Duke Nukem is here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and he’s all out of ass.
After the most protracted development cycle in history, Duke Nukem Forever was finally released Tuesday for PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360 (reviewed). Work on Duke began back in 1997, and developer 3D Realms’ complete inability to just finish the damn thing turned Duke into the most infamous unreleased videogame ever. We probably don’t need to mention how many times Wired.com readers voted Duke Nukem Forever the biggest vaporware of the year by a landslide.
Could any videogame, no matter how good, ever live up to that eternity of expectations? Duke Nukem Forever would be an interesting test case for this question if it were a good game. Instead, it’s just a bland set of predictable first-person shooting levels, not much to look at and not engaging to play.
The series’ trademark over-the-top vulgarity and did-that-just-happen sex jokes certainly make it a unique and occasionally amusing experience, but for the most part, the thought that will run through your head is: “This is what they were working on all this time?”
(Spoiler alert: This review contains mild plot spoilers.)
It’s fascinating that Duke Nukem Forever is actually available in what we must assume is a roughly accurate version of 3D Realms’ original vision. Had the developer actually shipped this game a decade ago and begun working on more-refined sequels, Duke might be caught up to modern-day game designs by now. Instead, Duke Nukem Forever is a game out of time, a bloated relic from a past era that we left behind for good reason.
The first thing you need to know about Duke Nukem Forever is that it is a technical mess, and this makes everything the game does badly that much worse. The single-player campaign is divided into a great many brief levels, and every time you move from one to another, the game dumps you out to a loading screen where you wait for almost a full minute for the next chunk of game to load. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also happen every time you die. At some particularly frustrating points during my playthrough, it felt like I was spending more time waiting on loading screens than actually playing.
All things considered, Duke doesn’t start off so bad. The opening scenes, in which you run Duke through his palatial Vegas penthouse and onto the set of a late-night talk show, are funny and different, the sort of frivolity that has been stripped away from serious-business shooters like Halo and Call of Duty. Throughout the game, you’re encouraged to do all sorts of silly things, like get drunk and piss in any available urinal, doodle on whiteboards, play pinball and billiards, etc. Not a minute after the game begins, you can remove a piece of human feces from the toilet and run around with it, splattering poop on the walls and people.
This sounds and is disgusting, but quite frankly I like this kind of no-holds-barred stupidity; at the very least it is something different from today’s generally by-the-numbers shooters. But the novelty only lasts for a little while. Eventually, not only does the shock wear off (save for a midgame scene in a bathroom strip club in which Duke finds and utilizes a glory hole, which will not fail to shock anyone), but these amusing bits become fewer and further between. By the time I was running through another bland underground (or worse, underwater) shooting stage with nary a chuckle in sight, I felt like Duke was no longer playing to what we might charitably consider to be his strengths.
Nothing seems to work very well in Duke Nukem Forever. The aforementioned billiards and pinball games are clunky. Duke’s dune buggy gets caught in the scenery. Something as simple as turning a water valve can be frustrating because sometimes pressing the B button to make Duke let go of it doesn’t work.
Combat is the strongest part of the game, but even this doesn’t leave a lasting impression. You’ll encounter only a handful of foes — you might actually have more guns than things to kill with them. The gameplay itself feels like a generic shooter; strip away the ridiculous sex-and-poop jokes and you’re left with a lot of bland, action-game cliches.
I spent a brief amount of time with the multiplayer; Duke was released in Europe over the weekend and consequently I played with what I am reasonably sure was a group of small French children. There are three different game types: deathmatch, king of the hill and a variant on capture the flag in which the flag is a scantily dressed lady.
The Parisian primary-schoolers and I got killed comme un fils de pute; each multiplayer mode seems to favor learning where the best weapons spawn and going on a rampage with them.
The World Needs Duke
Videogames represent infinite possibility, but too many of our best gamemakers get stuck making safe, samey products. If Duke’s indulgent strip-club scenes and nothing-is-forbidden-not-even-poop attitude inspire other games to unleash some creativity, then it will have been a good thing that 2K Games forged ahead with the project and actually brought it to fruition.
The Duke Nukem franchise is now owned by Gearbox Software, the development house behind celebrated game Borderlands. I think that in some sense, Gearbox studio head Randy Pitchford is right: The world needs Duke. But Duke deserves better than this.
WIRED Ridiculous, nothing-off-limits humor; more variety of gameplay than contemporary shooters; holy crap this game actually came out.
TIRED Extensive and frequent loading times; boring action; unpolished interaction; bland, dated graphics.
$60, 2K Games
Read Game|Life’s game ratings guide.