Duke Nukem Forever. A game that has been in development for so long that it has actually passed the mocking saturation point and faded into obscurity. There will be gamers out there, kicking ass on COD BlOps (still enjoying that abbreviation, by the way) as I type, who weren’t even born when Duke Nukem 3D came out, let alone remember its 2D predecessors. Nobody seriously expected this game to ever see the light of day. But here we are at last, three changes of engine and at least one development house collapse later, and DNF is finally released (maybe giving it the same initials as a horse that Did Not Finish a race was, in hindsight, at least tempting fate, if not outright ill-conceived). Many people were of the perfectly reasonable opinion that the game could not possibly be good after being rebuilt and taken apart so many times, like playing Jenga with a dismembered Rubik’s Cube, only if you lose, five years of work is erased and your entire company goes bankrupt. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that, deep down, the people behind Duke Nukem really did have some good ideas, and some of them have even survived. The bad news is, the game is not as good as it could have been (and miles away from how good it should have been after this long in development).
It’s not going to be fair to judge DNF on its development time, though- if only because no game could ever be worth 15 years of development. This game has gone through at least two separate development houses, various publishers, innumerable promises, screenshots, demos and suggestions, and what is left has to be judged against its competition in the marketplace. Starting off under 3D Realms, the game has ended its development life with Gearbox software after a textbook example of common errors made in software project management saw the game finally send 3D Realms out of business.
Like a skilled butcher, Gearbox have started with a bloated, rotting carcass and carved away the layers of fat and offal until what remains are the few various pieces of untainted lean meat, necessarily smaller than the original, still palatable but lacking either the flavour of maturity or the succulence of freshness. Then, not having enough substance to create a whole meal from any one cut, they have combined them all together in a big game casserole and covered the whole mishmash of flavours and styles with the gravy of adolescent humour and digital tits.
The game itself, as in the final product we have ended up with, has all the fine points and flaws of a game conceived in 1996 being released today. First off, the good things. Looking back, Duke Nukem 3D introduced more exciting new concepts to the FPS genre than arguably any other, before or since. It had aliens, secret areas, shrink rays, freeze rays, hologram decoys, saucy humour (I was 15, as far as I was concerned it was perfect), environment interactions that served no purpose except to entertain the player, and a jetpack. Entire games have been written around just one of those concepts, and DN3D just threw them all in as if it was no big deal. Hell, to this day I can’t think of any other FPS that used a shrink ray on the player/enemies, and it’s this kind of innovation that was born (and also sadly abandoned, as WW2 and now cookie-cutter terrorist-hunter FPSs dominate the market) back in the mid-90s, where the star of an FPS wasn’t necessarily a space marine or a soldier, but a Shadow Warrior, a Redneck, or wizard to name but a few. Though they’re not all present in the sequel (as in real life, the lack of jetpacks is a particular source of disappointment), those that are used are used well. The shrink mechanic specifically is really well employed, whether it’s to make formerly formidable opponents stomp-fodder, or to transform an ordinarily average enemy into a significantly tougher challenge. Unsurprisingly, given 15 years of ideas to wade through, a lot of the sections are well thought out and avoid repetition, though they can seem to be a little unconnected to each other; likely a product of both the devil-may-care, no-eye-on-the-budget development process and the need to stitch together a passable game quilt from the torn, frayed and tear-stained scraps of code that survived, there are very few artefacts re-used from one level to another.
Along with some unique and enjoyable gameplay choices, another classic that makes its return and should not be underestimated is the character of Duke himself. As I mentioned when reviewing Bulletstorm, the modern FPS player character is often mute (or spouts nonsensical uber-macho garbage), looks like the Incredible Hulk after a strong allergic reaction, and has the personality depth of a puddle. Now, I’m not suggesting that Duke is any different (in fact he’s pretty much the apogee of that character), but, like Bulletstorm, there is at least something to be said for having writers who know how ridiculous that is, and treating it like a parody. Where DNF wins out over Bulletstorm is that duke spouts nerd-tastic film and tongue-in-cheek game quotes while he deals out megadeath, rather than the former’s ADHD/Tourettes gibberish. Though it always threatens to tip over into the misogynistic, for me DNF stays just on the right side of silly rather than offensive, at least most of the time.
But once all the peanuts of good gameplay are sifted out, there’s still a hefty amount of turd left in the sieve. As might be expected, but cannot be completely ignored, the graphics are rather behind the times, with the horrific texture-pop that marked early Unreal-engine shooters, poor facial and blocky character animations, and boxy buildings and vehicles. Coupled with this are another telltale sign of the age of the game, in its terrible, seemingly interminable loading times, that mean on difficult sections you may spend 50% of your time waiting for the game to reload.
Speaking of difficult sections, the game is also wildly unbalanced: whilst some enemies (and you will see a lot of repetition in the enemies you face) go down with one or two punches, others can decimate your shield in seconds, soak up a huge amount of damage and force you to retry over and over again. The powerups are similarly unbalanced: you can only carry one of each, and the side-effects pretty much outweigh the benefits of using them. You can choose from steroids (increased melée combat power but reduced health), beer (increased toughness but blurry vision), or a decoy hologram (that is so pointless I completed the game without ever even considering using it). Even the levels vary between the genuinely novel and entertaining (the parts where you are shrunk are the high point of the game for me) and the tedious and padded (though early vehicle sections are good, later ones are bloated, boring and seemingly included only to pad the running time).
So is DNF worth your money? In my opinion, yes. You should buy this game: not just out of nostalgia (though it comes teasingly close on occasion to making you feel like a crass teenager again), but because if you don’t then all we’ll see in the next five years is more Call of Duty clones. They must have enough unfinished material sitting around for them to knock out a sequel pretty sharpish, and there were enough flashes of the magic that has kept this game alive for a decade and a half for me to believe that, freed from the weight of expectation (not to mention the obligations to their creditors), Duke Nukem really could be the one to rule the FPS world for a second time if they’re given the chance to make it. Frustrating, disjointed and slow-paced though the game can be, there’s something about it that is inexorably drawing me back to playing again, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of FPSs that are, on the surface at least, better.
Progress: Single player complete, 7 hours. Multiplayer attempted, but PSN could not find a game
Any game that includes a paraphrased quote from Starship Troopers is instantly on my good side