Expectations are a dangerous ruse in video gaming. If publishers set them too high they run the risk of guaranteeing disappointment. If they set them too low they waste an easy opportunity to get their game in the spotlight. Striking the right balance is always difficult, and the longer the wait between announcement and expectation, the harder that balance will be.
Duke Nukem Forever is more than fourteen years in the making. That’s a long time for most things, for video game sequels it’s phenomenal. 3D Realm’s original Duke Nukem 3D preceded the Playstation, the iPod and even Google. Over a decade of expectation has been festering and 3D Realms, along with Gearbox, have finally ended the delay. So there’s no use ignoring the elephant in the room: has the wait has been worth it?
Duke Nukem Forever has a strong early start. The opening credits alone send a tingle of anticipation down your spine, and the Duke’s quirky self-referentialism hits just the right note. The Duke is back, he knows it, and he’s ready to show you a good time. For the first twenty minutes or so it’s like we’ve never left him. Duke’s one-liners and over-the-top masculinity serve as one collective madeleine moment. Almost every gamer of my generation spent quality time with the Duke and Duke Nukem Forever’s early gameplay is almost eerie in its ability to transport us back to that simpler time. The title’s early incorporation of modern memes and pop-culture is zany and clever. It hits the ground at full speed, and the Duke looks like has a promising experience in store.
But after a good half an hour the intoxication of memory wears off – and the hangover is a bitch. Because when we pare back the charisma of a character we have grown to love, it is clear that Duke Nukem Forever is a travesty of a game. It’s a title plagued by problems and bereft of ideas; from its artificial intelligence, to its story, to its graphical design. There are only two things holding the game together; the Duke himself and the valiant desire of his loyal fans to push their way through it.
When Duke Nukem reinvented itself as an iconic first person shooter in 1996, it was revolutionary. Its quirky mix of humour, weaponry and storyline set the standard for the genre. But it’s been fifteen long years since then. First person shooter gaming has grown in leaps and bounds. But Duke Nukem Forever still seems trapped in the style of its predecessor. Its gameplay is linear and repetitive, consisting mainly of blasting your way through hordes of spawning aliens, who offer little in the way of intelligent challenge. It’s not a fundamentally bad approach to first person shooters, but it’s the standard archetype since id Software invented it in 1992. To be fair, Duke Nukem Forever does manage moments of diversity – such as combat segues where Duke takes control of a mothership-killing turret, or zooms around in a toy car – but these excursions feel tokenistic, and in the case of the car, are just downright tedious.
The problem with Duke Nukem Forever’s gameplay is that at its core it offers nothing different to what we’ve seen for the last decade. Gaming hasn’t sat idly by during that period. New and innovative things have happened, but frustratingly those lessons seem to have been ignored and for no good reason. The singleplayer maps are linear, and leave little room for intelligent, exciting, first person combat. Some of the level design is just downright lazy; having a fire extinguisher attached to a corpse – suspended inexplicably on a rope above a raging inferno – is almost comical in its obviousness. Gamers’ have waited twelve years for the Duke. We expected more than just 1996 but with better lighting.
And even in that regard things are a little on the sketchy side. Duke Nukem Forever’s visuals are average at best. Textures are bland, and the game’s character designs are bizarre. Most of the NPC’s appear cut from literally the same cloth, and the plot characters appear wooden, both in look and in emotion. What they say also doesn’t help to stir the senses. The dialogue is poorly written and clichéd (which is ironic, given the fact that the Duke is a cliché himself) and the games narrative dialogue is delivered with clumsy voice acting.
The environments themselves fare no better. PC gamers buy their rigs for a reason – they want their games to look good, and they are willing to fork out the thousands of dollars it takes to achieve that. Duke Nukem Forever gives a bad return on that investment. Even on the highest settings Duke’s world appears plasticine and his environments feel soulless – especially the ones located outside. For a title that banked so heavily on its charisma, this realisation is distressing.
But deep down, behind the poor combat and level design, behind the poor graphics and atheistic, there is an even greater discomfort. And that’s the Duke himself.
Duke Nukem is an artifact of the early 1990s and it shows. Once you pare back the adolescent gusto and the self-referential machismo, what you are left with is a pretty sad premise for a video game. The entire point of Duke Nukem Forever is the wanton destruction of a whole bunch of aliens in the most brutal and sadistic way possible, all in a paternal attempt to rescue ‘your’ women from their procreative clutches. This blatant sexism is suffocating in its vulgarity. I’d be the first to admit that there is nothing wrong with a bit of toilet humour here and there, but any comedic value to be gained from the constant and unending reference to balls, sex, smut, and violence wears off incredibly quickly. Part of me doesn’t want to take this aspect of the Duke Nukem Forever experience so seriously – it is, after all, part of his ‘charm’. Duke’s boorish chauvinism could have worked were it so beyond the pale it was a caricature of itself. But here, its not. It’s just crass. Times have moved on, in the last fifteen years gaming has grown up. It is no longer the preserve of teenage men and adult boys. As a piece of entertainment, Duke Nukem Forever is a product that no longer has a niche to fill.
Even after a short amount of time with Duke Nukem Forever it becomes obvious that the elephant in the room has changed. Gone is the gamble about the title’s quality. Instead there is the unfortunate realisation that Duke Nukem Forever is a bad game. As a first person shooter it has the barebones of what you would expect. But a masterpiece of gaming it is not. It feels rushed, unfinished and ill-thought out.
If you’re a fan of the Duke, you’ve probably already checked this game out. If you’re a fan of your childhood, then the first thirty minutes will fleetingly take you back there. But the rest of the game will not. Duke Nukem will forever hold a special place in gamer’s hearts, but this title is not the one to keep him there.
Maybe 3D Realms knew that all along. At the very beginning of the game the United States President tells Duke Nukem he is a relic from the past. As sad as it seems, perhaps he was right.