A couple of weeks ago, Duke Nukem Forever was finally released after perhaps the longest development period ever. But the reviews were brutal, ripping the game apart. In my opinion though, the reviews are too harsh. The game isn’t great, but not that horrible as some reviewers like to call it.
Now, there are a couple of assumptions. First, a lot of people expect that a game that is in development for 14 years at least should cure cancer, bring world peace and send men to the mars just so that it is okay and meets the expectations. Then, they like to compare it to the predecessor and to other games in the genre, which is fair.
On the development time: I don’t know how long DNF was really in development and how much material was really scrapped. I looked at the fantastic 2001 trailer and and the various leaked material after the 3D Realms shutdown, and there is clearly a lot of content that was created at some point and then scrapped. I really don’t know how long the current iteration was in development for. However, when you play the game you can see that there are a lot of great ideas that made it into the game. You can play Pinball, Air Hockey, Pool, Whack a Mole, you can interact with the vending machines, toilets, vibrators and water faucets. You can write on some whiteboards, autograph pictures, control an RC Car or race around in one after you have been miniaturized.
The amount of versatility and interaction was one of the cool features of Duke 3D and still somewhat sets it apart from many shooters that have a very static world.
The enemies are great, with the Octabrain really looking freaky, the Pig Cops actually looking fearsome, the Assault Captain reminding me of a flying mancubus and of course the Alien Queen with her large… assets. To defeat them, you have access to an arsenal of weapons that pack a good punch: The Shotgun has a very satisfying sound effect, the rail gun bring in a sniper rifle, the RPG is as cool as in Duke 3D and pretty much every other good shooter, and of course the Ripper and Devastator which are just the perfect tools to rip through hordes of enemies.
So Duke Nukem Forever has everything to be a fantastic shooter? Unfortunately, not quite. First off, it’s based on the Unreal 2.5 Engine, aka. “Look, we can make anything look like it’s chrome plated, even the rocks!”. It looks rather dated, when a pig cop latches on to you it drags you right down into the uncanny valley. Also, the animations are somewhat simplistic. The minigames are a nice touch, but not very well implemented – trying to pocket all the pool balls is a true test of patience because the ball physics are way unrealistic. Air Hockey is better, but suffers from a weird perspective. The world is very linear, to the point where invisible walls block you from making a perfectly sane and possible jump – this is a sharp contrast to Duke 3D’s many secret areas and clever tricks. There are some Jump and Run passages that shouldn’t be in any shooter (but then again, Half-Life did it as well) and some sequences are too long (like the RC car drive through the Lady Killer). The Video Poker machine was quite good though.
However, the single biggest and devastating blunder is the weapons system, because you can only carry two weapons at a time. Two. While all the good old school shooters allow you to carry about 10 weapons (regardless of weight), DNF decided to be console friendly and only support two weapons (plus a melee attack). Because the weapons have only a small maximum ammo, this can lead to frustrating situations. For example, I was in the hive with a shotgun (28 shots maximum) and a rocket launcher (5 rockets maximum), and I ran out of shotgun shells when I was facing 3 Octabrains. As they can fly, I couldn’t melee them. As they can throw back rockets, I couldn’t hit them with the RPG. So I had to die/restart from checkpoint to pick up the Ripper. I felt that this was really bad design, and with a full arsenal the game would have been a lot better.
A lot has been said about the seemingly offensive content of DNF. There’s nudity, crude one-liners, toilet humors and in-your-face obscenities all over the place. Criticizing Duke Nukem for being offensive is like criticizing Apple for making Designer Products or criticizing Louis Vuitton Handbags for being expensive. The Duke IS offensive, and if DNF weren’t then it wouldn’t be a Duke game. If that is not your cup of tea – fair enough, just ignore the game and play a different one, there’s plenty of fish in the sea. The valid criticism is that DNF doesn’t do too much to add to the formula. It’s mostly the same one liners, and some elements are drawn out too long or were removed (no option to tip strippers anymore).
As weird as it sound, but I think the one thing that DNF is missing is polish. Maybe another year would have radically improved the game. On the other hand, a year from now the graphics would look even more dated, so it’s the decision between cholera and the plague for the devs.
The game has a lot of rough edges, weird level design limitations, poorly implemented mini games, graphics that were cool in 2006 and worst of all a broken weapons system. Many great ideas, sometimes poorly executed. But for me, it was still a fun experience and overall a satisfying game. I’d give it a 5 out of 10 for being a straight forward, old school shooter with plenty of Duke, lots of explosions, great enemies and enough devastation to keep the action going.
On the other hand, if you are more into these awful almost-on-rails shooters that traded fun for broken scripted sequences then DNF is certainly not for you. If you believed that 14 years of development would create a shooter that is better than Half Life 2, Halo 2 and Gears of War combined, then this isn’t for you either.
The game is underwhelming and broken in parts, but I hope that there will be a fifth entry in the main Duke Nukem series.