Duke Nukem Forever Single-Player (XBOX 360) Review
Duke Nukem Forever—a game that, for many years, had been a videogame industry joke for constantly promising its release, but never actually coming out… for 15 years. First revealed in 1997, DNF was a highly anticipated title after Duke’s last, widely successful appearance in Duke Nukem 3D in 1996. Over the course of the 14 years from its announcement to its eventual release, 3D Realms (the studio that created the Duke Nukem franchise) teased gamers with a slow (very, very slow) stream of information such as news regarding the engine DNF was going to run in, screenshots, and trailers. Engine changes, publisher changes, property rights purchases, additional developers, and 15 painful years of promises and delays are the ingredients to one of the most talked about videogames in the history of the industry; is that a formula for a masterpiece… or is Duke Nukem Forever a relic?
First off, it’d be impossible for any game to be worth 15 years of hype and waiting… but, let’s face it, were you really waking up every morning for 15 years thinking “Today’s going to be the day!” and just dying… dying to play some Duke Nukem Forever? Probably not. I know I wasn’t. Sure, there was a curious interest whenever something new info came out, but 3D Realm’s “When it’s done” release date never meant anything to me beyond “We’re kinda working on this, but not really… like, we have assets and stuff, but there’s actually no game here.” DNF has changed so much over the course of its development that the game we got is not the game we were going to/could have got and, after 15 years, it’s hard to expect what we did get to be anything more than a jumbled mess—which it is—but it’s a fun jumbled mess.
I’ll admit, I’ve never played the old 2D Duke Nukem games that got the franchise its start; the only real Duke Nukem game I’ve spent any amount of time with was Duke Nukem 3D… but I think that was all I needed, really. I loved DN3D; it was a game that never took itself seriously and poked fun at the action movie heroes of the 1990’s and the shooters of that time. Duke was a cigar-chomping, one-liner spouting, womanizing man-child with an ego and a gun… and he was fun to play as. The big difference between Duke Nukem 3D and games like Doom was (aside from the ability to look up… and jump) the character. Sure, it did a lot of things that other shooters didn’t do gameplay-wise, but Duke was just much more fun to play as than a voiceless space marine wandering dark hallways in a game that took itself seriously.
Fifteen years down the road and Duke is still Duke. Jon St. John reprises his role as the 90’s videogame icon and makes the cheesy lines he reads even more so; you can’t help but giggle a little bit with his constant spouting of perverted, demeaning, and self-elevating one-liners. He’s wildly offensive and has no respect for anybody but himself; so, if you’re the easily offended type, this game already isn’t for you. Duke is still the steroid-enhanced man-child with a gun you remember from the 90’s (provided you played his previous games) and he’s still just as fun to play as now because you know you have that same adrenaline-loving immaturity in you somewhere.
Gameplay in Duke Nukem Forever is… well, it’s a shooter. You shoot stuff. Prior to writing my review, I did read other publications’ reviews and noticed a common theme with them: claims that DNF’s gameplay is dated. I’m not usually a proponent of comparing videogames for the sake of a review, but I think this is an important issue that needs addressing. Shooters all share a common theme—shooting. The primary elements in gameplay are move forward, shoot enemies until dead, progress to the next area, repeat. Sometimes, they’ll switch it up a bit with a turret minigame, vehicle sections, or various other distractions to add a little variety. Nowadays, shooters seem to be considered more “innovative” the more “cinematic” they become—adding slow-mo segments or scripted events you have no control over are the new norms… as are 3-5 hour campaigns (DNF’s single-player campaign is about a 10 hour experience, btw). I’m not saying this to discredit the acclaim of other shooters recently released, but I think it’s important to realize that true innovation in the shooter genre is not really common, but various media outlets throw the word around giving high praise to the next big thing.
Duke Nukem Forever is not an innovative game—it’s an old school shooter with some new tricks… but mostly old ones. Level progression is pretty straightforward, limiting itself to a “go here, kill this, move forward” type formula. Variety in levels comes in the way of turret segments that have you shooting down dropships and waves of enemies to break up the on-foot sections with a healthy dose of vehicle driving thrown in for good measure. It’s the standard shooter gameplay variety—a formula that works and has worked for quite some time—that does little to “wow” you, but it’s all fun. There’s one sequence in the game that involves a jetpacking enemy (if you’ve seen some of the trailers for DNF, you’ve likely seen a portion of this sequence) that I thought was really cool… it was one of those “cinematic” scripted events that’s all the rave in shooters nowadays.
On-foot, Duke is a one man army as he picks up just about every weapon he can get his hands on and shoots everything that moves. There’s nothing to complain about with the shooting mechanics as everything feels solid and tight. If you’re packing heat and pull the trigger, whatever is standing on the other end of the barrel is going down. For me, what defines a shooter (if not the characters and story) is the weapons, and DNF does the weapons right. Nearly every weapon has a powerful feel to it (I say nearly because the pistol is pretty garbage… I know this well because I went through the campaign with the pistol as my constant secondary weapon for that darned achievement); shotguns blast with a close-ranged ferocity that rips to shreds pretty much everything in its way, the ripper is a triple-barreled bullet hose that makes quick work of foes, and so forth. DNF has a lot of things that go “boom” and it’s fun making that happen.
The driving segments in Duke Nukem Forever are easily some of my favorite parts of the game—especially when you get to play around with “The Mighty Foot,” Duke’s monster truck. Driving around the environments, turbo-boosting, and smashing into things is fun distilled to its purest form. The downside is it becomes formulaic after a while as this driving section is divided into driving for a while, running out of gas, going on a gas-finding quest, returning to your vehicle with gas, repeat. As repetitive as it sounds in writing (and it is repetitive), the driving and the shooting are both fun, so there’s little to complain about here. If you like causing destruction for the sake of enjoyment, you’ll no doubt get a kick out of DNF.
DNF’s plot is paper-thin and is pretty much only there to give you vague reasons to be in a certain places blowing crap up. It’s not going to win any awards and it’s about as bad as they come but, in a game that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, it’s an intentionally bad story and lays the cheese on heavy. I’m a big movie buff, so I watch just about anything… including copious amounts of those “so bad they’re good” B-movies, so I have an appreciation for cheese. I’m not going to try to defend DNF’s story or writing in any way (because the story and writing are bad), but I, personally, enjoyed it immensely because of my oddball tastes and appreciation for campy action flicks and bad one-liners. It’s a kind of dumb fun that you have to either be expecting or have some kind of appreciation for in order to not be incredibly underwhelmed. So, for clarification, Duke Nukem Forever’s story and writing are bad… but a good bad that I appreciate and you might not.
The downsides of this game are primarily the outdated visuals and unbearably long load times. DNF is built using a heavily-modified version of Unreal Engine 2.5… a last-gen graphics engine. I played the XBOX 360 version of DNF, so I’m not sure how it compares with the PC or PS3 versions, but I can’t imagine there’s too much of a difference on the console front… PC might be a different story. The fact that this game looks as good as it does is quite amazing, but it’s no visual marvel. DNF suffers from horrendous texture pop-in (meaning that the textures aren’t fully loaded when you actually start playing) and when the textures do actually decide to show up, they’re about as low-rez as they come. On top of this, the game takes forever to load—I timed one load screen just out of curiosity, and it took 46 seconds to load… you also have to endure this loading every time you die. With most chapters being broken up into bite-sized parts and the visuals being mostly unimpressive, I find it unbelievable and unacceptable that it takes so long to stop pissing around and get back into action.
It’s pretty apparent that this game was pretty much just thrown together. Sure, the mechanics work and it’s a blast to play, but there’s little structure to anything. Playing DNF, it feels like Gearbox just got a bunch of assets from 3D Realms after acquiring the rights to the Duke Nukem brand and had Triptych Games just throw them in a blender, add a story of some kind, and call it a day. Duke Nukem Forever is a mess. It was finally made possible by the fine folks at Gearbox and is held together by the dreams of the gamers of yesteryear; it has little new to offer to the genre… except fun. DNF is not high art, but it never strives to be; it’s just a damn good time and that’s all it really wants. Flaws and all, I haven’t had so much fun giggling with child-like glee as I rampaged through an alien-infested Vegas. Yes, I still laugh at poop jokes… and darn right I smacked every wall boob I came across.
Duke Nukem Forever is a game that I think exists only because of the fans—we’ve held on to hope for the past 15 years that The King would return, and he finally did. Sure, it’s not the greatest game in the history of the industry, but even back in ’97 it wasn’t trying to be. I feel like had this game released at a different time, we’d hold it in higher regards and look back with rose-tinted glasses in the same way we do with Duke Nukem 3D, but I don’t doubt that the fans of the character and his past exploits will eat this up with the same enthusiasm as I did. I can’t wholly recommend this game as a purchase to anybody besides classic Duke fans; but if you have an appreciation for the old school or just want to blow crap up, it wouldn’t hurt to give this piece of gaming history a rent to see what all the fuss is about.