A Pair of Size Fourteen Steel-Toed Ass-Kickin’ Boots to Fill
Regardless of whether or not you were one of the old-school Duke Nukem fans from his PC beginnings that’s been waiting for this sequel for years, or you numbered among the skeptics who didn’t honestly expect that it could be properly pulled off, it’s hard to deny that developers Gearbox studios certainly had their work cut out for them with Duke Nukem Forever. The amount of hype about the King’s return (triumphant or otherwise) and the long waiting time fanned the flames of popular expectations.
To be fair, with so many diverse groups of gamers eagerly or cautiously waiting for a new chance to kick alien ass Duke-style, the deck seemed to be stacked against the game from the beginning. There was very little chance that this game would be able to live up to its own hype, and be everything that everybody expected of it; a game cannot be all things to all gamers and still be itself. So, rather than judge DNF based on what my own lofty expectations of it were and whether or not it met them, let me give the game a fair shake and review it based on what it does bring to the table.
The game takes place entirely in Las Vegas. It seems that, years after the last foiled alien invasion, aliens have once again returned to Earth. Surprising absolutely no one, a new attempt at an invasion soon follows, and Duke is more or less called in to kick ass. Nothing special, no surprises. There is a mild subplot that spans the first few levels about the aliens abducting all of Earth’s women – it doesn’t take a specially insightful genius to figure out why. Duke soon finds the “breeding grounds” where Earth’s women have been taken, in a level that’s a somewhat twisted version of the original Xenomorph Alien franchise. Of course the writers couldn’t resist, and the level is full of sick jokes and one-liners coming from both Duke and some of the female victims themselves, who are (usually) still alive when Duke finds them, although not for long. Sadly, while clearly meant as an easy source for juvenile and graphic humor, this part of the game comes off pretty callous and perverted – I know that’s kind of the point for a Duke game, but these early levels also feel out-of-place in the game as a whole, as the whole “our women have been abducted” subplot ends after this. These levels are easily the game’s lowest point, as they have a much, much darker tone than the rest of the game’s tongue-in-cheek sauciness.
As to the feel of the game: Duke is as foul-mouthed, macho, and balls to the wall as you could want. His constant litany of shit-talking is, at times, hilarious to listen to, especially since it’s generally situation-specific. While in a shrunken state, he’ll comment on his “size”, and when faced with going underwater late in the game, he’ll lament how this will ruin his manly hair-do. I could mention some of the ideas Duke has about various “poles” during the strip club level, but I’m sure your own imagination will suffice.
“Variety Is the Spice of Life” – Yeah, Right
The game is, of course, a first-person shooter, and it makes no bones about being pretty by-the-numbers about this; if you’ve played any Halo, Call of Duty, or any one of their clones, you’ve basically played Duke Nukem. Nothing was really done to change up the standard shooter formula; but then again, if it works well, why change it? The game is perhaps most reminiscent of Halo, in that it uses a rechargeable Ego meter (instead of reducing his health, getting shot or hit hurts Duke’s fragile ego, making him feel less manly). Take too much constant damage and Duke’s self-confidence will drop. When this happens, head for cover to give it a few seconds to recharge.
About midway through the game, there is also a heavy nod to the Halo franchise in the form of several vehicle-based levels. Duke has a patriotically painted monster truck, the Mighty Foot. For several stages, players will be alternating between jumping ramps at high-speed over destroyed highway chasms and beating it on foot to fetch more fuel for the gas-guzzling beast when it runs out of gas. The vehicle gameplay itself is very straight-forward, and the truck lacks any type of weaponry; your only option is to run down your enemies, pure and simple. However, the forced on-foot sections sprinkled into the midst of this feel forced (out of gas again?) and occur at very predictable points: coming up on a cluster of wooden sheds and other tumble-down buildings perfect for enemies to hide in? Then expect to have to go in on foot to get more gasoline for your ride!
I suspect the developers wanted to give players more than just level after level of first-person running and gunning. The vehicle sections were a way to break up the pacing a bit. Purists will scream bloody murder, other more casual gamers may enjoy it. Again, the camps are too split for everybody to be happy.
Don’t Believe the Hype
There were also many promises made in the media about the game’s “unbelievable interactivity”. The interactive segments mentioned are actions that Duke can perform that give him a permanent boost to his Ego; for example, admiring himself in a mirror boosts his Ego, as will playing Air Hockey at the strip club, or checking out naughty computer screen savers. For most of these, all that’s required is a simple button press to ‘examine’ the object – that’s it.
Another method the developers tried to inject a little variety is by adding some platforming-heavy stages into the campaign. Let me say that first-person platforming is never a good idea! The platforming is usually something uninspired like “use these platforms to safely make it across the electrified pool of water”, but also includes some much more frustrating moments. The developers’ favorite times to make poor Duke hop around like a monkey are usually during the MiniDuke stages, in which our hero has undergone some major shrinkage and is reduced to the size of one of his own action figures. Suddenly, the game takes on a decidedly Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers feel, as Duke has to platform his tiny way through a burger joint kitchen of suddenly immense proportions, or traverse the gears of some type of furnace machinery. The result is the same each time: frequent deaths due to missed jumps or unseen obstacles pushing Duke into an environmental hazard. I’ll say it again: first-person platforming is nothing more than an open invitation to frustration headaches.
I don’t fault the developers for trying to put a bit of flavor into the game; however, driving, platforming, and underwater stages aren’t novel, and will do nothing to please the core Duke audience. There is a great example of an innovative level near the very end of the game that sees Duke having to make his way out of the bowels of the Hoover Dam while it is steadily flooding and the water level rises dangerously fast. This level is frantic, fast-paced, and adds tiny elements of platforming and puzzle-solving without being over-the-top or overbearing with it. If we’d seen more of these types of interesting twists, the core game could have been much more eyebrow-raising.
It’s So Hard!
A final word about the game’s difficulty: the white-knuckle moments of the game come in spurts, and I found the most chokingly difficult levels to be either near the beginning of the game or related to bungled platforming. I’ve nothing against some challenge; I mean, I played the game on its ‘Normal’ difficulty setting, and still there were several sections early in the game that gave me a run for my money. However, it’s really hard to feel like a true bad-ass when you’re constantly being sent packing back to the stage’s loading screen. But the real reason why constant deaths are a major pain? Between each and every death, players have to sit and watch a loading screen, as the game apparently has to load the entire level all over again. Even if you only lasted ten seconds before dying again, it’s back to the loading screen. And the load times are simply off the charts; I’ve never seen a game take this long to load a level! It really takes you out of the action, out of the moment, out of the game. Honestly, I started getting up and doing other things whenever I died; once I was even able to go to the next room, check my email, and make it back and the loading screen was still on!
It’s Not Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings…and Duke Doesn’t Like Fat Ladies
A big let-down came in the form of the game’s ending. It was incredibly short and very unsatisfying. In a flash of ironic programming, Duke himself even quips about the brevity of the ending. A few extras are unlocked after completion, such as a development timeline and a couple of cheats to replay the game with, but for the most part, once the campaign has ended, multiplayer is really the only gun left in the game’s arsenal.
It Should Be Illegal to Have This Much Duke in One Place
The campaign certainly has its ups and downs, but the multiplayer does do a decent job of delivering some fun. Again, there aren’t many bells and whistles to speak of, but a decent selection of maps is offered, most of which are based on locations from the campaign. You have your standard game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag (with a babealicious Duke twist), and King of the Hill. Every type of weapon from the core game is present, from sniper rifles to shotguns, Shrink and Freeze Rays, and the force of nature that is the Devastator. (A small gripe is that Duke is always only able to carry two weapons at a time, even during the campaign, making it a constant balancing act to always have the proper firepower to the get the job done.)
The multiplayer modes don’t add anything we haven’t seen in other games, but there are over 300 challenges to complete, each giving different rewards, such as new shirts and headgear that you can put on Duke to change his appearance. However, items unlocked in multiplayer are for online use only, and do not carry over into the campaign. There is also a ‘My Digs’ feature, which is a giant trophy room (aka Duke’s penthouse) which houses your various unlocked extras, as well as the Babes you’ve earned yourself, ‘cos, you know, you’re Duke!
The Final Verdict
Duke Nukem Forever isn’t a bad game; at its best, it delivers a pretty standard first-person shooter experience with a decent multiplayer package; at its worst, it forces players to participate in unnecessary platforming and makes them stare at the loading screen while listening to the same repetitive music to no end. The Duke-humor is there, sometimes a little tasteless, but always a bit over the top. I’m hard-pressed to find a great reason to recommend this game to anybody but a die-hard Dukeaholic, as the majority of gamers will not find much here that they haven’t seen already. In short, the game wasn’t the revelation that was promised, but is instead a decent, run-of-the-mill experience that can provide a little enjoyment for a short while.