Before Duke Nukem Forever finally released, I went out on a limb and said I’d buy it regardless of the reviews. I’ve now beaten it and suffered through numerous multiplayer matches, and I feel enough time has passed that I’ve digested the game and am ready to share my thoughts on it. Put simply, it’s a bad game, but it’s not quite as bad as critics would lead you to believe. The reviews were negative to the point of grandstanding, and there were widely cited flaws with which I disagree.
The game has obvious problems, and on many points, I can’t argue with the critics. The tech (specifically the graphics and enemy A.I.) is embarrassingly dated. The interactivity is not as deep as advertised, and the mini-games are garbage. The load times are frequent and ridiculous. The multiplayer is downright abysmal, a limp, laggy, tacked-on afterthought with poor mechanics. As Charles Onyett stated in his review, it just feels old. As a joke, I played it throughout the recording of an entire podcast, and there was not an ounce of fun had in the whole two hours. The game is uncomfortably misogynistic. It also inexplicably adopts modern shooter conventions that it didn’t need to, and in one instance, it hurts the game. I can live with the regenerating “ego meter,” but was there any reason to only allow Duke to carry two weapons at a time? It’s a step back from the full arsenal of weapons you could cycle through in Duke Nukem 3D that hinders the freedom (and fun) of the combat. A simple weapon wheel is all the innovation that was needed. The underwater level near the end also kind of sucked. But that’s probably where my agreement with the critics ends. I think IGN’s score of 5.5 is fair and accurate, although I had more fun with the campaign than that score suggests.
One of the strangest complaints is that the game mocks other (better) games while simultaneously copying those games’ mechanics. I don’t think Duke Nukem Forever should have copied Halo’s two-weapon limit, but I don’t see any inherent problem with copying Halo and poking a little fun at the series. I honestly think critics misread that humor/parody as disdain for games like Halo and Half Life when it was clearly meant as loving homage. After all, if the jokes were meant to be serious jabs at other series, why would the game use the mechanics it is mocking? The “power armor is for pussies” line gave me one of the biggest smiles in the whole game. I also enjoyed when Duke said, “I hate valve puzzles,” and it didn’t confuse or insult me when I was forced to do a simple valve puzzle afterward. I don’t know why it bothers me so much that critics missed the point of these jokes, but it’s probably because it seems so obvious to me that they weren’t meant to be serious. Condescendingly pointing out that the game borrows from the games it mocks is less clever than most of the humor in the game, and that’s saying a lot.
I will agree that Duke would work better if the humor was still crude but more self-conscious. It would be great if Duke was presented as a sad relic of a forgotten time instead of this alpha male we’re supposed to think is cool. It would be much funnier if only Duke thought he was cool. The developers could get away with just as much raunchy humor, but it would work better. And please, there could still be “babes,” but tone down the misogyny.
More troubling than the misread homage, the majority of critics attacked the game for having variety and not being a straightforward shooter. They argued that Duke should be all about shooting and blowing stuff up. This is the same kind of false, fuzzy nostalgia that plagues the Sonic the Hedgehog series when people say things like, “Sonic is supposed to be all about speed!” Go back and play the Genesis Sonics; speed was a major factor, but there were also breaks in the speed with more traditional platforming and clever level design. Go back and play Duke Nukem 3D. It was a cutting-edge parody of the best shooters of its time, such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Yes, you shot stuff, but the levels were also sprawling mazes with secrets, dead-ends, and keys all over the place. It was just as much about exploring as it was shooting. Duke Nukem Forever is a decent parody of the best shooters of its time. It just arrived 10 years too late. Its time was 2001, but I kind of miss how shooters weren’t always so streamlined and focused shooting galleries back then.
Critics smugly pointed out that half the game was filled with all these elements you don’t see often in modern shooters because they just don’t work all that well. Really? I love the non-shooting portions of the game. For me, they were the most interesting and enjoyable parts of it. There are enough shooters out there without them. Don’t take away my driving, platforming, and physics puzzles. Critics didn’t necessarily knock these elements for being poorly done; they knocked them for existing at all. If there is another Half Life, will they bash it for having physics puzzles? If there is another Metroid Prime, will they once again claim that platforming doesn’t work in first-person shooters? Will Rage lose points for featuring prominent driving segments, including a vehicle-based multiplayer? I doubt it, but it would be consistent with how they bashed Duke Nukem Forever for straying from the Call of Duty mold. The driving, platforming, and puzzles made Duke Nukem Forever a throwback rarity. It made the game worth playing, at least for me. There is a level titled “Duke Burger,” in which you platform around a fast food restaurant as a miniaturized Duke, and for my time and money, it was easily the most satisfying level in the game. I’d like to see more levels like that in a sequel. Anything but a straightforward run-and-gun shooter; I have plenty of options for that.
People who thought the game would be great are crazy. Assuming it would be great because it spent more than a decade in development is as foolish as thinking a movie will be better for length. I expected to Duke Nukem Forever to be flawed and dated, but some of its perceived flaws I found to be strengths. If you think you might enjoy it despite its flaws, it is worth playing. If your curiosity is gnawing at you, it’s worth playing as a fascinating study of what can happen to a game in development hell.
Critics not only lobbed strange, lazy complaints against the game, but they attacked it for daring to be anything but a standard shooter in an increasingly crowded standard shooter market. Given the chance, I bet some of these critics could make a more technically-sound game, but I doubt it would be as varied, or interesting.