At one point in time, George Broussard's coy appeals to perfectionism carried the same kind of weight as Gabe Newell's. His recent track record was strong and his starry-eyed talk of his big plans for the future were exciting, even if the wait seemed unbearable. But when a five-year cycle turns to ten and there's still no end in sight, no one can believe ambition is to blame. Duke Nukem Forever has become a joke, embodying all of the industry's hype and false promises, practically synonymous with a failure to deliver. The release of the game as a complete, playable retail title seems practically surreal, and the fact that many are treating it like punchline after a long setup seems almost irrelevant. Good or bad, after fourteen long years of watching and wondering, Duke Nukem Forever deserves a look.
It is, as you would expect, a troubled game, but it isn't a bad one. It isn't that the developers, 3D Realms, didn't know how to make a game, but for more than a decade they developed Duke Nukem Forever without a solid design document, picking away at an ever-changing hodgepodge of ideas that would change every time another game caught their eye. The end result is three generations of game design attempting to coexist in one body. This is not the game it was in 1999, but unlike Human Head's takeover of Prey, this is still the real Duke Nukem Forever, with bits and pieces dating back a decade alongside new-school conventions. Had it ever settled on a single, clear vision of what it wanted to be, it would doubtlessly have been a stronger game.
Had Duke Nukem Forever ever settled on a single, clear vision of what it wanted to be, it would doubtlessly have been a stronger game.
It might be easy to forget, now that we take its innovations for granted, but Duke Nukem 3D brought more to the genre than just some foul-mouthed one-liners. It was, along with the less-remembered TekWar, among the first to push the post-Doom FPS genre into more realistic real-world environments, and it raised the bar for environmental interactivity, allowing Duke to flip on light switches, proposition hookers, and even demolish whole buildings. Both the bold strokes and the fine brush details helped make Duke's world more real than the quasi-abstract mazes of Doom and Quake.
3D Realms has tried to play this up even further for the sequel. In Duke Nukem Forever you're rewarded with a life-bar extension when you discover something cool or Duke-like to do. These range from smoking cigars or ogling women to playing fully-formed games like pinball or air hockey. This is a great way to carry the tradition, and I'm glad to see it included, but it's hard not to recognize the way that this has lost its novelty value. Being able to flip through a calendar on the wall may not be a common detail in first-person shooters, but it certainly isn't impressive in 2011 like it was in 1996.
Many often forget that Duke Nukem began life as a platformer, and many further fail to realize just how big of an impact that had on Duke 3D. Unlike most first-person shooters on the market, the jump button was a huge part of how Duke explored his environment. It's refreshing, if a bit jarring, to see that 3D Realms has continued this tradition. The jump button has not only survived but is used to reach new areas and even navigate some unapologetically old-school platforming sequences. These might seem out of place to younger gamers, and they're sure to frustrate at times, but I, for one, am glad they kept them in, because they're an important part of the franchise.
But Duke Nukem Forever was never meant as a throwback, and the developers run into progressively more trouble as they try to modernize the game, incorporating features from groundbreaking competitors over the last decade and a half. Around the same time as Duke 3D, Terminator: Future Shock boasted a number of breakthrough features in the modern FPS genre, including nicely integrated vehicles. When Forever was first unveiled, the use of vehicles was still an exciting prospect. Now, it's such a tired concept that the long, showy driving sequences seem like pointless distractions. Once again, the designers just missed their moment to impress.
You can almost see a timeline of first-person shooters as you play through Duke Nukem Forever. Half-Life 2 was clearly the impetus for one of the game's most substantial overhauls. Duke's shooting sequences are interspersed with tons of environmental physics puzzles. This is a welcome effort, but most of the actual puzzles are pretty inane, forcing Duke to push something over and jump on it, or place some weighted objects on one end of a lever. Not only are these puzzles dated, they're just not that challenging or interesting, and the mere presence of physics is not enough to redeem them.
But where Duke Nukem Forever gets into the most trouble is not the ways in which it's dated, but the ways in which it has been modernized. Like most modern shooters, it boasts a regenerating health system, but the rest of the game doesn't seem to have been designed around it. Regenerating health means falling back for cover and proceeding carefully, but the stages here often don't have much cover, and the enemies don't fight in a way that lends themselves to a cover shooter. Berserk Pigcops rush you at high speeds, and many enemies fire slow-moving projectiles that are best handled with good old-fashioned circle-strafing.
Just as troubling is the decision to limit players to only two weapons at once. This Halo-inspired convention has always existed more as a concession to console controllers, but has been widely adopted by most games in the genre. It's never been a great choice, forcing players to anticipate what enemies they're going to fight before they fight them, but it also works against one of Duke's real strong points: its arsenal. Most of the old weapons you love have returned, including the Shrink Ray and Freeze Ray, but you won't get as many chances to use them because you'll need to free up slots for guns with more common ammo.
For all its faults, it's not as if Duke Nukem Forever is a generic or boring game. In fact, there's a lot to like here. There's a lot of variety, both visual and gameplay, between the many stages, at least until it devolves into gray, industrial filler toward the very end. The wild Alice in Wonderland shrinking and expanding antics are genuinely novel. If its designers focused more on what makes their game different and less on keeping up with every other game in the genre, they might have come up with something great.
I was a high school junior when Duke Nukem Forever was announced. I'm 30 now, and Duke's once-hilarious macho personal barely elicits a chuckle from me. Nostalgia be damned, it's time for Duke to find a new generation of 16-year-olds. Duke just isn't a character who can grow up. But Duke Nukem Forever isn't going to be that game. In trying to be everything to everyone, 3D Realms has alienated too many on both sides of the fence. A lot of time and talent went into this game, and it certainly has its moments, but the one thing it always lacked was a clear, defined vision for what it would become, and without that, it simply couldn't hit its mark. For anyone that patiently waited and followed for all these decades, Duke Nukem Forever is certainly worth playing, but it could have been so much more had its developers been willing to settle for a bit less and stick with it.