Flawed, But Fascinating
(Please note that this review only covers the single player component of the game)
Gearbox’s President and CEO, Randy Pitchford, once referred to Duke Nukem Forever as “The Unshippable Game.” As I was playing DNF 14 years after it began development, I had similar feelings about its reviewability. Played out of context, it is a mediocre game with occasional highs and lows. The graphics are poor, the shooting doesn’t feel great and much of the humour falls flat. And yet, with the games bizarre history in mind there is another metagame that you can play with it that is probably more enjoyable than another Modern Warfare clone. It won’t appeal to everybody, but there is a segment of the gaming population that really ought to play DNF as soon as possible, before our standards for First Person Shooters change again.
The problem with trying to review DNF comes from this metagame. There are clear problems with the shooting and game flow, but there are reasons to excuse a lot of those problems. Unfortunately many of those excuses themselves have qualifiers that make them unacceptable. For this reason I’m going to dedicate the next few paragraphs to those surface issues to get them out of the way.
The shooting in DNF feels mediocre. Most of the more esoteric weapons, such as the double-barrelled rocket launcher and freeze ray, aren’t much fun to use. Later on in the game’s 9-or-so hour campaign the combat picks up a bit, as the number and variety of enemies increases. I eventually found myself having a good time using the FPS standard shotgun and triple-barrelled machine gun, but that only barely makes up for the monotonous early sections. Many of these problems could have been alleviated by providing more ammo, letting the player carry more than two guns, and implementing static health instead of a regenerating “ego meter” that functions as a shield. As it stands, the gunplay feels like it doesn’t play to its strengths.
I can’t say anything as charitable about the graphics, which compare to Doom 3 about as well as Duke Nukem 3D did to the original Doom. This would have been a compliment in 2004, but the murky textures and ugly effects just don’t compare to anything made in the last few years. Even then, the art design isn’t terribly inspired, with the occasional exception. There is also a lack of advanced graphical settings to toy with, which is a shame considering that this is a PC game first and foremost.
Having said all this, Duke has a lot more hobbies than your typical space marine. There are a couple of non-combat sections that aren’t exactly challenging, but give you an opportunity to look around this bizarre world that 3D Realms was building before Gearbox took over the game. In fact, if there is one thing that 3D Realms knew a lot about, it’s dicking around. There are all kinds of weird things to play with in these sections, such as whiteboards and “whack-an-alien” machines. The gameplay motivation to do this is increasing your ego meter, but in the end these odd side moments are the most enjoyable parts of the game.
On a surface level, none of this is really worth your time or money, but if you have any academic interest in game design there is easily 50 dollars worth of entertainment on the DNF disc. The metagame that I was talking about earlier is the analytical part of game playing where you try to get into the designer’s head. Every single part of the game reeks of ambition and compromise, and it’s enjoyable to simply try and figure out where things fell in the development timeline. Gearbox explicitly stated that they weren’t making any radical changes to the game’s design, and were trying to ship the game that 3D Realms envisioned. This means that all of the rough edges are left intact for analysis.
To take one example, there is a boss that I will forever know as the “Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon Six.” The flow of her battle feels completely broken, since her attacks don’t actually deal enough damage to kill you before your health regenerates. It was a battle clearly originally designed with static health in mind, and it’s interesting simply to watch how much regenerating health can break an otherwise solid boss battle. The game is full of these intellectual exercises, many of which are far more convoluted than that one. If that story intrigued you, I wholeheartedly recommend DNF.
The only saving grace that might make Duke’s journey worthwhile to a non-academic is that it is far more varied than a typical modern shooter. It’s not as fast-paced and crazy as Serious Sam (which probably would have made for a better game), but it has a section where Duke and his alien enemies fight while being shrunk and restored in the middle of a burger joint. That has to count for something, and it’s enough to recommend the game at a discounted price, provided that you are willing to look past some serious jank.
I could write a review 10 times longer than this one without breaking a sweat, but that would break in to post-mortem territory. If you are looking for purchasing advice, this is what you need to know: I enjoyed my time with Duke Nukem Forever. There are some legitimate laughs, and some great moments. There are also lots of horrible examples of both that make the game hard to recommend. If you have an academic interest in game design or history you should buy it. If not, grab it at a discount when you are looking to kill a weekend.