There’s a scene in Demolition Man when Sylvester Stallone is first woken up after being cryogenically frozen for three decades and has absolutely no idea how to behave or what is acceptable in this technologically advanced, modern world. That’s the scene I kept picturing throughout Duke Nukem Forever, continually lamenting the lack of a plucky young Sandra Bullock to keep him in check and teach him how to behave.
Duke Nukem Forever is a throwback to a period of gaming history that many have largely forgotten – a time before regenerating health bars or cover systems or gravity guns. Duke himself is the kind of iconic character who rose to stardom on the grounds that he had a name and a voice and a personality, rather than being just another anonymous husk for players to move around. The fact he was a misogynistic, egotistical dick was, at the time, irrelevant.
The video game industry has matured since then. Unfortunately, Duke hasn’t.
Frankly, I don’t care how long Duke Nukem Forever’s development cycle was. I’m not interested in how many publishers or developers had their hands on it, or whether or not the console versions are ports of a vastly superior PC edition – I just don’t care. All that stuff is irrelevant. What matters is that Gearbox Software has delivered us a game that is uninspired, broken and offensive, hiding behind the ridiculous idea that “this is just what old-school shooters were like”.
This isn’t what old-school shooters were like. Duke Nukem 3D was a great, seminal game. Discrediting the franchise as a whole just because it’s crass and offensive doesn’t cut it, and if you consider yourself any kind of FPS fan at all, if you’re interested in the history and evolution of video games in general, you cannot deny what Duke 3D did for the medium. South Park is crass and offensive too, but it’s still successful because it’s funny and well-made, belying a deeper intelligence than is presented on the surface. The same goes for Duke 3D. Duke Nukem Forever believes it can get by on the merits of the character and the series alone, without showing us any of the imagination or ambition that made its predecessor the game it was, and in many ways still is. In this modern age of video gaming, in such a competitive market, it can’t afford to believe that.
I mentioned that Duke Nukem Forever is offensive, and it really is – yes, because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and yes, because it’s littered with homophobia and references to shady topics like abortion and rape. Would I overlook these things if the game itself was astounding? Probably, yeah. I have that liberty because I’m not the butt of the joke, though I respect anyone’s decision to avoid and discredit the game based on those issues. For me, Duke Nukem Forever is mainly offensive because it’s just a bad game.
Early in the campaign, some soldiers from the EDF offer Duke a suit of power armour that strongly resembles the one worn by Master Chief in the Halo series. “Power armour is for pussies”, Duke exclaims, despite the fact that he has a regenerating health bar; a feature that was popularised by the very game he is undermining. Duke Nukem Forever is littered with contradictions like this, and the constant acerbic sniping is tiresome. One cannot escape the fact that much of this game’s design embraces modern genre conventions – such as only being able to carry two weapons at a time – but then proceeds to act like it is above such tropes. This isn’t genre parody, as many are claiming – it’s simply pointing at something and saying “Look! Look what I’m pointing at!”
The truth is I really want a new FPS that exudes the kind of over-the-top mentality which made the genre popular in the first place. People quickly forget that shooters are popular because shooting things is fun, and there’s nothing wrong with the Serious Sam model – the kind of game where you can carry three times your body weight in insane weaponry and circle strafe and rocket jump and shit. I want to see the kind of weapons we saw in the Turok games on Nintendo 64, things with alternate-fire modes that create mini nuclear explosions. Imagine a Turok game – no, not that one – on modern hardware. That would be great.
But I digress. Duke Nukem Forever is a stale, boring first person shooter which borrows heavily from the butt of its own jokes. Its mechanics contradict its attitude at every turn, but I suppose contradicting itself is the one thing that Duke Nukem Forever really is good at. I respect Randy Pitchford and his team for seeing this project through after such a disastrous development period, but it’s such a misguided, controversy-baiting attempt at fan service that I can’t have any respect for the game itself.
I will say this for it, though – being able to interact with the environment down to excruciatingly mundane detail is something I very much appreciate. I want to be able to drink from taps, use the urinals, play pinball and lift weights. These things are a part of Duke’s world, and being rewarded for experimenting with them is a great idea. I wish more video games did this. I also wish it didn’t take playing through Duke Nukem Forever for me to think of it.