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Duke Nukem Forever review

by Steve Watts, Jun 14, 2011 6:00am PDT

Duke Nukem Forever is both a victim and a benefactor of its own notoriety. Stripped of its bawdy humor and fame, it's a bland, forgettable shooter, devoid of any outstanding qualities, and utterly unremarkable. By any other name, this game wouldn't even register as a blip on gamers' collective radar. While fourteen years of anticipation may force its mediocrity under a microscope, it's also the only reason anyone is talking about it.

Try as I might, it's impossible to enter a game with so much legacy behind it without some expectations. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with Duke Nukem. I expected that, while the humor might fall flat, the underlying shooter would hold its own. How wrong I was. Just as the character remains true to the archetypes of old action flicks, the gameplay shows its age through-and-through -- mostly to its detriment.

In spite of all of the time that went into the game, 3D Realms wasn't able to expand upon the qualities that made the older Duke Nukem games so definitive. Duke Nukem 3D had its share of racy jokes, but its true claim to fame was its variety of creative and brutal weapons, like the Shrink Ray, HoloDuke, and Devastator. Over a decade later, we're merely given our old toys back. While there's some fun to be had in using the Shrink Ray or HoloDuke again, I'd rather have new, creative weapons. The modern FPS market is bursting with developers offering inventive weaponry, which makes the decision to simply retread old ground disappointing.

Encounters range from the mindless to frustratingly difficult and, at least on the Xbox 360, each death is punctuated by long load times, even when the game is installed. Combat never hits that sweet spot that made me feel both challenged and satisfied. The limited variety of enemies makes playing each chapter drag on longer than it should. Those seeking quantity over quality will enjoy Duke's longer-than-average single-player campaign. Everyone else will find that it overstays its welcome.

Aside from being a shooter, Duke attempts to be a jack of all trades. During Duke's various outings, he solves puzzles, drives a miniature R/V car (after shrinking to a tiny size, of course), and navigates his Duke-branded monster truck to the Hoover Dam. These moments break up the monotony, but aren't fun enough in to justify their long playtimes. That's not to say that all of DNF's experiments never work. A platforming segment that forces mini-Duke to navigate a fast food restaurant was actually refreshing and smartly-designed -- but these moments are too few and far between.

Oftentimes, navigating through the world is, like combat, frustrating or boring. The game gives poor navigational cues, sometimes with no clear direction on what the next objective is. When it does offer a hint of what to do next, it's by shading an object a garishly bright orange. There's no middle ground. Either you're being led down a narrow corridor with objective markers screaming at you with color, or you're hopelessly lost and wandering aimlessly until you figure out which identical hallway to explore.

Though it's unsurprising, it was sad to find the humor relying merely on old catchphrases. Duke is an arrogant misogynist... and that's the joke. Get it? During the course of the game, DNF also cracks wise at shooter royalty like Halo, Gears of War, and Portal, among others. The problem, of course, is that these are all much better games. A quality Duke Nukem would have been able to nail the joke, but coming from such a remarkably average shooter, the tone is seriously off.

Duke makes some effort to hide its long development cycle, but it's always obvious that this was a game built on top of a game built on top of a game. Constant texture pop-in and ugly scenery is distracting, especially since it happens after every load. The faces of human characters are uniformly grotesque, which is especially ironic in the case for the so-called "babes."

While the single-player is an authentic, albeit stagnant, throwback to the series' roots, multiplayer is nearly the same game you played years ago. Providing the "Hollywood" map from Duke Nukem 3D shows how the new maps are more open, but only by a bit. Even the newly created maps are still generally small, corridor-filled spaces with a few usable routes and power-ups scattered neatly in familiar crevices.

Aside from a few minor tweaks, like the attention-and butt-grabbing "Capture the Babe" mode, multiplayer is so shamelessly unchanged, that it's almost kind of charming. For older gamers like myself, it can provide at least a few hours of nostalgic frag-fest fun before we put it away to play more modern games. There is a reason we've moved on, after all, and it's unlikely to win many new converts.

Duke Nukem Forever is more interesting as a cultural artifact than it is as an actual game. And to its credit, it banks on that history with an impressive swath of goodies, like old screenshots, concept art, and trailers after finishing the campaign. If you want all of your Duke Nukem Forever nostalgia in one place, the game serves as an adequate museum.

After such a sordid development, Duke Nukem Forever's greatest accomplishment may be that it exists. It fails to appeal even as kitsch, and it's hard to see this game as anything but the a relic of its era. This aging series, like its hero, has failed to keep up with the times.

[The review for Duke Nukem Forever is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by 2K Games. Also, it is important to disclose that 'Shacknews' is listed in the 'Special Thanks' section of the game's credits, as a reference to this community and its members.]





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