It’s been six years. SIX YEARS!
I reviewed Duke Nukem Forever back in 2011, when it came out. God, that feels like forever ago now. It’s probably old enough for us to revisit it and see if it was really as bad as everyone said it was. Back in 2011 I thought it was fairly good. It had its problems, but in terms of a Duke Nukem game it pretty much did what it said on the tin. But plenty of people decided the game was awful – it’s too linear, Duke is too immature/misogynistic, it’s graphically unimpressive, it isn’t the second coming, etc.
Truth is, DNF could never live up to the hype that surrounded the game. Even though the hype died off as the years went by, people were still, against all odds, expecting something incredible to come through. Everyone had forgotten that Duke Nukem 3D was just as juvenile and purile as DNF, except DNF was made in an era of better 3D rendering and a higher tolerance for sex and violence in video games. DNF, sort of like Rise of the Triad and its re-release in 2013, is basically an update of the classical 90s shooter aesthetics, except with the level design they always wanted to have back then.
For all the praise heaped on 90s FPS games (and Doom 2 is still my favourite game ever), the fact is that the ‘non-linear’ design isn’t worth all that much praise. Firstly, it’s still linear – backtracking is not non-linear level design, it’s just backtracking. Your progress is still carefully funneled down a predetermined path. Secondly, backtracking was essential – it made levels feel larger and longer without making them physically larger, an important consideration for the limited computing power of the day. But as storylines became more important and computer processing power increased, we’ve largely abandoned these backtracking designs (Doom 2016 is a notable exception, to a degree) – because Half Life pretty much killed them.
Anyway, the point I’m making is that ultimately DNF really is a true continuation of the Duke Nukem franchise, and if you’re thinking differently, you obviously don’t remember playing Duke Nukem 3D for the first time back in 1996.
What was good?
For the most part, the game itself plays fairly well. It’s got decent action sequences, the gunplay is fun, the enemies are varied and interesting to fight, and the environments are fun to fight through (for the most part). The classic interactivity from DN3D returned in full force – there were loads of things to play with in the game, and I missed quite a few during my first playthrough. Pop culture references were strewn through the maps, and John St John’s voice acting was on point during the entire thing. It just felt like a Duke Nukem game, with updates of the classic enemies I’d been blasting away since 1996. The later patch upgrading the weapon limit to 4 significantly improved the gameplay.
I don’t think that Duke Nukem is misogynistic nor does it promote harmful tropes. I think this argument as a whole in gaming is pretty piss weak – after all, we can’t claim that video games don’t indoctrinate us to love violence, and then claim that the same medium can indoctrinate us to hate women. I don’t think DNF is high brow or sophisticated gaming humour, but I don’t see why it has to be. It’s about a ridiculous roid-raging megastar who probably would have been an 80s gay icon blasting away aliens who invade for… well, to steal women for… something? Breeding? It doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. But it doesn’t have to.
If anything, I think DNF is borderline parody of macho-culture. It’s laughable, from top to bottom. Some cringe at the hero worship of Duke, but if you cringe you’re taking it too seriously. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, there’s nothing serious or poignant in the game. This isn’t fucking Gone Home… which probably has even less of a point than DNF when I think about it. I think the insane hero worship, steroid-augmented tank top protagonist, and stripper porn paints a fairly bleak picture of the future and a hilarious parody at the same time.
The main question I asked myself (when I played through it again) was: did I have fun? And… yeah, I did. There were times when I didn’t – usually during the boss battles – but the set pieces were fun, the environments were quite detailed and fun to explore, and in general killing Pig Cops was enjoyable. If a game is fun, I give it at least a pass – because that’s ultimately what matters.
What was bad?
DNF has some serious technical issues which are a direct product of development hell. By default, the game includes incredibly aggressive post processing effects that make the game look like absolute arse. Turning off film grain and post processing makes everything look much better. With both turned on, it looks like a mess. The backgrounds are blurred into an insensible mess, textures look muddy, and zooming with weapons effectively hinders your view. Turning them off makes it look like a brand new game.
Visually the game is pretty mixed though. Some texture work is great – at least on par with many other AAA shooters of the time that saw a multiplatform release – but every so often there’s a low resolution texture stuck in your face. The skyboxes suffer the most, which is probably why by default they’re blurred to shit. While the environments are detailed, sometimes that detail gets a little bit repetitive, particularly in larger spaces.
The initial weapon limit of 2 was a joke. The new weapons themselves, plus some of the changes to the classic weapons, weren’t great either. The Railgun adds pretty much nothing of value to the game, especially with its ridiculously low ammo limit. The RPG’s changes are slightly better (with its tracking rockets) but again, the low ammo limit means it’s effectively inferior to the Devestator in every way. A lot of these high end weapons actively discourage their use – they’re powerful and you want to use them, but you invariably don’t because you want to save them for when you end up against a tough target. Also, and this is a personal thing, I think reloading hurts the game a bit. It encourages too much cover-based gameplay.
On that topic, some parts of the game are sort of difficult, mostly because the enemies don’t like having you take cover. Pig Cops and Assault aliens actively work to keep you out of cover, and some enemies like Assault Captains basically negate cover entirely. In some battle arenas there’s no place to take a rest – which is fine, except for the fact that at some point the ammo runs out and you’ve got to reload, with nowhere to do it. The reloading mechanic is totally at odds with the rest of the combat.
Outside of that, I sort of feel like the game gets a little too long, and some of the jokes are a little too dragged out. Dylan, Duke’s sidekick in the EDF, feels like a totally random addition to the game. He’s not funny, he’s not interesting, and I don’t like him. He gets slightly better in the DLC, but otherwise he’s a pointless character.
I’d say probably not these days. If you’re a fan of the Duke Nukem franchise, then I suppose yeah, you owe it to yourself to get it (cheaply) and to have at least played it once. There are plenty of fans who either hate it or don’t know what to make of it, but as someone who has played all of the classic Dukes and remembers DN3D when it was first released, I can say that it definitely does feel like a modernised Duke game. Whether or not you can deal with that modernisation is up to you.
For my part, I definitely enjoyed it less the second time around – but that’s fairly normal, because it’s a very linear game that you’d maybe revisit once every 2 or so years. There’s limited replay value in it. The DLC was pretty good, but again – you play it once and then sort of forget about it. I don’t think it’s a bad game, and I remember when I played it at the time I really enjoyed it, but it’s definitely a product of its time, straight from Development Hell.
I think the world has been a bit harsh to DNF. It was never going to be an outstanding title, but I don’t think it deserves the hate it gets. It’s a competent shooter with an over the top protagonist. It isn’t trying to be smart, or edgy, or clever. It’s just a game that laughs at itself – but because of its heritage, descended from one of the Golden Era FPS games, nobody seems to give it that privilege. If you look for reasons to hate it, you’ll hate it.
Sadly, it’s probably our last outing with Duke. Hail to the king, baby.