Version tested: Xbox 360
Randy Pitchford is thinking of me. "I would not want to be a journalist on this one," the Gearbox studio boss told Mr Minkley in our Duke Nukem Forever launch day interview. "I would not want to be a critic. It's going to be tough."
His concern, presumably, is that Duke Nukem Forever is such a monumental event, such a literally game-changing, epoch-shaking moment, that the pressure to accommodate its many facets in a single review - to boil down 14 years of expectation into a fair critical summary - is too terrible a burden for any writer to bear. Duke Nukem Forever! It's here! How can things ever be the same again?
I certainly felt that pressure. Do you let the game's famously troubled gestation - which looked like it would never come to term, until Gearbox stepped in at the eleventh hour - affect the score? Do you try to filter its off-colour humour through a modern lens, or accept the adolescent scatology as part of the Duke experience? Do you review for middle-aged fans from 1996, when Duke last appeared in a first-person shooter, or do you review for a generation of gamers that was still in infant school when our flat-top hero first asked pixellated strippers to "Shake it, baby"? So much to consider. Randy's right. It's going to be tough.
Except, with joypad in hand, reviewing Duke Nukem Forever actually proves incredibly simple. Everything else becomes a sideshow when the main event is so obviously, heart-breakingly disappointing on almost every level. The toughest part is deciding where to begin.
The visuals that jump out at you first. This is an ugly game, committing practically every graphical sin imaginable. Textures are crude and blurry when they bother to load in at all. Jagged edges turn every diagonal into ziggurat steps while the frame rate chugs up and down. Lumpen and stuttering, Forever does not look like a game that has benefited from millions of hours of development time.
[Please note that we reviewed the game on Xbox 360, but Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter informs us that the PC version plays much better. "It's a complete mess on 360 - sub-HD resolutions, hugely obtrusive screen-tear, terrible aliasing, low frame rate," he says. "All of these things can be remedied by playing the game on PC. It doesn't transform it into a good game, but it makes it much easier on the eye and certainly smoother, far more responsive and thus more enjoyable to play." Look out for Rich's full Duke Nukem Forever Face-Off very soon. -Ed.]
It's the gameplay that's important, of course, but beneath the glitchy surface things aren't much better. Aiming is jerky and imprecise, even after tinkering with the sensitivity. Movement is heavy and sticky, frequently leaving you snagged on scenery or bumping up against invisible walls. Both jumping and running feel sluggish, with Duke's grunts suggesting that he probably should have put some more gym time in before his big comeback.
The physics is spotty at best. This is most obvious when you try some of the environmental interactions scattered throughout the game. Pinball tables offer perhaps the worst ball physics in living memory. Basketball hoops repel balls with forcefields apparently six inches away from the net. There's an air hockey game with such skittish animation that you'd swear it was a Flash file being streamed over a dial-up modem.
Level design isn't much better, with few of the locations inspiring the sort of exploration and excitement that made Duke 3D such a memorable experience. Duke Nukem Forever is linear to a fault, and huge chunks of the game are spent simply walking from one fight to another through uninspired corridors.
Most alarmingly, all the weapons are repeated from 1996, and there are no new enemy types either. While old favourites like the shrink ray and the devastator are still satisfying to use, it beggars belief that of all the hundreds of people involved in this game over the years, nobody could come up with a single idea for a new gun or enemy.
The difficulty level, too, holds things back. The FPS genre has changed considerably while this game was in production, and the plastic surgery scars where the circle-strafing fragfest of old has been augmented to more closely resemble today's shooters are plain to see.
Even on normal difficulty, enemies hit hard and are often able to kill you in a few seconds. It's a game that demands nimble movement and heavy firepower, yet the bulging weapon inventory of old has been replaced by a Halo-style two-weapon limit, often leaving you without the right tool for the job.
Duke's health recharges rather than relying on health packs, a concession to the unbalanced damage, yet this in turn demands a shoot-and-hide approach to combat that turns the game into a cover-shooter without a workable cover system. Duke's style all but demands a hell-for-leather approach, yet you're continually penalised for indulging in that aspect of the character. Instead, you lurk and scurry and backpedal away from every encounter.
Boss battles are particularly egregious, cramming you into restrictively narrow strips of gameplay real estate and then spamming you with enemies and rockets until you squeak through on sheer luck, or find a lucky spot where enemy fire mysteriously fails to hit you.
The game is disturbingly in love with first-person platform jumping, and many of the most annoying sections revolve not around shooting enemies but leaping from pipes and boxes, unsure as to where Duke's invisible body is. There are lengthy, clumsy underwater sequences that make Lara's aquatic excursions seem like the pinnacle of game design. Whether you fall into electrified water, off the edge of a rotating cog or simply run out of air while trying to wriggle Duke through a submerged doorway, the fact that loading times run anywhere from 30 seconds to a full minute makes every unfair death sting even more.
Despite the legendary length of time it has spent in production, Duke Nukem Forever feels terminally unpolished and often unfinished in too many key disciplines to be given a passing grade. When the best new idea on display is running over enemies with a forklift truck, something has gone horribly wrong.
There are some glimmers of the old magic. Instead of a shield, Duke has his ego, which can be permanently enhanced by doing Duke-style things. Pick up a dumbbell and do some bicep curves? You get more ego. Use a PC to look at girly pics? More ego. Admire yourself in a mirror? You get the gist. It's a neat gag, and the idea of someone like Duke literally using his arrogant self-belief as a shield suggests more satirical wit than the rest of the game delivers.
Some gameplay sections also come close to recapturing the simple charms of 1996. A sequence which sees Duke rampaging across desert highways in a monster truck, stopping off at alien-infested ghost towns and gold mines to refuel, maintains a decent rhythm and is a lot of fun. A section where a miniaturised Duke navigates a kitchen by clambering along shelves, hiding behind jars of mayo and leaping over a hot grill on burger bun trampolines is conceptually clever, if blighted by the game's bizarre fascination with first-person jumping.
These are fleeting moments, however, and taken as a whole, Duke Nukem Forever has little hope of ever coming close to the current shooter benchmarks. Even at its best, the game falls far short of its peers and often fails to improve on its now-ancient (yet still brilliant) ancestor.
Multiplayer, an area where a modern Duke game should easily outstrip its past, is poorly handled. Potentially decent maps are ruined by laggy, jerky gameplay and the brazen lack of fresh ideas - deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill - means there's no reason to waste your online time for more than one match.
Despite failing so badly in so many areas, Duke keeps quipping away, masking the gaping holes in his gameplay with lunk-headed bon mots and politically incorrect prattle. That's what he's always done, of course, but the world has moved on and Duke's relevance has dimmed.
In 1996, Stallone and Schwarzenegger were on the wane, so Duke's beefcake eighties action movie clichés carried some satirical weight. In 2011, he's a parody of something that no longer exists, the gaming equivalent of an embarrassing uncle who still says "Whaaaaassup?" and pretends to breakdance at wedding receptions.
Since the gameplay no longer backs up his boasts, the half-hearted digs at rival franchises feel very ill-advised. The Duke of 1996 could poke fun at a "doomed space marine" because his game was pushing boundaries that Doom had yet to reach. Given that Forever is so painfully behind the times, similar jibes at the expense of Halo and Gears of War fall awkwardly flat today.
"I hate valve puzzles," he jokes as you embark on an incredibly uninspired puzzle involving steam pipes, but the double meaning would work so much better if Duke could offer anything to rival Portal's genius, or even the basic physics puzzles of Half-Life 2. As it is, these moments feel like the lazy humour of recognition, the Meet the Spartans of video games.
As for Duke's offensiveness, it's barely even worth considering. He's more Jeremy Clarkson than Frankie Boyle, so toothless and desperate in his attempts to seem risqué and reactionary that the only sane response is to roll your eyes. This is far more coarse than Duke 3D ever was, the humour uniformly witless, a parade of blunt profanity, childish poo and wee jokes and obvious innuendo that makes it feel more of a piece with Duke ripoffs like Redneck Rampage and Postal 2: similarly weak games which failed to mask their lack of polish and ideas under a stained duvet of juvenile outrage.
And it's here that the game plays its solitary trump card. It's Duke Nukem, silly. He's supposed to be cheesy and dumb and shallow. Stop thinking about it. It's justabirrovfun.
Except it isn't. It's not fun at all. It's depressing. Duke's long-awaited comeback has turned him from genre innovator to wheezing has-been. In the time since his last outing, the likes of Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto have all gone from nothing to world-conquering, genre-defining juggernauts. Even within his own narrow niche, Bulletstorm and Gearbox's own Borderlands have taken Duke's irreverent shooter crown and made it their own, and it seems that after a decade and a half on the shelf, the self-proclaimed king no longer has the muscle to claim it back. Duke Nukem Forever attempts to turn back the clock, but can't even get that right.
This is a game that only works when considered in isolation, and even then any praise must come laden with caveats. But Duke Nukem Forever does not exist in a bubble. It shares shelf space with far more worthy rivals, and competes for our affections with games that have done far more in far less time. Nostalgia only gets you so far, and in Duke's case, it's not far enough.
In the end, you feel every year of Duke Nukem Forever's ridiculous, fractured development seeping out of each unsatisfying frame. With four studios sharing title space in the opening animation, and end credits which run for almost 10 minutes, the weight of so many false starts, dead ends and endlessly revised design documents proves too much. For all his muscle and bravado, Duke Nukem is actually a fragile creature. His legacy is based on a specific combination of time and technology and a mercurial element of fun that simply doesn't lend itself to repetition, especially after so long in limbo.
The appeal of Duke Nukem lives on. But your time and money would be better spent reliving his iconic past than bearing witness to this gruesomely mangled resurrection.
3 / 10