Duke Nukem Forever almost doesn’t need a review, just a flowchart. Fourteen years of development has resulted in a scruffy, scrappy mongrel of a game which, in a lot of ways, should have been put down permanently several years ago. The graphics and gameplay are horrifically dated, portions defy belief for all the wrong reasons, and the whole thing has a weird late-90s feel to it, like it belongs to a world before Half-Life 2, Call of Duty and Halo transformed the FPS. Should you buy it? Well, if you never played Duke Nukem 3D, no. If you did play it, but have zero affection for the character, steer clear. Planning to play it on a console? Don’t bother. The substandard graphics, poor controls and painfully protracted loading times will spoil all the fun.
If, however, you’re going to play the game as its creators originally intended - on PC, with a mouse and keyboard - then read on. Followed the whole sorry saga since the beginning? Then playing Duke Nukem Forever is almost a historical necessity. Got a little nostalgia left for the Duke? Trust your instincts, and you won’t go away unrewarded. Yes, Duke Nukem Forever is a mongrel, but like a lot of mongrels it’s got charm.
That doesn’t mean that it’s been worth the wait, or that it can actually be described as good. Even on the PC the graphics look dated, with the kind of flat architecture, ropey textures and primitive effects and lighting that were cutting edge back in 2001, but don’t look quite so good 10 long years later. The physics engine, on those rare occasions when it’s called into play, is laughable, and the enemy AI is woeful. Some people have suggested that Duke Nukem Forever’s problem is that it doesn’t feel retro enough - it should be closer to Serious Sam HD or Doom. In fact, it feels like a game of its time; that time being around 2000-2001 when No-One Lives Forever, Aliens vs Predator 2 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein hit the streets.
The surprising thing is that this dated style of gameplay holds up surprisingly well. If you wasted the years between 1995 and 2002 running sideways around dumb enemies while pumping the left-mouse button for all you’re worth, playing Duke Nukem Forever is a bit like getting back on an old bike. The old weapons - with some minor new additions - are as satisfying as you might remember them (particularly the trip-mines and the pipe bombs). The old baddies - the pig cops, the jetpacked alien commandos, the fireball-throwing octopoids - behave exactly as you’d expect them to, with minimal sophistication or finesse. And while it’s all very predictable, with few impressive set pieces and little in the way of orchestration, it’s actually kind-of fun. Even the boss battles feel like a blast from the past. They’re not trying to be epic or portentous. “Here’s something big and ugly” is the message. “Dodge its attacks, fire rockets and blow it up.”
Plus, there are some nice ideas thrown in there - albeit ideas that aren’t quite as revolutionary in 2011 as they might have seemed had the game shipped before the millennium rolled around. Levels featuring a miniature Duke in a remote-controlled car outstay their welcome, but until that point are fun, and the trampoline structures in an alien hive give the game a weird Sonic the Hedgehog ambiance. There’s also much to like about some monster truck racing and miniaturised sneaking later on. Puzzles, when they come, are a bit of a chore, and incongruous decisions to adopt a modern recharging health system, checkpoint-only saves and just two weapon slots cause irritation, but not to the point where you feel like giving up.
Most importantly, Duke Nukem Forever still looks, feels and sounds like Duke Nukem. It’s crass, sexist, deeply adolescent and dumb, and no longer relevant to anything in current popular culture or even games culture. It’s also dated, offensive and mildly embarrassing (and when the strippers get dragged out for the umpteenth time, you can take away the “mildly”). The fact is that many people simply won’t get the joke - and there’s not really an awful lot of joke to get. Yet, as the Duke wanders around, blasting aliens while spewing out gratuitous and frequently scatological one-liners, it’s hard not to crack the odd smile and even (the shame) the odd chuckle. Duke Nukem might be a ridiculous, misogynist, anachronistic dinosaur, but he’s got personality. Can you say the same about the heroes of Halo: Reach or Modern Warfare 2?
All of the above also applies to the multiplayer. We’re back to the dark ages of deathmatch and capture the flag, with poorly-balanced weapon sets, simple maps and quickfire carnage, with thin experience and rewards systems balanced on top, yet it’s still oddly enjoyable in an “I know it’s bad, but…” kind of way. The nostalgia won’t last and you’ll soon be back playing something better, but for a couple of matches things feel just as good as they did back when Oasis, Pulp and Blur ruled the charts. It’s like the last 12 years never happened.
The reality of Duke Nukem Forever could never match the legend, and this bizarre, broken dinosaur of a game won’t match anyone’s idea of brilliance. Bulletstorm has it outclassed as a big, brash retro-flavoured shooter, and anyone who didn’t play Duke Nukem 3D will come away feeling nothing beyond dismay, disappointment and contempt. Yet, while all that holds true, it’s weirdly compulsive and entertaining, particularly if you knew and loved the Duke back in the day. We can’t recommend that you run out and buy it, but if you feel a little bit tempted, well, come get some.