The game feels caught between two opposing design sensibilities, never fully encompassing a throw-back feel because of its modern concessions. There's the glint of a good idea in some of Forever's periphery activities, and the whole campaign is punctuated by some pretty impressive set-pieces — but Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps best experienced as a curiosity because, while fun in places, the game does little to live up to the fifteen years worth of hype.
When we previewed Duke Nukem Forever earlier in the year, we were criticised for raising some concerns over the game's shooting mechanics. We didn't "get it" apparently. Well, we've beaten the game and we still don't get it. Duke Nukem Forever is not a good first-person shooter. The gun-play feels locked in a bygone era, with a hokey targeting mechanic leaving the game's artillery feeling flat at best. Weak sound effects, poor hit-detection and timid animation only compound the problem. Hail to the king baby, indeed.
Duke Nukem Forever is at its best when its not a first-person shooter. Navigating Duke's mansion at the start of the game is a rare and short-lived treat, as you can literally taste the designers' sweat and tears in every corner of Duke's abode. There are moments in Duke Nukem Forever where you understand why the game took so long to develop. Sadly these moments are few and far between.
The plot's certainly not going to win any Oscars. See, the world is in peril again. An alien rift has appeared above the Hoover Dam, and aliens are terrorising the world. It's down to Duke to send those, er, you-know-whats straight back to Hell.
For such a bombastic premise, Duke Nukem Forever actually boasts quite a slow campaign. The surprisingly long narrative is punctuated by numerous filler sections, including platforming, racing and underwater segments — none of which map naturally to the game engine. It's in the periphery activities that Duke Nukem is at its craziest, and potentially most fun. Playing Whack-A-Mole, pinball and basketball sure is stupid, but it's crazy to think the developers put so much attention into these side-activities.
The side-activities actually become a welcome respite from the action itself. There are flashes of satisfaction in Forever's gunplay, but they are rare. Blowing a pig into pieces using the game's brutal shotgun is a genuine high-point in a game marred by mundane combat. What's most disappointing is how the game compromises its own raucous sensibilities in order to meet modern game concessions. Limiting Duke's arsenal to just two weapons is a bizarre choice, especially when you're always given the necessary guns ahead of a specific combat encounter. Bosses can only take RPG damage, so you can bet your life there'll be one conveniently lying on the floor as the encounter kicks off.
Surprisingly there aren't that many guns on offer either. We spent most of the game armed with the Ripper — a deadly sub-machine gun — and shotgun, though we did play around with the Freeze beam and Shrink ray, both of which add a comical twist to the action without being particularly effective.
With the combat so desperately mundane, Duke Nukem Forever attempts to impress with its myriad of side-activities. The game opens with Duke at a urinal, and rarely looks back from there. The pool tables are fully functional, there's an air-hockey mini-game and you can flush every toilet in the game. While it's fun that you can play a complete round of pinball, or throw basketballs through hoops, you can't help but feel that if 3D Realms had put additional time into developing the nucleus of Duke Nukem Forever rather than allowing you to turn the lights on and off, it might have been a better game. That's not to say these side-activities aren't fun — they are, perhaps more-so than the game itself — but its problematic that a first-person shooter should leave you so desperate for the next mini-game rather than the action itself.
What's worse is that much of Duke Nukem Forever's campaign feels desperately like filler. You'll spend a lot of time wandering through flaky old environments, with little room for exploration. It's alarming how much of the game focuses on platforming when the game engine clearly isn't designed with such mechanics in mind. Hopping between crates and boxes is a terribly frustrating experience, especially when much of the time you're surrounded by hazards that result in instant death. Perhaps respawning wouldn't be so problematic if it didn't prompt a 30-second loading sequence.
We're not exaggerating either. Despite being informed Duke Nukem Forever actually performs better on PlayStation 3 than XBOX 360, the game is still very much a technical disaster area. Flat textures and shoddy geometry are the least of the game's troubles. Those load times really are horrendous. Not only do they break up the action in the most bizarre ways — many levels actually have a "Part 2" and "Part 3" to them — but they essentially add to the punishment of dying. You'll literally want to cause damage to your PlayStation 3 every time you die, as the consequences mean sitting through the game's loading screen over and over. We actually got stuck on one particular combat encounter during the latter half of Duke Nukem Forever's campaign and felt like giving up as we frequently got transported to the loading screen in what felt like a never-ending loop.
Of course Duke Nukem Forever wouldn't live up to its name if it wasn't packed with witty dialogue from the protagonist himself. Fans of the series will know exactly what they're in for from the offset — this is the same old Duke. We actually quite enjoyed the game's self-referential sense of humour, but it's not going to be for everyone. Duke Nukem Forever's biggest problem is that the humour is old. A lot of the jokes come from circa-2003, and while a lot of the puns still play, you can't shake the overbearing sense that this game would have been side-splittingly hilarious about eight years ago. Now, it's just enough to raise a smile.
And that's ultimately the biggest problem with Duke Nukem Forever as a whole. In those early PlayStation 2 days this game would have been fantastic — the shooting would feel fine, the jokes would play and some of the set-pieces would be mind-blowing. But it's not 2003 anymore. TATU's not topping the music charts and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is no longer the best game on the planet. It's 2011. Call Of Duty is the biggest video game franchise available and Lady GaGa rules the charts. Duke just feels tired.
To be fair, Forever does have its moments. Gigantic boss fights with triple-titted ladies, and huge turret sequences against enormous alien space carriers are genuine white-knuckle rides. But the excitement of the set-pieces are usually off-set by a shoddy driving section or a bland platfoming segment where you're hopping on a linear sequences of pipes with very little justification as to why.
The game spends its first hour bigging up Duke. Men want to be him. Women want to be with him. But behind the tongue-in-cheek build-up, there's a sadness. Duke is certainly not who he used to be. He's not the king, no matter how many times he tries to tell you otherwise.
Like much of Duke Nukem Forever, multiplayer is somewhat of a relic too. The performance here is bad — lag was particularly offensive during our playtest — but the action is fun in a meatheaded way. Modes are standard fare, with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and King Of The Hill all supported for eight players. Weapon pick-ups are spread around the map, and the whole affair feels unjustly balanced in a kind of addictive way. The multiplayer has progressive unlocks similar to Call Of Duty, with unlocks fleshing out your "digs" and unlocking weird costumes to kit out your character with. Bizarrely, for all its shortcomings, we found ourselves enjoying Duke Nukem Forever's multiplayer.
But it's not enough to revive the package. Duke Nukem Forever is not good, and while it's a miracle that it's even a retail product at all, it probably should have been left where it belongs — as a relic stored on a disassembled 3D Realms desktop computer. Those people that have followed Duke Nukem Forever since its announcement should play the game out of curiousity. No doubt about it, this is a landmark title under the strangest of circumstances. But if you're looking for a fun, explosive shooter there are a myriad of other titles that outdo Duke at his own game. Do yourself a favour and opt for one of those instead, because this Duke is all out of gum.