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Duke Nukem Forever: Was it really that bad?

Duke Nukem

Even if Duke Nukem Forever was never released it would have continued to exist as a piece of videogame folklore. It would be remembered by all as a cautionary tale of development hell and a holdover of a different era of shooters. Having undergone constant delays and cosmetic changes, there were long stretches in its fourteen year development where nobody saw the game and most believed it would never come to fruition. With DNF increasingly resembling the acronym, Did Not Finish when 3D Realms went under, Gearbox obtained the rights and cleaned up the remnants of the project. And while Duke Nukem Forever would never live up to the decade-plus of pent up hype and shifting expectations, to their credit, they shipped the thing.

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“He didn’t intend to star in the industry’s longest-running gag”It’s unfair to Duke Nukem. He didn’t intend to star in a highly anticipated release that was the industry’s longest-running gag. He just wanted to party. Starting off as a modest soldier in 2D Amiga games, when 3D Realms called themselves Apogee, Duke got a makeover with ray-bans, huge biceps and a few crude lines of speech when the series was first released in 3D. A parody of contemporary action hero figures, his carnage now and question later approach made him the quintessential American badass. Now a casino, fast-food and property mogul, Duke hasn’t laid rest since Duke Nukem 3D, but his inappropriate and one-dimensional lines of speech portray how he’s still as inarticulate as ever.

After Duke plays through a recreation of Duke Nukem 3D’s final battle on a gridiron football field, he learns of a ‘friendly’ visit from aliens on his way to a media interview. Things turn nasty as Duke is attacked and as the babes are abducted, Duke fights back against the President’s orders, although the Earth Defence Force are more sympathetic with him. He thus embarks on a mission through his own casino’s, alien hives composed from their own organic matter, a ruined Vegas, the Duke Burger chain and even an old Western desert as he banishes the aliens back to their planet.

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“It’s not the complete travesty many critics say it is”It’s fair to say Duke Nukem is a fearless individual, so he doesn’t need the traditional health bar like you and I. Instead his health bar is his ego, but as he’s shot at it depletes and Duke has to take cover for it to recharge. Silencing bosses prolongs the length of his ego meter, as does interacting with objects in the game. A few benchpresses of over 600lbs, playing pinball, winning on slots machines, admiring himself in front of a mirror and even picking out faeces from a toilet are all ways of boosting the meter. His ego wouldn’t be complete without steroids, in which a dosage enables him to become temporarily unstoppable at melee combat. Retrievable holograms also give Duke a decoy to distract enemies with, as well as some backup.

While Duke’s persona is archaic at best, he still holds up a decent game. Although it’s well documented in being far from perfect, it’s at least entertaining to play and its list of flaws don’t affect the overall fabric of the mechanics. Much of DNF‘s format is similar to Duke Nukem 3D, in busting mindless aliens on the way, whilst overcoming the frequent boss battles throughout. A selection of physics puzzles split up the action, as do parts of levels where Duke has to shrink himself and platform jump through certain areas, as well as driving a monster truck through a desert that frequently runs out of gas. Many of the enemies in Duke Nukem aren’t the most intelligent and can be overcome with a bit of tactical planning. Ramping up the difficulty to “Come Get Some” means their lack of brains is more than compensated with mindless force. More time will be spent dodging fire power and the overwhelming numbers of pig-cops, than trying to get a bullet in.

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“It’s also held back by its excessive political incorrectness”It’s always good to have games that are intentionally challenging, and DNF pulls this off quite well. There are moments where the game’s difficulty is borne from frustration though. A fiddly weapon cycling system and the ability to carry even an improved inventory of four (instead of the original two) makes battles tough, especially in having to make hard choices between pistols and rocket launchers to the more novel freeze and shrink rays. There’s nothing worse than having to drop a useful weapon due to the lack of ammo, only to find there’s an upcoming boss fight with a crate supplying infinite reloads. Long load screens make DNF’s difficulty frustrating. Ramping up the difficulty is going to mean a lot of restarting as you try out different strategies. Although the wait is fortunately a lot shorter than the console versions, its long enough with repetition.

The Doom 3 engine means the graphics clearly are a few years dated, but it’s acceptable for a shooter that’s not exactly designed to champion realism. Some parts are visibly more dated than others, but at least the Mac version sports the ability to increase texture resolution, add some anti-aliasing and hold a consistent frame-rate unlike it’s console brethrens. DNF suffers from references and ‘showcase’ features that may have been innovative at some stage in development, but are now no longer relevant. The most recent reference is an amusing parody of Christian Bale’s outburst but even that dates back to 2009 after Duke Nukem finishes playing DNF in-game, and is asked whether it’s any good, he says, “after twelve years, it should be”. Physics puzzles that were designed to demonstrate the game engine’s capabilities are no longer impressive when long-past titles have since used them.

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Where age does hold back Duke, it’s also held back by its excessive political incorrectness. There’s nothing wrong with joking around, loading screens state obvious tips such as avoiding bullets when being shot at, and the ability to excrete into a urinal. However DNF’s reliance on crude toilet humour gets old quickly. DN3D did push boundaries with its use of strip clubs and nudity. More advanced graphics lead to this being taken to a whole new level with talking women that are deliberately portrayed without any intelligence, the need to rescue women from the alien hive who have been stripped naked before they’re ripped in half and worst of all, the wall boobs. Yes, males enjoy a bit of lad humour but this is completely degrading. An extreme example of how backwards the videogame industry can be when stereotypes are blown out of proportion, it’s games like this that will continue to alienate females from a predominantly male industry. The humour is just boorish.

No game can justify fourteen years of development and why Duke Nukem Forever was always going to be a poisoned chalice. It’s not the complete travesty many critics say it is, it’s enjoyable to play and its flaws don’t severely impact the flow of the game. The PC and Mac version does offer significant benefits over some of the console criticisms with smoother performance, better quality visuals, shorter loading times and the ability to carry more than two weapons. Levels come in different flavours, as does the ability to drive monster trucks, toy cars and shrink. But a montage of outdated cultural references, gaming concepts and visuals, along with the load screens and forced toilet humour, summarise the flaws. If you see this game out for cheap in a Steam sale, it’s worth a go as it’s still an entertaining single-player game. While often cringingly crude, this is a respite from the more ‘realistic’ online-shooters like Call of Duty. It’s also a good history lesson on a title locked in development hell.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2009.

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