Duke Nukem Forever is an ugly game. From the outdated graphics to the disgusting level design to the deplorable content, every inch of this game makes me feel dirty and gross. Instead of being a fun romp with an over-the-top protagonist, I just felt sorry for everybody involved with this mess of a first-person shooter. After more than a dozen years in (and out of) development, it's clear that nobody knew how to turn this garbage into anything even remotely entertaining.
From a development standpoint, Duke Nukem Forever is one of this industry's most interesting stories. It was originally announced in the late 1990s, delayed a bunch of times, bounced around to multiple developers, suffered at least one cancellation and was resurrected at the eleventh hour. And now, after 14 years, Duke is back to chew bubble gum and kick some ass ... and you already know the rest.
It's a shame that nothing in this Xbox 360 game even comes close to the real life drama that plagued the production. This game delivers a fairly generic action experience without much of a story and even fewer memorable moments. It's not funny, clever or action-packed. It's as if I uncovered a time capsule that contained 1998's worst game. But the truly offensive part? Somebody decided to charge $60 for this disjointed drivel.
Believe it or not, the set-up has a lot of potential. It's been years since his last outing and now Duke is a beloved (and extremely rich) American hero. There are video games, movies, books, and even a Broadway play based on the action-packed life of Duke. He's a regular on late night talk shows and lives in the city's biggest tower. Life is good for our hero. That is, until aliens invade Earth and (you guessed it) kidnap Duke's babes.
Okay, so the set-up may not be as riveting as Half-Life, but I can certainly see the potential here. It's too bad the game decides to throw the story out the window about an hour in. Instead of advancing the narrative, not much happens between the title card at the beginning and credits at the end. This is a game about Duke walking forward and not much else.
Although this game is billed as a first-person shooter, there really isn't much shooting involved. Much of Duke Nukem Forever is spent platform hopping, driving, swimming and anything else that doesn't involve using your gun. It's a throwback to a different era. Too bad that era is one where nobody knew how to make a solid first-person action game.
There is nothing worse than performing platform challenges in a first-person shooter. Yet nobody told that to the Duke Nukem Forever developers, because a good 70% of this game is you trying to make daring jumps. You'll spend hours leaping from one platform to the next, trying to avoid fire and electricity. Even worse, sometimes you'll fall and lose ten or fifteen minutes of work.
And don't think the platforming is exclusive to regular-sized Duke, at certain points in the game our hero will be shrunk down to the size of a mouse and forced to work his way around a room filled with everyday objects. Instead of making these platform challenges more exciting, they further highlight what's wrong with this game. Here the narrow path you need to take is blatantly clear. There's no room for multiple solutions, you're on a set path that involves conveniently placed objects to jump on.
Even when you're not hopping from one platform to the next, you're still dealing with narrow level designs. Much of the game involves corridors. Duke Nukem Forever takes you on one clear (and very linear) path. There isn't any room to explore your surroundings; it's a closed-off world that is always pushing you to move forward.
When you actually do fight, it's usually in a large arena-like room. This isn't one of those games where enemies are spawned naturally throughout the world; instead you will find yourself fighting off waves of enemies all at once. The routine becomes predictable after a while: run through corridors until you enter a large room with waves of enemies. Rinse, repeat. This is a frustrating mechanic that destroys any semblance of pacing the game might've had.
A big problem is that nothing exciting happens in the game, which is especially curious considering how linear the levels are. The Call of Duty franchise is also known for linear level designs, but they mask this with epic battles, amazing special effects and moments that stick with you long after the game is over. Not here. The Duke Nukem Forever level designs are decidedly plain. There's nothing about the levels (which take you through a mountain, dam, fast food restaurant, etc.) that is worth talking about.
It doesn't help that every single bad thing about the game is overused and stretched out to comical lengths. They turn boring levels that should be 5 - 10 minutes long into 45 minutes of aimless walking. The game repeats textures like they are going out of style, forcing us to look at their terrible level designs. Sometimes you'll get lost, but that's only because everything in the level looks the same. The end result is a lengthy experience where nothing much happens.
From start to finish the game has no consistency and fails nearly every step of the way. It's the kind of product that feels like it had a dozen directors, which may not be far from the truth. There are entire gameplay ideas introduced once and then never used again. At one point the game turns into a bad driving game. Then it's a bad on-rails shooter. Then it's a bad swimming simulator. Heck, there's even a mine cart level. None of this flows together in a cohesive package, instead of feels sewn together at the last minute by Dr. Frankenstein. It's alive ... but just barely.
Much has been made about Duke Nukem Forever's content. As you might expect, Duke is a foul-mouthed hero that feels like a throwback to a different era. On paper that sounds fine, I can certainly get behind a machismo-filled (albeit cheesy) action star. But this shtick only goes so far. There's a level of misogyny in this game that startled even me. There's not a woman in the game that doesn't offer Duke some sort of sexual favor. Duke Nukem Forever flirts with everything from rape to violence against women, never in a particularly clever or witty way.
The humor is lazy, made specifically for people who find the mere utterance of profanity to be funny beyond belief. A lot of the jokes are nothing more than pop culture references, some of which aren't exactly original or fresh. In fact, I found myself groaning at the lack of any real jokes. There's nothing here that resembles a punchline, just a series of things you might have heard in other movies, television shows and video games. Not the most inspired writing to say the least.
Usually it wouldn't matter if a game was funny or not, but so much of Duke Nukem's identity is tied up in being a comedy that the lack of any real jokes hurts the experience. The Duke Nukem defenders suggest the game is nothing more than a parody and is supposed to be stupid, but I don't see it. Instead of laughing with our hero, I felt a lot of pity for him. I can see how this character and story could have been hilarious if it was given to the right people. Apparently nobody thought of doing that in the 14 years of development.
With the terrible graphics, deplorable content, dismal level designs and lackluster story, it's clear that Duke Nukem Forever is a bad game. But I'm willing to take this one step further. As far as I'm concerned, this is a fundamentally broken game. This game has a few small performance issues, such as low frame-rate, rampant slowdowns and other weird glitches. It also has the longest load screen I've ever sat through.
It's no exaggeration to say that the load screens are north of a minute each. That may not sound like much in a review, but believe me you start to feel it after a while. It's especially annoying in the moments where you quickly die over and over. It's even worse when it's a forced mini-game. One of the worst moments involves players stopping a plummeting elevator at the right time. It's a trial and error mini-game that takes several tries to get right. For me it took about six tries. Each attempt was about thirty seconds, followed by a minute long load screen. I'm hoping that whoever thought this was a good idea gets drummed out of video games forever.
Given the lengthy development cycle, it doesn't surprise me that the game looks horrendous. At its best it looks like a middle of the road PlayStation 2 game. The game's backgrounds and textures have a lot of problems, often popping in and out at weird times. I get the feeling that a lot of last-minute work went into applying filters to mask what could have been an even uglier game. In any case, Duke Nukem Forever does not look like a current Xbox 360 game.
On one hand I'm happy somebody finally put this game out. I don't think anybody involved would consider this a polished masterpiece, but at least there's resolution to fifteen years of speculation. If this was released at a cheap price for the gamers who have patiently waited for Duke, then I might have been able to overlook some of the shortcomings. That wouldn't have made this a good game, just more understandable. But this is not a budget release for longtime Duke fans. This is a $60 game. At that price it competes with Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach and every other high-quality first-person shooter on the market.
The problem isn't that there are a few better first-person shooters on the Xbox 360; it's that EVERY first-person shooter on the Xbox 360 is better. There is no point in the last ten years where Duke Nukem Forever would have felt like a modern shooter. Choosing to spend that much money on a fundamentally broken novelty game is ludicrous. I fear that Duke Nukem Forever will forever tarnish the franchise and everybody involved.
To the game's credit, Duke Nukem Forever is a bit longer than average shooters. The game clocks in at around ten hours, though four of those hours are load screens. You can extend the "fun" of this game by playing online. Chances are you won't want to do that, since there's nothing remarkable in the Xbox Live multiplayer arenas. The dozen levels are ugly and boring, featuring lame weapons and the same modes you get with every other shooter. The only reason to play this online is because you're a contrarian that hates everything that is good.
Even after two thousand words I still haven't even scratched the surface of everything wrong with the game. I could go on and on about how there are only two or three enemies in the entire game, how the ending is anti-climactic and how the music makes me want to punch my Xbox 360. But I won't. I think you get the point. Duke Nukem Forever is a cavalcade of horrible game ideas. It's a laundry list of everything you don't want in a first-person shooter mixed with an unbearable length. Even if you don't factor in the heinous technical issues, you are still left with one of the worst games of all time.