Duke Nukem Forever ReviewAugust 13, 2011
Duke Nukem Forever opens with a joke from the second season of South Park. I can think of no better way to contextualize just how dated this game is than that. It’s almost impossible at this point to talk about Duke Nukem Forever without bringing up the now legendary development cycle, and to be honest I think it is something that needs to be cited when reviewing it. This game was announced 13 years ago, and the video game industry has changed drastically since then. Consider that, since Duke Nukem Forever began production, Half-Life happened. Half-Life 2 happened. Halo, Xbox Live, and Killzone happened. All of these watershed moments in video game development occurred while 3D Realms was toiling away on the next big game in the Duke Nukem franchise, and even though they tried to stay on the bleeding edge of tech by changing game engines multiple times, it is clear that they didn’t take the time to evolve their core mechanics.
Taking place 12 years after Duke Nukem 3D, we find that nothing interesting has happened to the titular hero. He’s spent the time since saving the world and becoming a celebrity romancing women, participating in extreme sports, and various other forms of douchebaggery. The game opens with the return of the aliens from the previous game, and something about the president wanting to negotiate with them. Duke isn’t supposed to get involved, even though the military seems ecstatic to see him at every turn. It doesn’t really matter, though; the story of Duke Nukem Forever is the loosest of premises designed to get him from level to level. The game feels devoid of character and personality, with a scant few people for Duke to interact with. This is probably for the best, as the character of Duke Nukem seems barely capable of communicating with other humans.
This is a nearly fatal flaw for a game that pins all of its hopes and dreams onto the character of Duke himself. He’s a completely flat character that comes across as nothing more than a walking catch phrase machine that’s stuck on the “90s movie references” setting. That was an impressive feat when Duke Nukem 3D came out, as talking characters were still a rarity. But having a character spouting off random movie lines in 2011 becomes off-putting and even confusing. Halfway through the game I started to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with Duke, as his responses to situations and people don’t match up at all. I formulated a theory that Duke was a lobotomy patient that happened to be good with a shotgun, so he was let out of the sanitarium to fight pig cops, and anyone that encounters him just humors him until he gets the job done.
And that would be okay if said job wasn’t so very boring. There’s just not much of interest here, when all is said and done. Duke Nukem Forever is the template for generic first person shooter design, with brain-dead A.I., standard weapons (with a couple notable exceptions), and bland, poorly laid out levels. There are occasional moments of interesting or fun moments in the game, but those are few and far between, and somehow still manage to overstay their welcome. Getting shrunk down and navigating a normal-sized environment is kind of cool…once. By the third time it just becomes another snoozer like the rest of the game. I find writing a criticism for this game to be exceedingly difficult. It’s not an amazing comeback that’s going to set the gaming world on fire. Nor is it so terrible that I need to get on a soap box and castigate the developers for their atrocious game design. It’s just bland, tired, and not very good.
“Bland and tired” is the theme of this entire production, as it stems to the graphics and art, as well. There’s nothing interesting to look at in Duke Nukem Forever; the character models are ugly, the enemies are uninspired, and the environments are decidedly first-run Xbox 360 caliber. The only part of the graphics that feel remotely “modern” is the lack of color; the grey and brown environments at least reflect the current state of art direction for shooters. The most damning thing about the graphics for Duke Nukem Forever is the fact that so much of it looks like early Unreal Engine 3. Texture pop-in is common, and everything has that ugly “wet” look that was so typical with UE 3 powered games circa 2005-2006. This is compounded by the ridiculously long load times; baffling considering how old the game looks. I considered quitting this game early numerous times towards the end, as cheap deaths and minute-long load times led to periods where the game was loading more than I was actually playing.
Duke Nukem Forever is not a good game. While it would have taken no less than the greatest game ever made to overcome 13 years of hype and expectation, the only crime that Duke Nukem Forever has committed is that it came out about 6 years too late. Had this game come out around the time that the 360 launched it would have been much better received, and if the in-game development timeline is to be believed, that is when the game was content complete. There’s nothing offensive or provocative about Duke Nukem; it’s just a game that exists.
It’s not the worst game ever made, nor is there anything about it that needs to be defended. There are numerous things that could have made this game more interesting and modern, but this smacks of a production that was in development for 6 years, put on a shelf, and then rushed out the door in a couple weeks. Duke Nukem Forever is like the high school varsity football player that blew his knee out and lost his scholarship. He’s 40 pounds overweight and in a dead-end job, but he still thinks it’s funny to make fun of the “nerds” that he went to school with. In this case, however, those nerds ended up being Halo, Gears of War, and Half-Life. While they walk into the reunion with a supermodel on each arm, all Duke can do is pound some more beers and make a crude joke about breasts.
And isn’t that the dream?