This, ultimately, is the biggest tragedy: Duke Nukem Forever’s epic development period has turned out a game that isn’t, now, particularly ambitious. It isn’t even that competent. Compared to the current crowd of artfully mindless blasters, Forever fails to measure up. The game’s environments lack scale, visual pleasures or internal logic, and the weapons are either rote and unexciting, like the pistol and railgun, or irritating novelties, such as shrink- and freeze-rays – both of which have been imported, without tweaking, from 1996. Set-pieces, meanwhile, also seem to be culled from a list of things that probably sounded good on paper over a decade ago. Expect a conceptually cute race around a casino in an RC speedster, and a haphazard physics puzzle including a wrecking ball and a building site. When a level does actually flicker briefly into life, the results are swiftly undermined by the inability of the creaking engine to keep up with the action. “There’s too many of them!” yells a chopper pilot at one point, during an on-rails air assault through the dusty wilds of Nevada. Actually, there’s three of them, but it’s still enough to see the framerate retreating to the low teens.
The myriad technical shortcomings – particularly prevalent on the console ports – only get worse the further you progress into the campaign. After a semi-scrubbed-up opening hour – it’s vacuous and poorly paced, but compared to the rest of the game, this early degree of visual polish feels a little like fraud – you’re dropped into a muddle of flickering Vegas skylines and desert vistas covered in the kind of naff texturing you’d otherwise never get to see any more, at least not now that EA’s finally closed Pandemic. Dropships tend to bring forth enemies in polite clusters of twos and threes so that the game doesn’t crash entirely when they get their boots on the ground, and if you die during any of the ensuing action – in the middle of one of the game’s many unlovable firstperson platforming interludes, say – you can prepare yourself for loads so mysteriously lengthy that they become a striking form of meta-commentary on the primal magic of just waiting for things. Faced with this kind of material, Gearbox, the studio that leapt in to finish the project when all seemed lost, should at least be complimented for such sympathetic treatment of the project it inherited. The game’s buggy tech seems largely untweaked and unrefined by its final custodians, while the missions and characters lack the crafty white-trash satire that made Borderlands so enjoyable.
There’s certainly nothing crafty about Nukem, however fond you might be of his womanising and ’roid-rage. He’s a flat-top cheeseburger of a hero, left to shoot at pigs in a game so slow to pick up on a joke that it doesn’t realise you can’t actually caricature a town that’s already as radiantly implausible as Las Vegas. After that, all you’re left with are elements that were old even in the ’90s: turret sections riffing on Independence Day, a Bat Cave stand-in called – really? – the Duke Cave, and that hulking cipher at the centre of it all who parodies the likes of Stallone, Roddy Piper and Chuck Norris.
It’s a game out of time, in other words, left to revolve around a toothless spoofing of has-beens, and even its much-touted misogyny comes off as half-hearted. After the mandatory jaunt through a strip club turns out to be significantly less convincing than a wander around Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, it’s ultimately left to Capture the Babe, a CTF variant in the unnecessary online suite, to provide any kind of genuine offence. It does so elegantly, however, via its breezy thematic blend of abduction and domestic violence. Astonishingly, it’s worse than it sounds, and the rest of the multiplayer isn’t much better, with primitive king of the hill and deathmatch modes strung across a range of claustrophobic jump-pad-heavy environments. New additions like an XP system and character progression rub up against an antique match browser rife with disconnections and lag. The whole thing reeks of afterthought and, left out of the Achievements, it’s arguable it should have been left off the disc too.
And so Nukem limps into the sunset, the game’s eventual release a quiet triumph for the design alumni, perhaps, but a far more qualified success for anyone on our side of the cash register. This is a project that consumed a considerable chunk of its creative team’s lives, and while everyone who encounters it will be engrossed in the eternal mystery of where all that effort actually went, there’s not even much pleasure to be found in its failures. A kind of disappointed embarrassment is the eventual reward for completing Duke Nukem Forever, then.
But what’s the gain? That, ultimately, depends on where you stand. For 3D Realms and its beleaguered staff, there’s hopefully a little closure waiting at the end of the credits. Gearbox, meanwhile, has cannily landed a cut-price hit and a potentially lucrative licence. As for the rest of us? We at least have a chance to marvel at the hectic cost of ambition, and to be mystified, once more, at the strange, stupid, painful things that some of us will do for love.
Xbox 360 version tested. See our next issue, out July 5, for an extensive Post Script on the game, looking at the one thing that Duke Nukem Forever got right.
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