With the news that Duke Nukem 3D has just turned 20, it seems timely that I should be reviewing… The far later entry, Duke Nukem Forever. After all, what can be said about the former that isn’t enormously obvious from the first ten minutes of gameplay or the occasional glance at a screenshot? Monsters look like cardboard cut-outs on lazy susans, the game allows you to kick people like a can-can dancer and it’s so nineties gaming that it’s almost self-explanatory.
But the 2011 revival of the classic franchise provides an interesting talking point. Duke Nukem Forever was in on-and-off development for over a decade before it was finally released to the public, and promptly shat on by most of those who played it. But when I looked at it recently I couldn’t help but notice that the Steam reviews seemed a lot more generous than I remembered everybody being five years ago. Mostly positive, eh? Could it be that the sense of wounded betrayal and disappointment in the audience at the time had all gone to taint our perceptions of this game, to the point where we felt the need to judge it more harshly? It wouldn’t be the first time that hype and an epic legacy had pushed the audience to demand unrealistic standards from something.
So I booted up DNF for the first time the other day, and turned it back off several hours later, feeling slightly ill at what I’d experienced. No, we were right the first time. This is an appalling waste of matter that deserves only to be buried far beneath the earth.
The campaign starts with a re-tread of the final boss fight of the previous game, with our beefy, brainless hero Duke beating up a one-eyed monster with only his gigantic balls of steel, alien rocket launcher and space-hopper sharp wit. Well, that’s not entirely true. The game actually starts with a first-person look at Duke pissing in a urinal, which I now suspect to be a subtle warning from a noble developer who was trying to get people to stop then and there.
But regardless, Duke defeats Cyclops-Steve after a very boring fight where you basically do nothing but strafe and hold down the right trigger; before we then cut to Duke twelve years later, having failed to age a day or even change outfits, living in a personalised skyscraper filled with his various accolades and being given a blowjob (thankfully off-screen) by two squeaky-voiced blow-up dolls in schoolgirl outfits alleging to be human woman.
So right away we see several problems. The terrifyingly misogynistic attitude gets worse as the game goes on (more on that later), but Duke himself is fairly loathsome from the word go. He’s callous, arrogant, cocky, aggressive, stupid and one-dimensional, but frustratingly nobody seems to realise it because he’s just so inherently great at everything he does. His walls are covered in tacky gold statues of himself, giant awards he’s won for his ability to wear sunglasses indoors without bumping into things, and various framed newspaper covers of him being generally fantastic. Odd that nobody realised the errors in his character here. Aside from the fact that anybody who lives in a tower stylised around himself and wrote a book entitled “Why I’m So Great” is always going to be kind of revolting, it has to be said that Mister Nukem having no personality or human flaws besides “I rule, you suck” made me end up rooting for the aliens at first.
And the general story is no better. The aforementioned E.T.s show up and begin causing general havoc, so it’s up to Duke to save the day because… Actually, why is it only us? Fate, I suppose, or did Duke just threaten to flex to death anybody who stopped him being the main character?
The game also makes stabs at comedy every now and then, in the sense that it tries to stab the concept to death where it stands. Which was your least favourite joke? Was it Duke living on floor sixty-nine of the tower, or the fact that you can spend over-long animations punching an enemy in the testicles or slapping breasts growing out of a wall?
Perhaps the most awkward of these jokes were DNF’s pathetic attempts to undermine other shooter franchises. One bloke moans about having to help some whiner find his missing wife, just before Duke Nukem himself turns down the green Masterchief helmet with the phrase “power armour is for pussies.” Yeah, what moron would want developed character motivation or a hero that doesn’t spit bile with every line? I’m not saying Gears Of War or Halo were impeachable, but they were a damn site better than this pile of sputum, which makes mocking them even more embarrassing. At one point early on, an electronic door asks you to find a keycard, at which point Duke rolls his eyes and just wrenches it open with his freakishly-muscular hands, ho-ho-ho. But five minutes later we’re being made to find three power cells to open another door with no irony whatsoever. I feel this game is obeying the letter and not the spirit of the law, you know what I mean?
And of course there’s the sexist angle. Sure, watching all the women basically get reduced to cock-hungry bimbos is pretty miserable to see, but even from those depths the game finds a way to spiral downwards. Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety old fool who can’t keep up with the drugs and rap music of today, but I doubt I’m alone on this – seeing the supposed “hero” quip about dozens of women getting raped by aliens and fatally exploding when the newly hatched larvae burst out of their bodies? That made me feel physically sick, and incredibly angry. It was like watching Ridley Scott’s Alien, if Scott had been an unhinged lunatic who found the body mutilation all very funny. And if that wasn’t all, the game encourages you to gun down other imprisoned, enemy-pregnant women before they can birth the monsters and put you in peril. So we literally have a game mechanic made out of shooting defenceless women put in the most hideous situation ever thought of. Fucking Christ.
I do wonder exactly what was going through the writers’ heads when they wrote this. The scribblings of a psychopath with a basement full of dead hookers would seem rational compared to that awful scene, which, by the way, was what caused me to turn it off for the first time. I couldn’t stomach any more in one playthrough, which is pretty noteworthy if nothing else.
So Duke Nukem Forever’s story is a splatter of infected diarrhoea on the bathroom wall of modern culture, but what about the gameplay?
Well, it’s not as bad as the plot – mainly because nothing could be, besides mass genocide – but it’s boring at best and eye-rolling at worst. For twelve years of planning, it seems strange that they thought of sod-all that could make this game worth playing. Perhaps what made the finger-raising at other franchises so odd is the fact that Duke has almost nothing to throw in their faces. No equivalent of the Gravity Gun, the skyrail system or the Bulletstorm whip, no vehicles that I didn’t dread getting into, no superpowers, no interesting gadgets, nothing. Hell, if anything it feels like it’s been compromised to the games of today, with cover-shooting, two weapons slots, turrets that overheat and health that regenerates. Duke Nukem Forever, you can’t make fun of modern games, you BECAME one of them, and one of the worst games going at that.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no signs of life. Every now and then this dead horse twitches a little, though goes limp again straight after. I vaguely approved of the interactivity of the environment, and the fact that certain actions, like looking in the mirror, can increase your ego (read health) bar. It’s a clever little feature, though some of these actions take way too long and ruin the pacing. The snooker table was the worst one, because you have to knock every ball into the holes with a really unwieldy control system and no way to alter the power of your shots, and if you pot the white ball just once, you have to restart the whole thing.
There’s also the occasional puzzle, by which I mean a really obvious thing that you do to continue, with a solution that is clear the moment all the pieces are in place. It’s funny I mentioned the Gravity gun, because a lot of them do have the tinge of a cut-price Half-Life 2 to them, what with the use of physics and environmental objects. There’s also the occasional bit of precision platforming and sequences where Duke gets shrunk to the size of an action figure, but they don’t do anything worth mentioning and are forgotten about the second they’re over.
But whether you’re fighting charging pigmen or generic alien figures with lasers, you’ll notice the difficulty curve resembles a rollercoaster designed by Escher. For most of the game it’s insultingly easy, as all weapons seem equally overpowered and ammo is lying around everywhere like it’s a Texan Christmas. Most of the single-use power-ups I found I didn’t end up trying, as I was doing fine without them.
But every now and then you have to fight a boss, which is where the challenge spikes unpredictably and with no real reason. Not because it’s hard, just unfair design. The alien queen, encountered on my second session, was the most annoying example of this. You can’t hurt her with anything other than explosives, there’s no cover to take shelter and she has all the cheapest attacks going – summoning smaller enemies who hold you in place, attacks that knock you on your arse, and one of the game’s many technical faults means you can’t hurt her when she’s performing certain attack animations. It also didn’t help that the frame rate dropped whenever I tried to do anything more elaborate than shoot one bullet at a stationary enemy, but let it not be said that the NPCs aren’t trying to do their part. Many of them have gone without textures to help the less fortunate, presumably donating them to enemies in other, better games. Oh, and at one point I was meant to be trapped inside a small construction site shack for an exciting, claustrophobic experience, but glitched outside by just walking at the wall, watching with bemusement as the enemy smashed their way into an empty structure.
I could go on with the list I made of the thousand annoyances and offensive ideas to be found here, like the overlong rail-shooter scene or the fact that the night-vision blinds you every time you turn it on, but I’m going to take a step back and try to see the overall problem, because suddenly it became very clear to me when I saw another game in my Steam library.
Do you remember in my Wolfenstein review when I said that The New Order feels like the best of both modern and old shooters combined? Well, Duke Nukem Forever feels the worst of them. From the old generation we have the horrible hero, plot and attitudes, whereas from the modern era we have dull, linear gameplay that’s either insultingly easy or unfair by design. And with this kind of cross-breeding you can only get something really misshapen at the end, kind of like Duke’s steroid-infused torso.
Thus what we have here is a game designed by a team with the apparent attitude of a badly-raised thirteen-year old boy, appealing to a diminished market from the 1990s and managing to be generally horrible to play on top of all that. So yes – we were right the first time. Kind of makes you wonder why the rights to the franchise have been so hotly contested recently, but whatever – I don’t think anybody will be going near the next game after this debacle.
It goes without saying that there’s nothing really praiseworthy about Duke Nukem Forever, but it’s rare that a game manages to go the other way and become actively loathsome. Failing on a technical, design and narrative level, the story of this detestable jock and his constant need to stand in the way of good taste makes me staggered that this was a game with any time put into it at all, let alone twelve years.