By Eric Stuckart
Last month saw the reemergence of what some viewed as one of the most infamous mascots of the 90s first person shooter generation, Duke Nukem. Some viewed Duke Nukem Forever as the video game industry’s very own Chinese Democracy. The game took a decade and a half to finally get released, originally starting development in 1996, blowing through four different developers, some of which don’t even exist anymore, reportedly because of the amount of money sunk into the game.
But we’re not here to talk about the game’s history. You can find enough places on the web to find more than enough back history on it, from conspiracy theories to in-depth analysis on how it came into being. I’m here to discuss something altogether different, the actual experience. After reading countless game sites bashing the game, I felt that I needed to play the game, just to see how bad it really was. Hell, at the time of this writing, the 360 version’s score on Metacritic is at 49, which in and of itself isn’t a terrible score, relatively speaking. However, you have to consider the fact that the highest reported rating is only a 78, over at Digital Chumps and sites as noteworthy as 1up.com gave the game a score of 0.
I’m no masochist, but I’ve been known to take on games that are reportedly stinkers from time to time, sometimes just for laughs. My personal opinion is that the occasional bad game helps to broaden your views on the medium, thus making you a more well-rounded critic. Plus, it has the added benefit of helping you to appreciate good games much more when they come around. That doesn’t mean I’ll drop 60 bucks on new copy though, so it’s likely I’ll be renting it. So, as soon as I had some free time, which seemingly has been on short supply as of late, I rented Duke Nukem Forever from one of the Red Boxes that are just about everywhere in my neighborhood.
What I found wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. While the game isn’t something that I’d likely revisit, I felt that it was something akin to a bucket list item that I needed to check off sometime sooner than later. In some ways, I think that it was my duty as a games critic to experience it just because of the amount of publicity that the game has gotten over the years, not to mention its legendary vaporware status as one of the few games that no one ever thought would actually come out.
The game itself felt like what you’d expect from a title that started development when the original PlayStation was still in its relative infancy, albeit spiked from time to time with swaths of what could only be described more modern gaming elements. In some ways, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation video review of the game hit the nail on the head in the sense that you could see where different evolutionary states of first person shooters was injected into the game, utilizing what was contemporary at the time of the development period.
There’s three distinct sections of the game that reflect differing styles for the FPS genre. The game starts off with an opening that not only copies — note for note, mind you — the ending of Duke Nukem 3D, it also closely echoes the style of the mid 90s. During this section of the game, after a drawn out chapter that forces the player to wander around aimlessly through a hotel and interact with the horribly rendered NPCs, Duke finds that the returning aliens, gone for the last decade and change, are back to their old ways, kidnapping the women of Earth in order to reproduce once again. This plays out in a very outlandish, colorful way, where a good portion of the act involves Duke being shrunken and traveling around by remote-controlled car, trying to avoid being smashed by the now-gigantic aliens. This first third of the game goes into a more claustrophobic, dim midsection, reminiscent of shooters of the turn of the millennium, and the game finishes out with the brown, muddied art style of more recent, wasteland/desert-filled shooters, for the most part at least.
Despite the slightly evolving style, anyone that plays it won’t be able to avoid how dated it feels. One of the most obvious ways DNF hammers this home is by how little it holds the your hand throughout the campaign. There are parts of the game that are a complete pain in the ass to get through, because they require you to attempt to take cover —a more modern element — juxtaposed against Duke’s old-school “two-to-three-hits-and-you’re-dead” resilience. Combined with some of the game’s more questionable changes, such as the fact that Duke can only carry two guns at any given time, and the lacking health power-ups (when you’re in the thick of things, waiting for health to regenerate sucks), it makes for an interesting, but unbalanced and slightly frustrating experience.
At the end of the day though, I couldn’t help but think something in reference to the gaming community: what did you expect? Did you think that the millions of dollars that were sunk into this game were going to somehow magically make it better? Nothing that comes out after that many years in development hell will ever turn out looking good, let alone contemporary, unless all progress was scrapped and started completely from scratch. I know that they did this a few times as game tech improved, but there were more than enough ideas that were recycled into the final product that should have been left out of the game.
People were complaining about its graphics, that the gameplay was dated and that the humor kind of felt like it had passed its expiration date. Really? Should you really be shocked that a game that’s been worked on for fifteen years felt like it was the reanimated corpse of something from the mid 90s? No, you shouldn’t. If you played it and felt cheated or led on to believe that it would be some sort of heralded return of the king, you only have yourself to blame. You bet on Duke and lost.
Also, I’ve been hearing a lot about how much more offensive the game is now than it used to be. Do you honestly believe that? Personally, I think that a lot of it has to do more with the fact that the people that played Duke 3D were much younger, and most likely forgot about how offensive and raunchy that game was in the first place. Let’s be honest here. I’m 28 now. I was 13 when Duke Nukem 3D was released, and I guarantee you that I thought a lot of things were pretty awesome back then that kind of suck in retrospect. I remember hearing about the game when I was in middle school and while I never got around to playing it til much later, the only thing that the kids I knew said about it was that it was awesome because it was just like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, except there were strippers that showed their boobs. Being a typical nerdy 13 year old, that was all it took to be awesome in my book. Looking at it now, not too many of those games have aged particularly well, with the sole exceptions for me being Doom, Doom 2, and Heretic, which is probably only because of the amount of time I spent playing them. Had I not gotten so into them back then, I’d probably think that they look like old, mid-90s games from the dark ages as well.
We’ve all grown up a lot since then, and while some of us embrace the stupid things that we liked as kids, some of us have grown beyond that. And that’s completely normal. Hell, some of us have even managed to grow up and just shrug it off as us liking it because we were young and stupid, not thinking twice about it. Everyone’s different, but with that growth (or lack thereof), there’s bound to be differing opinions on what is going too far and what isn’t. In my opinion, I didn’t see anything in Duke Nukem Forever that was any worse than the older games. He’s still just as much of a pop culture referencing idiot that can only seem to solve things with violence. The game did have a few more suggestive, adult-oriented scenes in it, but this is an M rated game. I hate to fall back on that sort of retort to excuse a game’s content, but there’s a lot of games out there that kids shouldn’t be playing, and this is definitely one of them.
I suppose that it could be argued that the presence of the scripted NPCs makes them seem like they embrace Duke when they should be appalled by him and his behavior, but that would be counterproductive to what the developers — apparently all four of ‘em — were going for, which was to have a world in which the idiot savant who saved them from total annihilation is coasting by on his past exploits, only to have to be called back into action. With the plot being as paper thin as it is — we are talking about what inadvertently became a retro first person shooter here — did you really need more? This is a Duke Nukem game, who the hell needs a story? Morals? Psh! Logic and reasoning? Leave that to the thinking man’s games!
On top of that, you could also see the game’s “offensive” humor and stance as being a byproduct of what has happened in entertainment media as a whole. Just take a look at the way movies are rated now, as opposed to the way that they were 20 to 30 years ago. The things that were considered offensive back then don’t even make people flinch by today’s standards. The same thing could be said in reference to music and every other form of entertainment. That being said, it is a double edged sword, in the sense that as a culture we are becoming much more desensitized, but in order to stay edgy, that envelope has to constantly be pushed. Whether you like it or not, that’s a fact. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that the creative minds behind certain themes and happenings in DNF were very likely to view certain questionable elements of Duke 3D as quaint, thus needing to be more extreme.
In my honest opinion, Duke Nukem Forever failed because it is a mediocre shooter when it could have been much more, but I don’t think anyone could have saved it. If I had to give the single player campaign a score (I didn’t even bother with the multiplayer), it’d probably sit around a 5 or 5.5/10. Compared to other things I’ve played, I can only assume that the reason it got as much hate as it did was because it had the Duke Nukem name attached to it, not to mention years upon years of hype and expectations. I’ve played some truly bad, infuriating, controller smashing shooters in my time — The Conduit and Darkest of Days clearly come to mind — and this one isn’t nearly that bad. Like I said, it won’t be winning any awards praising its mechanics, graphics or level design, nor should it, but was that really Gearbox’s point when they finally rolled up their sleeves and finished what needed to be done? I don’t think so. If anything, they just wanted to see the project through so that people could shut the fuck up about it already. Maybe it shouldn’t have ever come out, but they felt otherwise, and they were probably happy to finally write the final chapter in the long, bloated history books for this game.
All images from thebuzzmedia.com, except book signing image, from newbreview.com.