Despite only being in existence for 30 years, the videogame industry has a rich tapestry. Although it hasn’t permeated the mainstream consciousness to the degree some would like, it can’t be denied that gaming has successfully cemented itself into the journals of history. One quaint departure is the tome labelled “myth and folklore”. Etched in frantic scrawls are the rumours that it is possible to jump over the flagpole in Super Mario Bros, the millions of E.T Atari game cartridges buried in the desert and that Aeris can be revived in Final Fantasy VII. (She can, damn you!)
Another legend that will go down in e-history is that of Duke Nukem Forever. In development for a staggering 12 years and having more developers than Harvey Price has chromosomes, it seemed almost certain that DNF would never see the cold light of 2011. And yet… Here it is, I have played and completed it. Part of me is disappointed; I have lost a most entertaining source of gaming example and hyperbole. No more can I lazily use DNF as a yardstick for any game that could be vapourware. Rubbing my eyes in disbelief I double-clicked the radioactive symbol on my desktop.
With the first level thrusting its junk in my face I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. As a 15 year old boy I idolised Duke, his witty one-liners were repeated in many a playground corner. Yet in the most disconcerting way I felt I had seen through Duke Nukem Forever in a second: the brutish behaviour, adolescent quips and vile use of language falling on my deaf ears, I suddenly felt very mature and sullied. Perhaps I should’ve let sleeping Dukes lie and cherished my hilarious memories of a time perhaps fondly forgotten. With objective hindsight I can now see this as merely the intro level, this was the tech demo released almost a year ago, this was the exaggerated image of Duke that new developers Gearbox would like to project to let the public know there were signs of life. So after flinging a turd around for a little while and doodling giant phalluses on a whiteboard it was time for the game to begin proper.
Despite the weak opening DNF quickly asserted itself as a proper title, not an over-turned caravan in the hard shoulder to rubber-neck at. Whether it was in 3D Realms original plans or not, the puzzle-platforming aspect of Duke Nuken 3D is very much front and centre. It seems the only constant in DNF is change, whether to keep those with a short attention span engaged or as a showcase of the Duke Nukem IP, the boat has really been pushed out to keep the player guessing. By using a host of very different mechanics from driving vehicles, navigating the world as a shrunken Duke, teetering on a thin ledge of a skyscraper or deep in the organic bowels of an alien base you can be sure that you’ll never find a section of the game stale. The scripting of DNF is up to standard, only one of these wildly different types of gameplay seemed crowbarred in. After getting a bump on the noggin The Duke finds himself in a stripclub and you are tasked with finding certain items before you can enter the VIP lounge. With no weapons or threat of attack you have to dig around the seedy underbelly of Duke’s Pleasuredome to gather the “adult” bits.
Speaking of those adult bits it is surely time to consider the most fondly remembered part of Duke Nukem 3D. Although I felt 10ft tall at the time for shouting out the ass-kicking catchphrases, it turns out The Duke is a bit of a sexist, naughty monkey. I can safely say Duke hasn’t taken up crochet or got in touch with his sensitive side. If anything, the positive feedback loop from those around him has made his outlook even more polarising. At times the world in which Duke lives seems at odds with itself. At times Dukes misogynistic behaviour will attract knowing sideways glances from NPCs, mirroring the 2011 audience’s likely reaction to a living relic, yet in the next breath everyone is ready to bow before you. This combined with set NPC routes and reactions can make the game world feel a little stilted and empty, definitely a remnant of times gone by. Apart from this setback though, the humour has moved with the times with hundreds of internet-culture references sitting happily with quotes from Robocop. It seems like a mini-game in itself to remember exactly where the left-field quips originate.
With a singleplayer campaign clocking in at around 8-10 hours set into tidy standalone levels, DNF is long enough to justify its existence, the constantly changing settings enhance the feeling of value. When you’ve finished saving the world you can hop onto the online multiplayer. With eight different modes taking place on 10 diversely designed maps, DNF is never going to challenge the Call of Dutys or Battlefields of the world. With the same quirky weapons as singleplayer though, it seems the multiplayer is geared more towards enjoyment than a balanced, competitive scene. For example if a certain pest is raining down fire with their jetpack on, nothing is quite as funny as shooting them with the freezing ray and watch them shatter on the ground a la Terminator 2. Likewise an enemy flag carrier can be easily dispatched using the shrink ray, they may still have the babe-shaped flag but they are only 6 inches tall and can be squished like a bug. There is also a persistent character progression system where you can unlock features in “My Pad”, Duke’s own mansion where classic moments from the earlier games are forever immortalised in statue form, or perhaps a pig-cop rug or a maybe just a pool table. These unlocks are for aesthetic reasons only, they will not translate into any bonus ingame.
Perhaps I have read too much into this title and Gearbox’s plans, but I genuinely believe DNF is a very clever game. By using its own bro-home mentality as a disarming ploy it casts many of the established gaming conventions into very sharp relief, and find many others wanting. With a varied single-player experience and serviceable multi-player, DNF has far exceeded my expectations in every department. Considering my expectations were very low in the first place makes this a very hard game to meter, however after many days consideration I feel entirely justified in the score below. For those not wooed by numbers know this: If you play DNF in the mindset of an enlightened 2011 person, you will likely feel disappointed and slightly offended. However if you let down those social trappings and just ride the roller-coaster with The Duke, you’ll be guffawing till the cows come home in a somewhat mixed experience. I can’t recommend that you go out and purchase this game full price, but as a rental or maybe a future MLG Game of the Month choice, it is an experience you shouldn’t entirely pass by.
Additional note: I’ve since seen the console version of DNF, it is true the load times are somewhat excessive, especially as death will result in the same load time as changing the level. I didn’t come across these issues on the PC.
MLG Rating: 6.5/10
Platform: PC/PS3/Xbox360 Release Date: 10/06/2011
Disclaimer: A digital version of Duke Nukem Forever was purchased by the reviewer and played over the course of a week on a high-end gaming PC. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.