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