It’s not every day gamers get a chance to play a title that was 14 years in the making, and with this week’s release of the hotly hyped, often-ridiculed “Duke Nukem Forever,” we’re finding out why.
Originally announced back in 1997 as the sequel to 1996’s “Duke Nukem 3D,” “DNF” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on PC) dusts off original developer 3D Realms’ mascot and puts him to work fighting off a marauding band of aliens. The aliens, you see, want to get revenge on Duke Nukem for his kicking their butts six ways from Sunday back in the mid-‘90s.
Oh, and the aliens also want to kidnap Earth’s women and impregnate them, an act that apparently requires the women to be stripped naked, anchored to something, and forced to writhe around moaning until Duke comes along to put them out of their misery with a headshot.
There’s no way in getting around this, so I’ll come right out and say it: If you’re a woman, are married to a woman, sometimes have women in your home or otherwise know any women personally, parts of “Duke Nukem Forever” will range from “offensive” to “in poor taste.” While sexist jokes and images of topless “babes,” as Duke calls them, are a staple of the series, they ring hollow in a post-Wii, post-“FarmVille,” post-“Sims” world. The game industry has done a lot in the past decade to try to bring women into the fold, so it’s surprising a game in this day and age would feature a hero whose one-liners reference abortion.
This means a certain population of wizened male gamers can take a break from watching Andrew Dice Clay videos on YouTube and, for a dozen to 15 hours, revel in the fact that somebody has made a game like they used to. Some of the rest of us will play “DNF” out of a morbid curiosity to discover how this 14-year story ends and to unlock a bunch of extras that sum up the game’s long, tortured development history.
That said, I don’t want to exaggerate “DNF’s” tasteless-jokes-per-minute rate. Judging from some of the harsher reviews out there, you’d think that every 30 seconds, Duke is slapping a stripper’s bottom or making a forced joke about abortion. In reality, these jokes come at the rate of one every half-hour to one every hour, and wind down considerably in the game’s second half. There’s enough to cobble together a highlight reel for a sensationalist news story, but it’s spread over a campaign that lasts more than a dozen hours.
Gameplaywise, “DNF” feels like a game that, every time it underwhelmed the corporate bean counters, the proposed remedy was, “Let’s throw more money at this thing and see if we can turn it into something good.” A more appropriate response might have been, “Let’s cancel this,” or “Let’s throw this out and start over.” As a result, “DNF” pairs modern ideas, such as a shieldlike “ego” bar that regenerates, with overly simplistic driving levels straight out of the late ‘90s. Its graphics, which apparently are better on the PC, range from tolerable to looking like something that was designed 10 years ago, then touched up within the last six months.
Oh, and the loading screens? They’re excruciatingly long on the Xbox 360 build of the game I played.
Occasionally “DNF” contains some moments that will make players temporarily forget how mediocre the rest of the experience is. Most of these come when Duke, for reasons the plot never quite explains, is shrunk down to minuscule size, his voice changing as if he’d huffed some helium. In these parts of the game, you’ll crawl through tiny vents, do battle with rats that are suddenly bigger than you and run like crazy to get away from standard bad guys who suddenly tower over Duke like the Statue of Liberty. Probably the nicest compliment I have for “DNF” is that its first-person platform-jumping bits are executed much better than what’s typical for the genre. But you can only hop so well when you can’t see your feet.
The arsenal of weapons at Duke’s disposal occasionally entertains as well. The Shrink Ray, for example, shrinks down enemies to the size of tiny Duke, allowing full-grown Duke to step on them.
It hurts to say it, because the end credits reveal there are people who put more than a decade of their lives into “Duke Nukem Forever,” but the game’s biggest accomplishment is that it’s finished, and we can play it. “DNF” holds more value as a historical document and a glimpse at how games used to be than as an entertainment product. Its tasteless toilet humor, sexist gags and forced pop culture references can’t compare with the likes of legitimately funny games like “Psychonauts” or “Portal 2.”
Because its level design and gameplay aren’t fundamentally broken, “DNF” isn’t the worst video game I’ve played, but it might be the worst game I’ve finished. A multiplayer mode that consists of four staple modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and king of the hill) holds little value. Its ideal audience might be cash-poor gamers who foolishly spent what little disposable income they had on a game that begs not to be replayed.
We can only hope that “Duke Nukem Forever” is a means to an end. On Twitter earlier this week, the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News’ Gieson Cacho said “DNF” would have been better had Gearbox Software cribbed from the “Austin Powers” movies and made a game about Duke adjusting to today’s gaming landscape. It’s an idea that Vicious Cycle played around with in its “Matt Hazard” games, but how awesome would it be with a real character? Hopefully, that was Gearbox’s plan all along: Finish “DNF,” then make a true Duke sequel we’re not embarrassed to play in front of our wives.
Maybe Gearbox, publisher 2K Games and everyone involved with “Duke Nukem Forever” needed to destroy the King, in order to save him.