Forever in the making, but still not sure of its identity
A few years ago Duke Nukem Forever was dead. Sent to the doldrums of many a cancelled game, destined to never see the light of day. And yet here we are; the year is 2011 and Duke Nukem Forever is actually a finished game – a physical item you can sit down and play yourself. It’s quite a surreal experience considering the twelve year development hell that became the gaming industry’s longest running joke. It had gone through multiple iterations before Gearbox picked it up and set about finishing the project 3D Realms once started, so it’s understandable to be excited, or merely curious, to witness Duke’s contemptibly long-awaited return. But expectations should be met with trepidation. The king might have returned, but can that many years, starts and stops, really produce a cohesive and fun gameplay experience and a worthy sequel to Duke Nukem 3D?
The very first level starts off promisingly enough. After a recreation of the final boss battle from the end of Duke Nukem 3D, the camera pans out to reveal Duke playing the game himself. When one of his scantily-clad female companions asks him if it was any good, he quips “Yeah. But after twelve fucking years it better be”. This kind of self-aware humour should have been the cornerstone of Duke’s myriad one-liners throughout the game, mocking himself and the Halo’s and Call of Duty’s that have since taken Duke’s throne; but these kind of jokes are few and far between. Instead, the humour in Forever reads like a cobbled together list of references from any movie, game and internet meme from the past twelve years and beyond. Most of the time they have nothing to do with the action on screen so they seem completely out of place and nonsensical.
Duke singing “America, fuck yeah!” because a character mentioned “America” isn’t particularly funny or imaginative, especially considering how old that movie is and the fact it’s quoting straight from what is already a comedy in the first place. There’s even an area that depicts multiple women being raped by aliens, their painful screams echoing throughout the level. It’s way more unsettling than anything in a Duke Nukem game has any right to be and it’s difficult to understand how it could generate any kind of laugher unless it’s born from sheer embarrassment. Part of Duke’s charm was that he never let go of the eighties, referencing the greatest movies of the era with generally humorous one-liners that perfectly encapsulated his 80s action hero persona. He was the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone of the video game world, so it worked. In Forever he may as well be reading a thread on 4Chan or Know Your Meme while watching a rundown of the past decades greatest pop culture moments. There are still some funny lines here, but more often than not the jokes fall flat with the same force of Duke’s, surprisingly absent, mighty boot.
Not that he ever really needs it. Duke’s arsenal comes packed with a host of familiar weaponry, from your basic shotgun and rail gun through to the more unconventional shrink ray and devastator. The weapons have a nice satisfying pop to them, so shooting the waves of invading alien forces is fairly enjoyable. The ‘Halo-style’ two-weapon system is an odd design choice for a game like this, but you’ll probably play through most of the campaign using the same few weapons anyway. During boss fights you might need a particular firearm, but these are always conveniently dotted around the environment so it’s never a problem. These boss fights are the definition of tedium however, asking you to unload missile upon missile on increasingly larger enemies until a health bar is depleted. It’s boring, and that’s a theme that unfortunately manifests itself throughout the rest of the single player campaign, even in the environments.
There’s some variety here with underground alien caves, the famous Las Vegas strip and the Hoover Dam, among others, but everything looks increasingly bland. Textures are extremely poor at times, and everything has this weird shiny look to it that isn’t helped by the constantly murky, browns and greys. It’s a downtrodden colour palette for a game that you’d expect to be over the top, and despite its meagre visuals the framerate still has a tendency to drop in moments of heavy combat so it’s not optimised as well as you might hope. Loading times, however, are fairly quick on the PC, and anti-aliasing is present so there’s an obvious advantage over the console ports. It’s still not a good looking game though, and while that doesn’t stand in the way of the gameplay, it does contribute to Forever’s drabness.
While the shooting mechanics are admirable, the level design is a mishmash of genre conventions with no real pay-off. When you’re not involved in gunfights, you’ll be walking around the environment and interacting with objects like pool tables and pinball machines; partaking in basic platforming sections, or solving rudimentary physics puzzles. Each does a good job of breaking up the constant shooting, and it’s something so old school it’s oddly refreshing compared to conventional shooters, so it has its charm. However, flushing toilets and lifting weights doesn’t have quite the same appeal as it did in 1996 since this level of interactivity is commonplace in a lot of games now, and most of the activities just aren’t that engaging. The platforming can be enjoyable, especially once you’re shrunk down to action figure size and are jumping on burger buns and knocking over ketchup bottles to navigate a kitchen, but monotony eventually sets in here and it definitely overstays its welcome. The same can be said for the various puzzles, most of which are reminiscent of Half-Life 2, having you move barrels and such to weigh down an object to move on. Once again, it provides a decent break from the regular action, but it’s just not very engrossing or entertaining gameplay. There’s a reason these elements have been forced out of modern shooters, because they’re a contrivance more than anything else.
In terms of multiplayer there are basic deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and king of the hill game types spread out across 10 maps. The map design isn’t particularly interesting and most of them look worse than the single player for some reason. The gun combat also doesn’t translate very well to fighting against other humans, and it generally feels quite old and clunky. There are moments of fun to be had but with so many better shooters out there doing more interesting things, it’s hard to see a worthwhile community forming around Forever.
And the single player feels the same way. The shooting is good enough to produce some worthwhile and fun moments, and some of the interactivity is cool, albeit fairly inconsequential. But for a game twelve years in the making, Forever feels hashed together and rushed. It’s understandable given all the chops and changes, and credit goes to Gearbox for even putting it on store shelves – that’s a monumental accomplishment in itself. But with so many different ideas, spanning twelve years, it doesn’t really come together in any sort of cohesive manner. The jokes are pulled from all over the place and most of them fall flat, and no one gameplay mechanic is particularly impressive. It feels like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, whether it’s an old school throwback or a more modern shooter, and in the end it succeeds at being neither. For Duke fans there is fun to be had with Duke Nukem Forever, but for everyone else, even as an historical event, it’s distinctly average and difficult to recommend.