Duke Nukem Forever Review – Good Fun with a Mediocre Game

Anyone who follows gaming news will know that the first person shooter Duke Nukem Forever has been in development since 1996, the year Duke Nukem 3D was released, and that the 15 years of delays have become quite the joke. Finally released on June 2nd of this year, Duke Nukem Forever was released by developer Gearbox Software, and has been met with generally mediocre reviews. My own experience with DNF was quite positive, but I wouldn’t say that it is a great game. The game feels like a strange combination of outdated design and graphics, modern gaming mechanics, misogynistic humor, and spoofs of modern games all rolled up into a ball of inconsistent difficulty.

I should provide perspective on how I played DNF; I sat down with a friend and played the Xbox 360 game on the “Come Get Some” difficulty (the third hardest of four, and the one I would call “hard”) passing the controller back and forth whenever we finished a level or died. I greatly recommend this approach to playing DNF because much like movies that are “so bad they are good” DNF is far more fun when you have a friend laughing with you at the games humor and flaws. With this method we plowed through the game over the course of four evenings in a row.

Low resolution textures become obvious up close.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t had fun completing Duke Nukem Forever, but I would also be lying if I said it was a great game. The Xbox version of the game had poor graphics, especially evident in the low resolution of textures when viewed up close. Halo 2 for the original Xbox could compete with DNF in terms of texture quality, and it would completely crush it if you compared character animation. Early in the game you can “admire” yourself in the mirror at the press of a button, causing Duke to say a cheesy line and increasing your max Ego which acts as your health bar. Looking in the mirror it is immediately evident how cheap Duke’s animations are. His torso doesn’t move as he runs and when you are switching or reloading weapons his arms move so simply it looks like a he’s a minimally jointed action figure. The game does present a greater variety of lighting than some shooters, some levels contain areas that are pitch black providing a use for Duke’s sunglasses’ night vision power. Sadly this night vision lights everything up in a painfully bright light blue and white color scheme, and emits an annoying high pitched note when it’s used.

"Duke Vision" comes with an annoying sound effect and too-bright whites.

DNF’s sound effects are pretty standard overall, the one major flaw I noticed being the silly grunt Duke emits every time he jumps. The witty/cheesy/terrible lines from Duke during gameplay like “Hail to the king, baby” and “Squeal, piggy” were surprisingly varied. By the end of the game I certainly started to notice a lot of repeats, the frequency of his statements and the number of them was balanced well enough that they never became too repetitive which is a rare plus for a talkative protagonist. The soundscape did have one gigantic flaw however, music. The music wasn’t bad, actually some of it was actually pretty good for a FPS, but there simply wasn’t much of it. Many levels in the game had no music at all, and as the game wasn’t otherwise endowed with ambient noises DNF isn’t so much hard on the ears as it is incredibly boring for them.

The gameplay heart of the game was unbalanced to say the least. As a practiced FPS player, I found enemies predictable and easy to kill. Most of the mid-level deaths my friend and I encountered were caused by enemies we didn’t see because of the surprisingly narrow field of view, or because we took the wrong approach to a fight on our first try. Generally, cautious play made most fights easy. In contrast, a few of the boss fights and one turret sequence are so hard on the difficulty my friend and I played that we had double-digit attempt counts between the two of us. It didn’t help that the controls on the Xbox 360 are poorly calibrated. The reticle movement on the analogue stick barely has any speed between slow and fast, and that combined with poor aim assist made high speed accuracy difficult. To make matters worse picking up ammo from ammo crates requires that the gun reticle is pointed straight at them while you hit a button, which forces players to look away from the enemies to grab for ammo.

Many elements of the game feel modern. Duke has a recharging “Ego” bar that works exactly like shields in Halo, absorbing damage until it is depleted at which point you can only take a couple shots before dying. Only two guns can be carried at once along side a a handful of grenades and other single use items like the ego reinforcing beer. The design on the other hand feels outdated, with lots of relics from old gaming clichés like move-the-barrel physics puzzles and jump pads. Levels mostly consist of narrow hallways connecting slightly bigger rooms with sporadic fights and platforming sections spread throughout both. There are some fun driving sections of the game, but because running enemies over instantly kills them and the aliens aren’t smart enough to get out of the way these driving sections are incredibly easy and don’t make for any interesting battles.

Driving Levels could have been great but are far too straightforward and easy.

All in all however, Duke Nukem Forever can be good fun in a simple minded laugh-at-how-bad-it-is sort of way. The way it strangely crosses old and new game design provided me with a strong feeling of nostalgia for older shooters like Goldeneye and Serious Sam while taking a small step into the modern space. It would be great if the game was better balanced, controlled better, looked better, and generally felt more polished, but after 15 years of development I’m glad Gearbox Software was able to finally release the game. Hopefully having Duke Nukem Forever off the table will allow a new iteration of Duke to be recreated in modern terms, with modern humor mixed with old references. The acceptance of games like Bulletstorm makes me think that Duke Nukem still has a place in the gaming world, it just needs to have a fresh slate to find that place, and for the first time since 1996, that slate is clean.

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