll get down most of the controls in no time at all and the game is fairly helpful about telling you how things work and what you can interact with.

Now, Duke Nukem Forever plays like most FPS titles, but it has a few things it does to either make the game its own or modernize the experience for newer players. Duke now has a regenerating life bar, dubbed his “Ego”, in a fashion similar to most modern FPS titles. However, Duke can also increase the size of his Ego by performing various interactions within the game world, like beating arcade games, reading nudie mags, tossing around paper airplanes, and yes, taking a piss, to make himself harder to kill. Duke also no longer has infinite pocket space, and can only carry two weapons on his person at any time, though the weapons from Duke Nukem 3D come back intact for those who wanted the Shrink Ray, Freeze Ray, and Devastator in high definition. Duke also has some power-ups he can collect and use from the D-pad at various points, including the infinite use Duke Vision (night vision goggles) for dark areas, beer to reduce his damage reception, steroids (yup) to increase his melee damage, and the Holo-Duke to distract enemies. The game also has a big interest in allowing Duke the option of interacting with the game world to a pretty big degree, and while in combat areas he won’t really have a lot of options, a few sections pop up throughout the game where he can play pinball, air hockey, and whack-a-mole, fool around with vending machines, toilets and magazines, pick up and toss all sorts of items, and so on, either as a matter of necessity in some puzzles or just because.

The game also tosses in a fair amount of variety, as it’s not just about shooting aliens in the face. There are a few sections where you just walk around as Duke, interacting with the game world and NPC’s, trying to accomplish some sort of objective or another. The game also features a few driving sections in toy cars and Duke’s truck, the “Mighty Foot”, as well as a few mounted turret segments to mow down enemy forces and swimming segments in the later levels. Several sections of the game shrink Duke down to pint size, forcing him to navigate the normal sized world from a smaller vantage point, often incorporating odd puzzles and the occasional “boss fight” against a normal enemy that is now massive in comparison to tiny Duke. Oh, and the game has more than a few boss fights against massive enemies that Duke can only hurt with explosives or mounted turrets, to add to the challenge of the battles somewhat, though once Duke wins, he’ll often take the opportunity to humiliate his fallen foe in some… creative ways. The game also offers an online multiplayer component, which features the standard compliment of game types: Dukematch and Team Dukematch (Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch), Capture the Babe (Capture the Flag) and Hail to the King (King of the Hill), with all sorts of customizable options, including the option to turn on infinite ammo if you want to just slaughter everyone and thing. Completing various challenges in the multiplayer also allows for you to earn experience points, which can be used to unlock decorations and such for Duke’s penthouse, as well as costume options for changing up your multiplayer Duke.

You can blow through the campaign of Duke Nukem Forever in around eight to ten hours, depending on how long you screw around in some of the more open areas, but there are multiple difficulty levels to play through if you’re looking to give it another go. The multiplayer also offers some decent options if you want to come back to the game, whether you just want to jump online and shoot people or earn experience to fill out Duke’s penthouse with all the trimmings. There are also plenty of Ego boosting items to find throughout the game and Achievements to earn, and none of the Achievements are based in the multiplayer at all, so you can play through the campaign and unlock them all if you’re not a big fan, and if you are you’ve still got experience to earn and such. There will also be DLC coming, as we’re told, that will include added content down the road, so you’ll have more reason to come back to the game at some point in the future if you want to do this thing.

But the odds of this thing are low, to be honest, because Duke Nukem Forever is, to be polite, something of a failure as an actual game. Let us, for a moment, look past the visual issues, the sexism, and the weird and/or unappealing elements of the presentation and look simply at the mechanical elements of the game. So, okay, for one thing, the game makes its concessions to the sake of stepping into the modern world, with a regenerating life bar, Active Time Events, and two weapons at once, even when NOT doing so would have likely been accepted by the fanbase. However, then we get to things like NOT incorporating any sort of a direction finder in the game, or pointless changes like making bosses only vulnerable to explosives, which is somewhat pointless. It doesn’t help, either, that every boss section now must come equipped with an RPG/Devastator AND a box of ammo because of the stripping out of the ability to carry all available weapons and the addition of the “Explosives/Turrets Only” rule, which makes boss battles a matter of ejecting your ammunition, running for the ammo, and coming back. Only the last boss fight tries to do anything remotely creative with this concept, and by then it’s far too late for it to be in any way redeeming of the concept. The limited weapon count also means that you’re unlikely to want to carry around anything but the two weapons you find useful (in my case, the Ripper and the Shotgun), as many of the weapons, while fun in the original game, are glorified novelties when they’re taking up a space that could be used by a useful weapon.

Further, and this is a big issue here, the game is technically flawed in nearly every way. Any gameplay section that isn’t normal shooting is wonky, from the awkward and problematic driving mechanics to the plodding and frustrating feel of the swimming segments, and the cute little novelties like playing air hockey and pinball or writing on whiteboards are marred by the often unfriendly controls for these segments that make doing anything with them pointless. The entire “Mighty Foot” driving sequence goes on for far too long and doesn’t even play well, for example, and this is something like five stages in the game of pure boredom and frustration that makes one question why you’d even bother going through it. The game has a big loading issue as well, as the levels take somewhere around a full minute to load, to a point where the final scene after the credits takes longer to load than to display, and even after loading there will be texture pop-in for a while afterward. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t note that testing multiplayer was an exercise in frustration, as in two hours I could only get into two games, both of which were infinite ammo matches where the point seemed to be experience grinding over anything else, and while the gameplay could be fun, years of FPS titles where the weapons are balanced and the game comes down more to player skill and perks (to a point) has made it hard to accept a multiplayer mode where you spawn in, turn a corner, and get rent asunder by a guy with a Devastator. This is also compounded when all of the benefits you get from playing online are unlocked in a penthouse only you can really see, especially when, well, it’s just a virtual trophy room that shows how dedicated you are to grinding.

There’s a good game in Duke Nukem Forever somewhere, and elements of it pop up here and there while you’re playing, but the game would have likely been better served as a completely rewritten story driven FPS or a Serious Sam-style old-school throwback game, as the game we’re given mixes the worst parts of those two ideas together to make something that only the most prurient or diehard gamers will find desirable. The game can look nice at times and the audio is mostly fine, the gameplay is simple enough to get into, and the first person shooting sections are pretty much enjoyable on their own. There’s also online multiplayer, a boatload of Achievements and Ego boosting items to find, as well as multiple difficulty levels and the promise of DLC for the single player fans. However, the story is this odd thing that straddles the line between offensive and parody without ever picking a side, the visuals have all sorts of inconsistencies and technical issues, and the game adds in modern concepts that aren’t a lot of fun while eschewing modern concepts that might have actually been useful. Further, anything that isn’t shooting is not a lot of fun or well implemented, mechanically, the loading is atrocious, the multiplayer isn’t well implemented and isn’t well staffed at this point, and there’s no real benefit to playing it except to amuse yourself later. Gearbox, as they now own the license for Duke Nukem, could eventually make a good game later based on Duke Nukem, but Duke Nukem Forever isn’t that game, and while there’s joy to be derived from it at times, this doesn’t justify playing through the whole thing to experience it.

The Scores:
Story: POOR
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: DREADFUL
FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The description I provided to former contributor Adam Powell, when asked how the game was, is “About as good as a game that’s been in development for fifteen years can possibly be”, and I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of Duke Nukem Forever as a whole. There’s not a lot more to be said about the game beyond that, actually; while it looks fine sometimes, sounds fine most of the time, and plays well in the FPS sections, the game is juvenile, often confused about what it wants to do, mechanically unenjoyable in many respects, technically flawed in others, and lacks any strong argument to bring the player back for more. It’s fantastic that, after nearly two decades, we’re finally seeing the game get the release it deserved, but it’s a game that would have been best served sticking to its roots or completely shedding them, and the end result is hard to recommend to anyone. Duke Nukem Forever has some merit at some points, but it’s largely unenjoyable unless you’re a big fan of obvious jokes and ripped off one-liners or a diehard FPS fan, and everyone else can safely rent it, at most, just to say they’ve played it.

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  1. Mark B.
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