People are pretty cynical these days. They love anything that reminds them of their idyllic youth, even if their younger selves would laugh straight in their faces for still thinking PBR is worth the day-after colon cleanse, or somehow the thick-rimmed glasses they wore in first-grade are still hip. Chances are extremely likely that people are reluctant to accept something new or logical, like finally getting a normal 9-5 job, actually liking the local sports team, or agreeing with your dad about the best shingles for your roof. Gamers tend to follow this trend to the extreme. Put Mario in a crummy Facebook game and suddenly millions of 30-year-olds are finally admitting that even Nintendo has sold out to the social media empire. Yet somehow that same crew indoctrinates their kids with stories of the Golden Age of gaming, downloading emulators to show why the original 8-bit versions will always top their mobile phone counterpart.
We are a brash bunch that either wants our games brilliantly designed with deep narratives that mirror our lost youth, or we just want to blow some steam off by shooting virtual opponents in the latest re-polished triple-A title from a well-known developer. Troll around any forum (PSU is a great place to start) and you’ll get a lecture about why these hugely successful games have nothing on their first-party exclusives. So when it came time to check out Duke Nukem Forever, a game with as much hype and anticipation as LeBron James, it’s hard not to carry a certain level of expectation. But just like LeBron, somehow all the hype associated with Duke Nukem did absolutely nothing for its actual performance in the end.
If you were to jump into DNF with absolutely no knowledge of the character and the franchise’s history, you’ll probably tell your friends, “Hey, do you want to play a really mediocre first-person sci-fi shooter with a ridiculously cheesy main character, some decent levels, and obnoxiously long load times?” If they say no, just tell them they can see some virtual boobies and maybe they’ll think it’s at least worth trying for a few minutes.
The problem with the above scenario is that we all know Duke Nukem, we all have some basic knowledge of the incredibly long development cycle of this game, and we all really, really wanted it to be that perfect throwback to our happy 13-year-old selves. But even my prepubescent self wouldn’t enjoy DNF and I have a feeling that today’s teenagers would much rather play Angry Birds or slay some newbies in one of those re-polished FPS I mentioned earlier. Yes, cut through all the hype, the name on the package, and all those happy memories with the crude-and-rude hero and we are left with an easily forgettable game.
Most of the gameplay is upgraded, but not necessarily for the better. While there’s a decent assortment of weapons, you can only carry two at a time, and even though you get rocket launchers and shrink rays, the shotgun is still the most useful tool in your hands. Guns feel mostly useless, especially since Duke does really well when he’s just punching aliens in the face like a true American hero. Even boss battles seem a bit off. You generally need to use rocket launchers against bosses, but you will always have unlimited ammo to play with, and your main strategy is to either hide behind cover and shoot, or simply run circles around the lumbering boss monstrosity and shoot. Rinse, wash and repeat.
Duke Nukem Forever tries to do too many things for its own good. Some levels have Duke driving his truck through what feels like endless deserts, while others see the brute painfully trying to jump around alien-like vines in horrendous platforming sections. One of the most sleep-inducing portions of the game has Duke driving his truck, before running out of gas and subsequently searching for a source to replenish the fuel. This part drags on and on for no good reason, and comes off as repetitive as dismal handful of recycled monsters you fight throughout the entire game. Having said that, the platforming sections of the game are arguably the most irritating aspect of DNF, because Duke just wasn’t meant to jump around from ledge to ledge, or balance his weight on narrow walkways.
Actually, I take that all back; the real frustration is not just the platforming sections, but the obnoxiously long load times. These wouldn’t prove as frustrating if I were waiting for the game to render a sumptuous visual showcase, lengthy levels, interesting cinematics, or anything slightly worth making the player doze off for a bit, but DNF is practically devoid of any elements to justify such absurd load times. Some people would say this is a dumb complaint, and while I won’t claim that it ruins the experience, it just turns the game into a chore.
There are some redeeming qualities, of course. For instance, the levels where you play as a pint-sized Duke help relieve the monotony and actually make the dull puzzles somewhat interesting. I especially liked the level in The Duke Burger because it highlighted the two things the game does well: offer an enormously un-charming helping of Duke-nostalgia and feature some mildly enjoyable (dare I say fun) shrunken puzzle and platforming sections. This level was fun for a good 10 minutes, and that’s saying a lot.
Despite the lack of variety, enemies in DNF are somewhat decent and surprisingly competent; some of them will charge you for a full-on attack, while others will teleport right behind you to take Duke by surprise. When you finally do get to shoot something, it’s generally refreshing—but, that could have more to do with the fact the game often neglects much of the standout action segments involved in a proper first-person shooter. Since you only carry two weapons, Duke feels like he’s playing the whole story with a tight little skirt on compared to the Duke we all knew and loved—he could hold whatever the hell he wanted. Other highlights include shooting spaceships via your helicopter (or some form of airship). Again, these levels are enjoyable simply because you are actually doing something half exciting.
Any attempt to make DNF feel like a mature game—you know, the kind for adults—is absolutely lost on really poor character designs and bland graphics. Killing aliens is like shooting a refrigerator. Stuff just sort of explodes on screen and there is a serious problem with hit detection. Violence isn’t really a mature subject anymore; hell, just turn your TV on and either watch the local news or your favorite cop drama and you’ll find more blood and gore than in DNF. What is still unacceptable, at least here in the overly conservative-American society, is boobies, even crappy pixilated versions. Duke has always given us some rude, macho catch phrases, and he is sure a stickler for strippers—he still is, thankfully. When you get to his strip club, about halfway through the game, you are rewarded with one of the most bizarre moments in recent gaming. Picture this: A fetch quest in a strip club where girls are not taking their clothes off. That is somehow supposed to either be funny like a throwback or something, or oddly sexual. It’s neither of these things and it will likely remind you that Duke has now turned into that creepy old man from Family Guy — you know, the guy who whistles while he talks and has a hard-on for Chris. Yup, Duke is just a creepy old man.
Perhaps there are some people out there who find this stuff entertaining, and I’ll admit that there were a few moments I laughed—but that may have been out of psycho-frustration-syndrome. DNF tries very hard to be all about its lead character, reminding us aging gamers that we once thought this passed as quality gaming. But, I tell you, back in the day, Duke was awesome. He just lost his way. Maybe it’s something that you either get or don’t get, but even if you get him, the core game is just really dull.
The tacked-on multiplayer, including standard deathmatch and capture the flag modes, are all well and fine, but that’s if you can even find a match. If you can, hopefully it doesn’t lag out too badly. For what it’s worth, there are some serious issues with graphics and sound throughout the game—namely that the presentation is simply incredibly poor. That doesn’t change when you are online, of course, but I won’t sit here and tell you not to play a game because it’s not pretty to look at. There are frequent visual glitches and the soundtrack is very generic.
Part of me feels bad for Duke and the development team (or, teams), but that’s the personal side of me, not the critic. I think a lot of us thought Duke Nukem Forever would be that perfect reminder of our happy old gaming days, you know, sort of a game we could throw in the faces of all these emo game developers and say, “Hey, this is how you have fun—flippin’ off bosses, seeing some strippers get all naked, and having absolutely no problem blowing s**t up.” Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and instead we are left with one of the blandest, repetitive, and monotonous games of this generation. Maybe in another 15 years or so we’ll look back at this with nostalgic eyes, and maybe at that time Duke Nukem will be cool again.