How many of you played the original Duke Nukem? I know that some of you are my age or older, so I assume that we have a good number of readers that experienced the game back when it came back, or re-discovered it through some abandonware back-channels. The thing about Duke was that it was pretty revolutionary – not just because of it’s theme, bad language and sexuality. It was just damn innovative. Back then being able to walk into a room, flip the light switch, piss into a urinal and then break the bathroom mirror on your way out was absolutely mind blowing. While other FPS games had you running through endless mazes full of angry enemies, Duke also had some of that, but threw in fun areas such as the strip joint where you could pay dancers to show you their tits. It was full of pop culture references, had fun, original wacky weapons (like the shrink ray) and lots of character. The charm of the game wasn’t really riding on it’s protagonists larger than life persona – it stemmed from the game play, art, level design and the humor.
The old Duke had a few signature quips and one liners throughout the game, but otherwise remained silent. He was a man of few words – a quintessential action-hero of that bygone era: a muscular tough guy with a few choice one liners, and a whole lot of attitude. And I liked him that way. The new Duke just won’t fucking shut up, and every line that comes out of his mouth is lamer, cheesier and sleazier than the last. In fact, no one in this game can shut their mouth holes for five seconds. There are several places in the game in which you get trapped in a room with an NPC who is hell bent on delivering three solid pages of exposition monologue, before he opens the door for you. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if there was stuff for them to talk about, but there isn’t. This is a game about pig aliens dressed as cops invading the earth, only to be kicked in the nuts by a guy whose mission in life is to kick ass and chew bubble gum (and he is all out of bubble gum). I honestly couldn’t care less about my mission, or about what the president thinks about the invasion, or listen to his bickering with general whatshisname. I’m not Gordon Freeman in this game – I just want to get to the part where I shoot pigs in the face. But the game insists on getting between me and the fun.
Let me paint you a picture here by comparing the openings of both games. The iconic opening of the original Duke starts with you crash landing on a roof after your ride was shot down, cocking your gun and then making a big gaping hole in the wall by shooting some exploding barrels. Next you get to a fairly large street level you can explore to find a few hostile aliens, a titty bar and a few secret areas. To put it plainly, the game catapults you into the action right away, and then never stops. Duke Nukem Forever, on the other hand starts with you pissing into a urinal. Is it a self-referential jab at the quality of this title? I don’t know. All I know is that after about 3 seconds of urinating, some guy walks by and starts running his mouth. He won’t stop until you zip up, and move to the next room where there are more military type guys droning on about something. They are huddled around an interactive whiteboard that you can actually use to draw pictures. It’s a neat feature, which is instantly ruined by the guy behind you constantly gushing about how what you drew is the best battle plan ever conceived in the history of mankind. I guess it was supposed to be funny, but after about a minute it becomes supremely annoying. Especially since what I’m drawing is not a battle plan, but a cock with a pair of balls and some green pubic hair. I mean, what else would you draw on a white board in a game that starts in a bathroom with an interactive urinal, and a floating turd that you can fish out of the toilet and throw against the walls.
Once you are done drawing penises and/or other vulgarities on the white board you proceed to run through some linear corridors while people are shooting at you, while you are denied any kind of offensive capabilities. So you bravely run away from the enemies for about 5 minutes, at which point you are finally allowed to temporarily pick up a gun and kill a mini-boss… Only you didn’t really do it. It turns out that Duke was just playing a video game based on his adventures while receiving a fellatio from two teenage schoolgirls who were specifically designed to conform to the absolute minima of the uncanny valley curve. Cue a long scripted sequence during which you walk around your lavish apartment/suite while NPC’s try to deliver some boring exposition. And then you get to do a stealth level in which you sneak around dark rooms using night vision goggles, and you dispatch enemies with sneak attacks.You don’t actually get your first real gun until about an hour into the game.
I’m not knocking slow openings, or extensive use of scripting – those are perfectly valid storytelling tools, and Valve has been using them for many years to a great effect. The problem is that Duke just doesn’t have a story. At least not one I would be interested in. It’s not that kind of a game. Everything from the advertising, cover art and the game intro promises fun an action. But when you get to it, you get a Half Life 2 style slow opening – only with all characters speaking in silly voices, making poop jokes, sexual innuendos and cursing up a storm. Because you know, Duke is supposed to be edgy and controversial.
Here is the problem though: trying to cram 17 fucks into a single sentence, and adding a “fetch the dildo” quest (no I’m not kidding) does not make you edgy. At least not in my book. Similarly having naked ladies jiggle their boobs at you from every angle is not even remotely titillating if their models look like crap, and their scripted movements are actually worse than some of the stop-motion stuff I have seen people do with Gary’s Mod. To wit, we have all fallen in love with Alyx Vance not because of the polygon count of her ass, but because of her personality. And that’s something no character in DNF has. Not even Duke.
It’s quite ironic that this sequel that is basically constructed around it’s protagonist’s persona, makes him seem so flat an uninteresting. I’m not going to say shallow, because I guess he is supposed to be shallow. But there is no rule anywhere that says you can’t make shallow, uncomplicated characters interesting and likable. Duke however has no presence. Every single NPC worships him, kisses his ass and fawns over him and yet, I felt nothing but contempt for this character.
I guess maybe that’s part of the problem with the story. It’s just not that much fun to play a famous celebrity, unless you do something to make him interesting. I guess they were trying to make him into a Buckaroo Banzai style hero (sans the PHD’s and the entourage) but they ended up with Mike the Situation from the Jersey Shore. That’s how it feels to be duke in this game. It kills you a little inside every time you need to listen to one of his lines. Hell, I’d love if he at least came up with clever puns, or one liners. But Duke’s idea of humor is to point at a Master Chief style helmet and remark that power armors are for pansies, or regurgitate a tired internet meme in the least funny way possible. Try the pinball mini-game, will you? When you lose duke says (and I quote): “I have balls of FAIL!”
Guys, I don’t even… There are just no words… No words can express how this made me feel. So let me tell you what I did after hearing this line. I turned off the game, stood up from my desk, and went outside. I stood on my deck and stared at the sky for a while, reflecting on how I will never get those last few hours of my life back. But then I figured I’ll just power through this crap to get some more material for this review. Easier said than done though. It’s not that the game is difficult or complicated. It is so linear that you could probably finish it with your eyes closed, if it wasn’t for all the platforming.
I am honestly convinced that Duke Nukem Forever has more platform jumping than Mirrors Edge. There is no level that does not include at least one challenge of 15 or more consecutive jumps. I call them challenges not because they are difficult but because missing a single jump usually means instant death, or at the very least a trip to the very beginning of the level. It’s like the developers felt that no area in the game is complete without at least few dozen hanging platforms that must be navigated to push a button that opens some door.
At the beginning of the game Duke makes a joke that “he does not need a stinking red key-card” to open a door as he kicks it down. True to his word, the game contains no “key-cards” but instead uses other objects as stand-ins. But make no mistake, almost every single level revolves around finding things that open doors. In most cases these things are buttons and switches but sometimes the game switches it up a bit, and has you hunting for power cells circuit breakers, battery packs or other similar items. The alien hive level uses little bugs that you need to nudge into corresponding sockets which would be kinda inventive if they were actually easier to handle. You can’t pick them up, you can’t kick them – all you can do is to nudge them forward with your crotch, and hope they will keep going in a straight line, and not roll into some coul de sac. The dessert levels on the other hand make you run around looking for of gas cans to refuel your car. But it’s all the same really – all these different items act as classic key cards, and all of them are usually located somewhere high up, accessible only via complex jumping pattern.
Of course buttons and key-card stand-ins are not the only reasons to make Duke hop like a little bunny. The game uses platforming to get you across otherwise impassable terrain such as lava, electrified floor, bottomless pit, etc… In those circumstances, missing a jump by an inch ends in insta-death, and a trip to a lengthy loading screen.
Tired of jumping puzzles? Fear not, Duke also has physics puzzles. Sorry, did I say puzzles plural? I meant to say “a physics puzzle” as in one, singular lonely sea-saw gimmick shamelessly stolen from the Half Life 2 episodes. It is smack dab in the middle of the game, and there are absolutely no clues leading up to it. The game goes out of it’s way to condition you to the extreme platforming, so if you don’t know it’s there ahead of time it will totally blindside you. I spent about 20 minutes be running around humping all terrain protrusions before I gave up and consulted an online walk-through. The sudden appearance of physics is so out of sync with the rest of the game it is counter-intuitive. What’s worse is that there are no other such puzzles to be found in the later stage of the game. It is a one off thing.
It’s almost as if the 3D Realms team was so enamored by the bridge sea-saw from Half Life, that they decided to put something just like it in their game. In fact, the entire game feels like a collection of random themes and elements from various other popular titles. Yathzee actually brought it up in his review, but it bears repeating: DNF level progression can actually tell you a lot about thematic shifts in the FPS medium over the last 13 years. It starts silly and campy (reminiscent of titles such as Blood 2 and Sin). After a few levels there is a drastic mood and scenery shift – colorful vegas casino backdrops are replaced with dark, organic corridors filled with creepy crawlies, phallic tentacles, wall tits and wailing women being used as hosts for alien babies. As if everyone at the 3D Realms team were playing Doom 3, Quake 4, Fear and Prey when designing these levels. After a little bit of gross out horror you are finally treated to the bread and butter of modern FPS games: nondescript, boring brown industrial areas. By constantly shifting their design goals, and trying to keep up with the shifting trends, 3D Realms seem to have accidentally created a visual chronicle of game design evolution.
Not a very good chronicle though. It is as if the designers purposefully took all the worst concepts from all these different popular games, and then tried to “improve” them by adding jumping puzzles. The worst are the features they stole from Halo games. In this incarnation Duke can carry only two weapons and has lost the ability to save the game at will. The later is almost an unforgivable crime in an FPS so obsessed with “FPS parkour”. There is just no reason why a modern PC FPS game should have these limitations, unless they are thematically justified. Duke was supposed to be fun and jokes, so the forced weapon carry limit seems wasteful. There would be more fun to be had if you could save the silly weapons for appropriate moments. I spent most of the game carrying the shotgun and the starting pistol, because by far these were the two most effective weapons (shotgun is deadly up close, while the pistol is deadly accurate at a distance) with plenty of ammo everywhere. Picking up anything else was just silly because it would run out of ammo in 5 minutes and you would have to replace it with one of the slow shooting alien lasers until you happened by another shotgun and/or pistol. Having a silly only-two rule in a game where most weapons are silly gimmicks actually limited the amount of fun that one could have with them.
The lack of fun is the chief problem of this game. 3D Realms and/or Gearbox made lots of choices that made the game less fun than it could be. Every element of the game is affected by bad choices. It has bad game mechanics that actually limit what players can do with the available weapons. It has bad level design that puts emphasis on linear progression and jumping obstacle courses restricting the player’s freedom to explore and make their own choices. It has badly written dialog, lame jokes and a plot that barely makes sense. It has a horrible and unforgiving checkpoint save that seems to have been designed to frustrate the player rather than help him out.
A lot of people blame Gearbox for rushing this game out the door, claiming they should have taken more time to iron it out and get it ready for prime time. I’m not sure if that would have helped. All of the issues I described above are problems in design, not implementation. Yes, DNF has some bugs but that’s not what ruined the game for me. It’s the design that was flawed. To do this game right, Gearbox would have to do a complete re-write, scrapping all the assets they inherited from 3D Realms. I believe the chose not to do so, an instead tried to be faithful to the vision of the original designers. In other words, their job was basically to polish a turd before releasing it.
Am I surprised that DNF turned out to be a big, stinking turd polished to a low sheen? No I’m not. I was half expecting that to happen. But I’m not going to give this game any slack just because it has been the butt of the longest running joke in the history of the gaming industry. It’s a bad game, and not just because it did not live up to the 12 years of expectations and hype. I presume that nothing could live up to that. But DNF is just bad on it’s own – it would be a bad game if it was an original instead of a much anticipated sequel.