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Duke Nukem Forever review: Fail to the King, Baby


The year was 1997, and I'd just begun writing about video games professionally. Like most of my fellow gamers, I was pretty excited when 3D Realms announced that it was working on a sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, the runaway PC hit that it had released just a year before. At my first E3, a year later, I saw the game running for the first time. Now, just as my 14th E3 has come and gone, I'm sitting at my computer having finally played the finished Duke Nukem Forever. Yet it feels like I'm still in 1998.

That's because DNF is, for better but mostly worse, perpetually stuck in the late 1990s. For all the delaying, the stalling, the drama surrounding the game, it's tough to say if any part of it has actually benefitted from the more than a decade of development. What has, at long last, been committed to a disc and placed into a box might have been alright a dozen years ago, but by today's standards it simply doesn't hold up.

Gallery: Duke Nukem Forever (E3 2011) | 9 Photos

A big part of the problem is actually the game's one truly distinguishing feature: its attitude, or at least its attempt at one. Times have changed, but the character of Duke Nukem -- his quips lifted from countless '80s and '90s era action films and his objectification of women equaled only by older Arnold Schwarzenegger roles -- is stuck in a bygone era. Jokes that may have spurred laughter all those years ago simply had me shaking my head, wondering if even a 12-year-old would find them funny ... even though, at that age, they wouldn't be able to buy the M-rated title. But why have that rating, even? If anything, a largely bloodless game that has its tone set in the opening moments when the player is instructed to pull the right trigger to take a piss, and can pick up – then throw – a piece of human poop from a toilet just moments later, is surely just immature. That could really be said about its writing and design in general. Want to play the true successor to Duke Nukem 3D? It's called Bulletstorm.

It might not seem fair to hold DNF up to Epic's foul-mouthed shooter, but the truth of the matter is that they're both games released in modern times, priced at $60 and targeted at the same players. Any aspect of the game that might have been impressive in 1998 just seems practically laughable now – in all the wrong ways. There are problems with laggy aiming, dumb-as-doornails enemies, weak level design and even weaker presentation. There are puzzles that might have seemed "cool" way back when with their simple seesaw physics, but today they mainly feel like ways to artificially extend the game's length, which comes in at just about 10-12 hours on normal difficulty.

Thankfully, the FPS genre and the people who enjoy it have grown up and moved on.

I actually spent a lot of that time unsure of where to go next, trying to get past areas that suddenly spiked in difficulty, resetting to previous checkpoints because enemies had stopped taking damage and generally waiting. Every time I died there was between 30 and 45 long seconds of loading, during which I was treated to such helpful hints as the fact that dodging gunfire is good and that enemies sometimes drop weapons. I'm still not sure which words of advice were supposed to be jokes – or if any of them were. Actually, the most fitting piece of strategy to impart would have been "don't die," but in all my waiting on those infernal screens that one never appeared.

The game looks like it's been steadily bumped up to HD resolution over the past decade or so, and had modern effects sparingly applied to its overly brown visuals. The whole thing is lousy with screen tearing and what can only be unintentional slowdown. NPCs even lack shadows. Things get worse in multiplayer, which almost looks like it runs on an even more basic engine than the single-player campaign -- and fittingly features about as basic a list of multiplayer modes as you could imagine. It's also about as lag-filled as they come, too, with all but the widest-spraying weapons rendered useless as clunky Dukes judder around the wholly unimpressive multiplayer maps. No amount of "Capturing the Babe" makes them any better. Yes, "Capture the Babe," a mode which tasks you with spanking a woman into submission from time to time as you carry her blocky form over your shoulder. It really is as painful as it sounds.

In all fairness, it's not a total wash. There were moments while playing as a miniaturized Duke behind the wheel of an RC car, or participating in odd one-off moments like signing an autograph for one of Duke's fans, that I felt some of the genuine heart that had been put into the game's design at some point over the years. I also got a kick out of the numerous opportunities to perform "Duke-like" actions – admiring myself in a mirror, lifting weights, humiliating enemies – that either increased Duke's Ego (shield) meter or had other helpful/amusing effects.

Still, in a world where games like Bulletstorm have managed to blend humor with first-person action in innovative and mature ways, and others like Section 8: Prejudice deliver far better multiplayer experiences for a fraction of the price, DNF remains a sort of relic - a reminder of how things used to be and how, thankfully, the genre and the people who enjoy it have grown up and moved on. I can really only recommend this as a rental to those of you who, like me, are determined to see this thing through to the bitter end. For everyone else, allow me to borrow Duke's trademark line which he, in turn, borrowed from a fellow 1990s artistic endeavor, Army of Darkness: "Don't come get some."

This review is based on a final retail copy of Duke Nukem Forever for Xbox 360 provided by 2K Games.

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