There’s never been another game quite like Duke Nukem Forever. That’s not because it’s inventive, technologically dazzling or particularly memorable, but because there literally hasn’t been another major production that’s taken 14 years to complete.
And that 14 years, remember, is the same period of time that has seen the firstperson shooter emerge from relative infancy to become videogames’ central preoccupation. Here, by way of hasty fudge, outright theft and obvious retrofit, you get to see an entire genre growing up. It’s not pretty, but it’s still fascinating to witness, and it makes Duke Nukem Forever an awkward botch of a game worth playing exactly once. Approach it as an archaeologist and there’s fun to be had sifting through compacted layers of design strata and increasingly elderly internet memes, in search of that single moment when everything started to go wrong.
And what strata they are. QTEs, rechargeable health, limited weapon slots and destructible cover: all are elements from other games that clearly caught 3D Realms’ roving eyes as the team slogged onwards, moving from confidence towards desperation and, with the advent of each new hardware generation, running a little faster just to keep up. Some of these borrowed mechanics are perfectly adequate – carrying only two guns at any time provides the flavourless arsenal with a little strategic spice – while others, such as shreddable cover, are so limited and inconsistent in their application that they represent little more than an occasional annoyance. Each addition clearly comes at a price, however – one that’s paid in terms of basic implementation and focus.
And it’s focus, as much as the dated shooting and endless corridors, that really lets Forever down. Forget the cribs from Halo: 3D Realms’ most debilitating influence is undoubtedly Half-Life – and in particular its sense of immersion in a world that’s waiting to respond in reasonably convincing ways. That famous tram ride has mutated, in the hands of Duke’s designers, into a muddle of working toilets, water coolers and telephones. Interactive in-game furniture is a fixation from which the game never quite recovers, and it’s here that you begin to see why such a stoically unremarkable game took over a decade to build.
The seeds of disaster are scattered across environments that come littered with expensive distractions: whiteboards to draw on, basketballs to dunk and mirrors that reflect not just Nukem, but his engagingly moronic jumping animation. Granted, these extra-curricular elements feed into the game’s Ego system (a health bar expanded by futzing with pinball machines and winning at slots), but was it really worth sacrificing so many other things in order to include them? It’s not rare, in this strange, lopsided world, to spend ten strategy-free minutes pumping a largely immobile boss full of rockets only to find out that, just around the corner, you can switch on a showerhead and use a photocopier to scan your backside. While some of these trinkets were foreshadowed in previous games, the sheer abundance of them here suggests that you’re playing the primer for a wayward subgenre that mercifully never actually turned up. Nukem’s caretakers have crafted a shooter with a functional en-suite where its set-pieces should be.
These interactive asides are the primary symptom of a product built with bizarre priorities; a game that lets you throw a paper plane from the top of the Hoover Dam but then struggles to apply depth-of-field effects competently enough – on 360, at least – to allow you to see who you’re actually shooting at half the time. Somewhere along the journey, 3D Realms’ greedy feature creep mutated into a fundamental lack of confidence: despite all the swearing and fellatio, the Duke Nukem we’ve ended up with isn’t the class rebel so much as the kid at school who was always looking out of the window, and given detention again and again.
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