Wot I Think: Duke Nukem Forever

After a short wait and a bit of help from Gearbox, the new shooter from 3D Realms has quietly arrived on PC and console. It stars one Duke Nukem, a man of ACTION, BABES, BICEPS and MILLIONS OF MINI-GAMES. Is it worth a look and some of your money? Let’s see.

It means well. You can’t fault it that. Sure, Duke Nukem Forever reeks of an arrogance and self-obsession that it resolutely fails to earn, but at the same time it’s forever searching for new ways to divert its player: there’s a clear sense that it wants to be bigger, bolder, wilder, stupider than any game before or since, to become an impossible accomplishment of pomposity and spectacle. The tale of its making, if it’s ever released, will be a fascinating one, but the game itself is a telling document of those 12 years of development.

It’s a grab bag of trends and ideas from the last decade of action games, a severely delayed reaction to Half-Life, Half-life 2, Halo, Gears of War and most of the id catalogue from Quake onwards. It can’t be the first at any of its ideas and features, but it damned well tries to have the most. All those inspirations – all of which it attempts to sneer at with meatless gags such as a dead soldier in a Dead Space mask, a crowbar reference, a pile of Master Chief armour – yet no real sense that it understands why they should be inspirations. It’s a smash and grab raid on the shiniest features of its de facto peers, successors and rivals, stitched together into a chaotic mess of mini-games and sudden gear-shifts.

The reception to the game seems to consist either of either concentrated bile or aggressively defensive praise centred less on the game’s accomplishments and more on why those who don’t love it must surely be humourless cynics determined to punish DNF for taking so long. I don’t fall neatly into either camp, and have no particular feelings about the Duke character or IP one way or another, but my take on DNF is probably best summed up as “I don’t like it.” It’s not the absolute catastrophe some have painted it as, but I don’t like it.

I don’t like the writing, which is tortured and turgid and bland and banal.

I don’t like the shooting, which unevenly strives for the all-out assault of early Dooms and Dukes paired with the restrictive spaces and weapon loadouts of Halos and Gears and ends up being unrewardingly punishing, rather than satisfyingly challenging.

I don’t like the humour, which appears to believe that the only two jokes worth making are people saying that Duke Nukem is awesome and that any random, insensible collection of words can be made into innuendo if it’s said in a braying, sneering tone. Innuendo does and can make me laugh. This isn’t actually innuendo. It’s just a drunk guy shouting whatever pops into his head then cackling.

I don’t like the fondness for jumping puzzles from a cumbersome first-person perspective, like an unwelcome interruption from Half-Life’s Xen inserted at arbitrary points in between the surprisingly infrequent action.

I don’t like the checkpoints and the lack of quicksave, which forces me back far too far whenever I run into an insta-death fall or sadistic boss fight.

I don’t like the map design, which uses back-tracking and arbitrary navigation restriction to create the appearance of far more substantial content than there is.

I don’t like how much time I have to spend waiting, while an NPC jabbers away at me in an incoherent spew of exposition, dated pop-culture references and end-of-the-pier puns, or until a series of scripts play out so a door will unlock and let me through to the next small, closed arena full of pop-up monsters.

I don’t like it. I don’t care whether it’s a Duke Nukem game or a Call of Duty game or a Half-Life game or an Ian McGuns game. I just don’t like it. It’s a dreadful mess, and any amount of good intentions doesn’t redeem it.

All told, there’s a whiff of desperation, that new features from a slow drip-feed of new games have been slapped on top of a wheezing mountain of half-realised ideas as and when someone decides that another title has raised certain expectations. The two-weapon carry limit and recharging health, for instance, seem to have been forced in as a sap to COD and Halo conventions, even though the combat itself is far more in line with early id fare. It throws high-damage enemies at you from pop-up spawn points, but denies you the space, the arsenal or the cover necessary to offset Duke’s relatively limited hit points. A couple more years in development and maybe it would have folded in a Gears of War-style cover system.

Significant love for the character could well, I imagine, mask its severe and fundamental failings to some extent. If that’s a balm that works for you, great. The King’s back, albeit exaggerated from the affectionate action hero parody he was in Duke Nukem 3D to preening sex-pest, and now living in a world where the only conversation topics are testicles and faeces.

It’s the bitty nature I don’t like the most. The sense I get is that a collection of ideas, features and mini-games were devised with no clear overarching objective in mind. “We’ve gotta have driving, we’ve gotta have playable pool tables, we’ve gotta have a crane-moving puzzle, we’ve gotta have a level like Aliens, we’ve got have a minecart bit, we’ve gotta have a wrecking ball…” These candyland delight are, perhaps, noble themselves, but the structure around them is so fragile and unsure.

Of course, “big muscley guy saves the world” is a tale that tells itself, so there isn’t exactly a need for a clever or twist-packed story, but it’s more like wandering around a theme park than embarking on a wild adventure. Complete with the queues. Invariably, progression is a matter of walking into a room, finding all the doors are locked, shooting everything in it, then finding one of the doors has magically unlocked. Even opening said door is often a torturous minigame of repeatedly slapping space to mime Duke prising it apart with his mega-biceps. It has its entertainments and it certainly has gleefully outlandish spectacle, but it makes you work for them by slogging through cheerless busywork.

I can well imagine It doesn’t realise how boring and annoying it is, and with a squint you can well imagine how it became so oblivious. The graphics are fine – hardly 2011 at the top of its game but neither are they a world away from today’s B and C-list fare, with the exception of the diabolical running and jumping animations. There are plenty of weapons, even if they’re mostly old ones, and plenty of enemies, even if they’re mostly old ones. The environments are ambitiously different – a city, a casino, underground slime tunnels, a desert… – but they’re bound to on-rails Find The Door quests peppered with occasional turret sections and visually spectacular but irritating and long-winded boss fights. It accomplishes the singular feat of being highly repetitious and ever-changing – again, clearly determined to entertain even if it’s perhaps lost sight of how to entertain.

“It’s fun!” is the defence I’ve most often heard. Perhaps it is: a torrent of ludicrousness, violence and garbled smut. I can see why people think it’s a much-needed nod back to a lost gaming ethos, and God knows I agree with any sentiment that so many action games these days take themselves and their painfully earnest, overbaked plots far too seriously, but that doesn’t make Duke Nukem Forever good enough.

It’s a misfire as a Duke Nukem project, it’s a misfire as a first-person shooter and it’s certainly a misfire as a legendary game we’ve waited over a decade for. I also agree with any sentiment that argues it was always impossible for any Duke Nukem Forever to live up to its hype and infamy, but that doesn’t give it a free pass to be quite so patchy and thin, to be forgiven for being this irritating, uneven mess.

It means well, I have no doubt of that. It wants to be loved, it wants to make us laugh, it wants to show us big things exploding, it wants us to not get bored, it wants us to have ‘fun.’

Unfortunately, too much of that depends on thinking the presence of Duke is in and of itself ‘fun’ enough. Take him (or at least the vague, fan-fiction-like concept of him, which is what we really have here) away, and what’s left? The trailers for about 30 different games from 1997-2011 stitched awkwardly together and made passingly interactive, with little rhyme or reason. Duke Nukem Forever’s legacy, then, becomes a strangely apt one – a raddled document of the last decade and a half of game design fads, trends and values. Duke Nukem Forever was always going to make history, and history it is.

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