Duke Nukem Forever
11/06/23 at 12:44 EST
It's been about a week after Duke Nukem Forever's release, which is about 14 years after the game first went under development. Reception of such a notorious game is bound to be enigmatic, but quite frankly, while I don't share the same viewpoint as a lot of "professional game journalists" out there (the quotes are not intended to be interpreted sarcastically) in this particular scenario I'm actually having a hard time understanding them. I'm just going to throw my own thoughts out there on the game. It may be a bit premature - I've only finished the game once so far - but it's pretty easy to miss the boat, even on a game which took so long to leave port.
I'll make an effort to keep the comparisons to Duke 3D minimal, but I'll start by saying I have a bias to Duke 3D that stems from a strong fondness of the game. Unlike everyone else, who grew up with Doom/Doom 2, Duke 3D was my first First Person Shooter. The game's (ridiculously) fast pace, immature tone, obscene arsenal and reckless gameplay were a delight for me back in the 90s. In the days leading up to DNF, I was reunited with some Duke3D footage that made me very nostalgic for the game, so I found it (still got my old copy from Christmas 1996! Though admittedly I was playing a Win7-compatible port) and played through it again. And it's still a blast. If you enjoy FPS games, go find Duke3D: Atomic Edition and have at it.
So, is Duke Nukem Forever a good game? To cut to the chase, I certainly think so. I had quite a lot of fun with it; enough to play the game regularly for the entire past week. The game has flaws - glaring flaws, in my opinion - that detract from the experience, but don't ruin it.
My biggest complaint has to be that it's modern. Of all the FPS I've played in the past decade DNF was straggling behind, two game franchises have stood out among the rest to me: Half Life 2 and Bioshock. What makes these games more enjoyable than games like Halo, Call of Duty or Resistance, to me? They've got the mentality of late 90s shooters. Both of the cited games bear quite a lot in common with Duke3D: You have an actual health bar, can carry a dozen weapons at the same time, and benefit greatly from rummaging around in people's attics and garbage cans looking for loot or secret places.
Gone are the health packs and life-saving Portable Medkits from DNF. Gone is the ability to carry 9 different weapons at the same time, granting you a greater set of strategic decisions to make. Though not gone, but greatly reduced is the desire or need to search for secret areas. All of these gameplay mechanics were staples of Duke3D, and served to add depth to the game and its level design. What we're left with in DNF is a series of unconnected, linear maps.
My other major (non-technical) complaint is actually a rather modest one. Vehicle sections. Yes, Half Life 2 had vehicle sections, and like HL2, DNF was smart enough to space them out and pepper them with actual gameplay on a regular basis, but that doesn't excuse them for being there. First Person Shooters are for Shooting Persons First and foremost. Vehicle sections are unnecessary, developer-intensive (you need a large environment for a vehicle section, and a unique set of controls/physics for it), repetitive, not engaging, and dull. There are explosions, there are ramps, and there are enemies to hit with your appropriately hyper-masculine monster truck, but if I'm playing Duke Nukem, it means I want to run around with a shotgun and paint the decor with skull fragments. That's it.
As a sort of counter-point, however, DNF keeps up the tradition of having a plethora of unnecessary, yet welcome touches. The game is unarguably about shooting aliens, but there's a lot of extras involved that are integrated very smoothly into the game. Paper airplanes, frisbees, a game of air-hockey, a cruel pinball machine, chairs you can spin, mirrors you can admire yourself with, vending machines you can buy drinks from, toilets you can piss in, microwaves you can cook popcorn in, dumbbells you can curl, flashlights you can flick on and off - there's a lot of interactive objects in the game that serve almost no purpose but remind you that you're just in it to dick around and have fun. And not a single one of them actually pulls you out of Duke; out of the game (unlike the vehicle sections). Much kudos to DNF for that.
The settings are also a step above the crud and sludge templates of other games. Many of the clichés are still there, don't get me wrong. There's a desert, there's a sewer, there's a factory/industrial setting, there's a construction yard. But there's also a lot of more intriguing locations, like a Burger joint, a football stadium, a (couple) strip joints/casinos. Hell, Duke 3D didn't have this much variety, so there are parts of the formula DNF has actually improved on. Not many games give you an opportunity to use jars of pickles on the condiment shelf in a restaurant as cover.
The core gameplay, while suffering from the previously mentioned modernization plague, is still strong on its own merits. Even with a shield system (which is at least humorously inventive) you won't find yourself spending half the game staring at a wall while your shield recovers. There's still the strafe-happy, shotgun to the face mentality of old-school FPS gaming in addition to the presence of more strategic gun-play, setting traps and making use of the environment to take advantage.
While true to its predecessor, the boss battles in DNF are dull. They're visually spectacular, but every single boss fight in that game is "shoot rockets until the big thing dies". For most of them, this is given a twist in some interesting way (the boss is only vulnerable when you bounce a pipebomb into its lap, you're underwater, you can only get ammo by killing enemies, etc) but they're still just "strafe and shoot rockets". Duke Nukem Forever contains (very obvious) inspiration/mimicry of the past decade and a half of FPS games, but they really ought to have stolen the boss formula from the Zelda series.
Ultimately, Duke Nukem Forever suffers from an identity crisis. It's a relic of a bygone age - something that is literally acknowledged in the game - but it hasn't forgotten where it comes from or what it's about - and that's senseless, idiotic fun. It's rare I pay more than 30 dollars for a game any more, but this was certainly worth the $45 dollar price tag.
Was Duke Nukem Forever worth the wait? What a stupid question. What's worth waiting 14 years for? That's not even a real argument for the game, anyway.
The bottom line: if you enjoy fun FPS games, you're bound to enjoy DNF. Just don't expect any sophistication from it.
Oh, and the load times suck. What the hell, Gearbox?
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