Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
It was 4:30 pm on Saturday, June 11, 2011, when I could finally stop saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Duke Nukem Forever was vaporware no more. The longest development cycle in videogame history was finally at an end. An actual copy of the game was in my hands. My expectations were high, but they were also tempered with the knowledge that a game with a history such as this would never live up to them. All that was left was to play it and find out for myself if it was worth the decade-and-a-half wait.
Blonde-haired, cigar-smoking, musclebound Duke Nukem has been in retirement for many years since defeating alien invaders in 1996. Women love him. Men want to be him. He lives in a massive suite in a Las Vegas casino-hotel named after him. All of this inflates his already enormous ego (which is why it’s appropriate that Duke’s health bar in the upper left of the screen measures his ego instead of his health). Now ETs known as the Cycloids have laid siege to Earth. The President is attempting to negotiate a peaceful solution with the Cycloid Emperor, and has ordered Duke not to get involved. But Duke doesn’t know the meaning of the word “negotiate” (probably can’t spell it, either), so he works his way through the battered City of Sin to put an end to the Cycloid scourge.
Old-school gamers will feel right at home with DNF. All you do is move from Point A to Point B, eliminating everything non-human in your way. You can carry up to two weapons at a time. These include the standard handgun and shotgun, plus more creative choices such as a shrink ray that reduces enemies to a more manageable size, and a freeze ray that encases them in ice. Your maximum ego (health) can be increased by interacting with various items you find in the world (mirrors, magazines, etc.), and you get brief buffs of your melee prowess and toughness by taking steroids or drinking beer. You learn the basic movement and weapon controls in a fight with a boss alien, which ends with a quick-time event; all of the game’s boss battles end in a similar fashion. But DNF isn’t all bloody mayhem. You also solve puzzles, drive a radio-controlled car and a monster truck, and do some light platforming. And in typical Duke fashion, you make a brief appearance at a local gentlemen’s club, which seems to be the only business that’s still open, despite the surrounding carnage.
DNF is retro gaming with a modern look. It’s a throwback to the days when games were tough by default; difficulty (and the resulting level of controller-chucking frustration) is high, even when playing at normal. Ammo can sometimes be hard to find, and the two-weapon limit makes you think carefully about which ones you want to take with you at any given time. The graphics are nothing special by today’s standards; they’re 1990s visuals with a fresh coat of digital paint. And progression through the stages is solidly linear, with the possible exception of a level that has you exploring a dark underground cave system, where it’s easy to get turned around, forcing you to retrace your steps to get back on the right track. But the highlights of the game are the variety in the level design (there’s a nice mix of combat, puzzle solving and other activities to keep things interesting) and the adult-oriented, gleefully silly script, which features little jabs at movies and other games, as well as the voice talents of Jon St. John, the original voice of Duke Nukem. It also earns its Mature rating in the first few seconds, in which you can choose to have Duke relieve himself in a stadium locker room urinal. Check out the ESRB icon for this game—they ran out of room for rating descriptors. Definitely not appropriate for children, impressionable or otherwise.
You’d think that Gearbox and the three other developers involved with DNF (original company 3D Realms, Triptych Games and Piranha Games) would’ve had enough time to iron out its problems, but sadly, there are a number of big ones. The game suffers from occasional frame rate stutters when moving from one environment to another. Each weapon has a differently shaped target reticule, but all of them are practically invisible since they blend in with the backgrounds, making combat a literal hit-or-miss affair. The controller is sluggish when it comes to aiming, which makes the reticule problem all the more acute. I would’ve expected that a legendary badass such as Duke Nukem would be able to absorb more punishment than he does; enemies one-shot-killed me on numerous occasions during my journey through the single-player campaign, and cover can be scarce in certain sections. The story is more of an afterthought than a significant part of the game; the script only really exists to give Duke something rude or sexist to say. But my biggest gripe by far with DNF is the abominably long load times. You have to wait 30 seconds for the game to reload every time you die, and you die quite a bit unless you have ungodly reflexes and an excellent touch with the analog sticks. I estimate this problem added at least a half hour to my playing time, which is totally unacceptable for a modern game, even one with the retro sensibilities that DNF has.
You might notice that I don’t list Duke Nukem Forever‘s brazen lack of morals or political correctness as a fault. This is because I wasn’t offended by any of it. If you know anything at all about Duke’s previous adventures, you have to expect a certain amount of objectionable material; it’s par for Duke’s course. Besides, there’s more than enough wrong with this game to push all of that to the back burner. I liked the variety in the mission designs, and Duke’s one-liners never cease to raise a chuckle or two with me, but the graphics glitches and criminally long load times ruin what is at times an entertaining shooter. But I suggest that you play it despite its flaws, if only for the chance to be part of gaming history—you can look other gamers in the eye and truthfully say that you played Duke Nukem Forever. After 15 years, that has to be worth something, right?