Duke Nukem, 90’s macho overkill icon. A sequel in at least partial development since 1997, with that amount of preparatory development time attached to a franchise as a famous as the Duke Nukem gaming machine, combined with the rendering power of today’s gaming consoles, and we must have a sequel on our hands about to redefine what can be done with a famous franchise with all these seemingly positive factors combined, right? Not exactly. The potential was there in some ways, but when a sequel takes this long to come to fruition to the point the very name of the franchise itself has become synonymous with the term “vaporware”, the same way “New Coke” has become the equivalent term for the granddaddy of bad marketing ideas, you know there’s several things rotten behind the scenes during the game’s development, and now those shortcomings have finally been unveiled.
It’s not that Duke Nukem is really that bad of a game, it’s simply fallen victim to the cumulative over-hyped expectations that naturally come with a title that was as popular as Duke Nukem Forever’s predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D was in 1996, plus let’s face it, in ’96, Duke Nukem 3D was ground-breakingly coarse, intentionally bombastically sexist, and therefore controversial. In the mid-nineties, a game developer could create a game like Duke Nukem 3D and be considered brave and bold, an unapologetic video trailblazer of sorts. A rebel and maybe even a pioneer, but this is 2011, and attempting to promote a game on tasteless catch phrases and hackneyed “T & A”, simply doesn’t get the job done or have the same effect anymore. Now being put to the test on the merit of the actual quality of visuals, creative level design, and entertaining gameplay, Duke Nukem Forever gets exposed for being a pretty run-of-the-mill shooter.
All these criticisms being acknowledged, we will say this in Duke Nukem Forever’s defense, were it the exact same game being marketed under a different moniker, we virtually guarantee it would be being more positively reviewed and received, but has unfortunately fallen victim to a decade and a half of waiting fan frustration that has built up to the point where it would take a game of near perfect quality to compensate for all the disappointment and delay. That being said let’s try and examine Duke Nukem Forever objectively as though it wasn’t carrying all this negative baggage into its release.
In Duke Nukem Forever, the game begins with art imitating life, with Duke’s talk show appearance being interuptted with what at first appears to be a peaceful alien landing, with Duke receiving direct orders from General Graves not to engage the invaders in a hostile manner as diplomatic talks are underway, but of course Duke is attacked, it becomes clear the alien hordes are anything but peaceful, and Duke must again kick some serious alien butt in order to save Earth. Not the most compelling narrative, but depth of plot was never the strong point of the Duke Nukem series at the best of times.
The gameplay of Duke Nukem Forever is about exactly what fans of the series have come to expect, and yet it’s not. What we mean by this contradiction is yes, Duke Nukem Forever has plenty of linear first person shooter blasting action, with Duke unleashing shotgun carnage and bare-fisted brutality upon his hog-faced adversaries. There’s a little diversity in the weaponry, with Duke also having a freeze ray that allows him to immobilize and shatter his foes, and a shrink ray that enables him to transfrom his foes into pint size versions of themselves, which Duke can easily stomp out.
To add a little more of change up, there are turret firing sections, and a little bit of physics based puzzle solving action to break up the one dimensional blast away monotony. To complete the earlier point made about how what’s found in Duke Nukem Forever gameplay-wise is about what’s expected and yet it isn’t, in reference to the “and yet it isn’t” part, is what’s clearly missing from Duke Nukem Forever the amount of improvement and innovation that fans of the series had to be expecting after this long between sequels. The corny, Sly Stallone style one-liners, the gratuitous “T & A”, and the predictable levels that end in the big alien boss fight are all present and accounted for, we’ll give it that, but the upgrades in weaponry and level diversity that Duke Nukem fans had to be expecting after this length of lay-off are nowhere to be found. Had this sequel been released within 2-3 years after Duke Nukem 3D, it may have been fairly well received, but in the company of the level of quality of today’s shooters like Killzone 3, Crysis 2, and the impending Resistance 3, Duke’s relevance has been left behind.