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Duke Nukem Forever (Xbox 360) artwork

Duke Nukem Forever (Xbox 360) review

"The game’s steadily ramping barrage of obnoxious design choices almost feels like an endurance test as you inch closer to finishing the game. “Oh yeah?” the developers seem to say. “Well, how would you like a platforming sequence with an electrified floor? What about a boss that spawns smaller enemies indefinitely? How about an underwater level with clumsy controls and distorted vision, in which you have to keep constant tabs on your oxygen supply? How about an underwater boss?""

I confess that I’ve never played Duke Nukem 3D. I know that the titular character looks like Dolph Lundgren, and that his signature “bubble gum” quip is a brilliantly cheesy jab at the Die Hard-esque one-liners of ‘80s action movies. The same voice actor, Jon St. John, was brought aboard to reprise his role in the long awaited sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, only now he’s easily in his 50s and comes across as, yep, an old guy cluelessly trying to sound cool. If that’s part of the game’s joke, then Jon isn’t aware; look up one of his interviews and you’ll find that Jon absolutely worships the guy, praising his “attitude” and “good looks” and being “honored” to have an association with such a “pop icon.” His love for Duke equals that of the shallow characters that define his world. Here I took the dialog’s one-dimensionality as satire, but it seems that the people who made it don’t see it as a laughing matter.

Honestly, I can’t say with any degree of accuracy whether or not Forever was intended to be a joke, because I have no idea what it was intended to be at all. After battling for some 14 years against the most infamous case of development hell in the industry and requiring the aid of a good half-dozen studios just to see it out the door, Forever carries the mark of over a decade’s worth of being forced to catch up. It announces its intentions early on to be the colorful, lighthearted counterpart to today’s plague of self-serious shooters, spends most of its campaign bold-facedly mimicking a series that wasn’t even around when the game was first conceived (more on that in a bit), and then, in its last couple of hours, drops nearly all pretense of humor and has us wandering through steely grey warehouses and sewers.

There’s a moment early on when Duke is offered a set of armor that looks strikingly similar to the one Master Chief wears, to which Duke responds, “Power armor is for pussies!” This line is a direct contradiction to the fact that – ta-da! – Forever sports regenerating health and a two-weapon limit, both trends popularized by Halo.

Duke Nukem Forever asset

Forever starts with a battle against… wait, let me back up. The game starts with Duke pissing. And then there’s a battle against something called a Cycloid, which has appeared in many a Forever screenshot and is a cool-looking throwback to the cartoonish, exaggerated enemy designs of Duke’s era. The fight itself is bland – you pretty much just spam missiles while strafing in a circle – but it’s a light, breezy affair. And it’s supposed to be, as it’s then revealed that Duke is actually playing a video game based on his previous exploits. So, for a good five minutes, Forever seems to have its priorities straight.

But what’s surprising about the campaign that we’re actually faced with is that it does the Half-Life 2 routine, where the game focuses largely on puzzle-solving, platforming and vehicle sections and devotes a surprisingly small amount of its time to outright combat. That approach has paid off in Valve’s painstakingly crafted work, and Gearbox, the studio that finalized Forever’s development cycle, even worked on a pair of Half-Life expansions, one of which was pretty good. The trouble with this daring design philosophy is that it leaves greater room for error. The game’s combat is pretty lousy, and that’s instant death for any shooter, but instead of failing at just one thing, it fails at many.

A good portion of the game’s non-combat segments, for example, have Duke shrinking to the size of an action figure, which sounds like the result of a meeting in which the game’s lead designers got together and tried to come up with the most contrived reason to throw exploratory elements into their first-person shooter. So, yes, you spend a good chunk of the campaign jumping across casino tables and bouncing from one hamburger bun to the next and so forth. I wouldn’t say Forever’s movement controls are any worse than those of your average first-person game, but then most first-person games smartly avoid devoting large chunks of their time to platforming. The few cases of first-person platforming actually working (like Metroid Prime) come as the result of a smooth and intuitive jumping mechanic, and Forever doesn’t have one.

The game is never funny, not even once, but some of its most cringe-inducing moments arrive when Forever attempts self-parody and demonstrates, just like The Bard’s Tale and Eat Lead before it, why self-parody so rarely works in a video game: because you’re really just making fun of how lousy your game is. “I hate valve puzzles,” Duke grumbles while the player is solving an incredibly arbitrary valve puzzle. “This thing sucks!” he bellows as the player is attempting to maneuver a vehicle with poor controls. Shuffling through tired FPS tropes in rapid succession easily could have been on 3D Realms’ (and Gearbox’s, and Triptych’s) agenda, and the game certainly covers a lot of ground there, but it doesn’t change the fact that Forever’s design feels clichéd on every conceivable level.

Duke Nukem Forever asset

In fact, the game’s steadily ramping barrage of obnoxious design choices almost feels like an endurance test as you inch closer and closer to finishing the game. “Oh yeah?” the developers seem to say. “Well, how would you like a platforming sequence with an electrified floor? What about a boss that spawns smaller enemies indefinitely? How about an underwater level with clumsy controls and distorted vision, in which you have to keep constant tabs on your oxygen supply? How about an underwater boss battle?” I have no idea if Forever is as long as it felt, or if it took me so much time to finish it simply because I could only play it in small doses at a time.

Speaking of self-parody, there actually comes a point when Duke remarks to himself how much he wishes he had a crowbar – an obvious reference to Half-Life that was supposed to make me smirk, but instead only reminded me how much I’d rather be playing that. For as much as the game channels Half-Life 2, there’s not a single thing it does nearly on the same level as that series. It seems to think that “physics puzzle” and “seesaw puzzle” are synonymous, and that long, combat-free drives through vast outdoor areas are worthwhile if there’s no atmosphere to soak in. Forever’s constant breaks from action certainly aren’t a bad idea, and I wouldn’t even pin the game’s failure on the controls (though the vehicles handle disastrously). The issue is that it’s all so boring and arbitrary, and the campaign moves at a painfully glacial pace as a result.

You know why Half-Life 2 had the same approach and wasn’t boring? Partly because it was a much better game, yes, and also because it's prettier (that Forever looks this hideous is inexcusable), but mainly because this meticulously paced design principle is how Valve tells a story. When we started the game, we were launched into a complicated conflict that had almost nothing to do with our previous adventure, and we weren't brought up to speed on the situation. Since understanding the story meant putting the pieces together on our own, the game never had any shortage of fascinating details to examine and take in, even when the game (frequently) got quiet. It was a game in which the atmosphere played as big a role as the shooting; the Highway 17 level, which Forever unsuccessfully tries to imitate with a monster truck, worked because its tense desolateness was exactly what made it so engaging.

But Forever’s atmosphere is stupid at best and nonexistent at worst. And Duke’s status as a stereotypical action hero hunk whom everyone adores is overplayed and, frankly, obnoxious. Duke is a one-dimensional douchebag. He’s stuck-up and condescending, and he can’t even be bothered to come up with his own one-liners, instead pulling them from movies like Predator and Starship Troopers and tossing them around out of context (the Friedberg/Seltzer brand of comedy) with poor delivery by Jon St. John. The fact that Duke can’t even down a single can of beer without getting completely hammered demonstrates that he’s not even as tough as he pretends to be. Yet everyone in this universe absolutely worships the jackass.

Duke Nukem Forever asset

Maybe that’s all part of the underlying “joke,” and I question whether it even is. (Remember, St. John considers Duke a “pop idol.”) But it doesn’t matter, because joke or not, I don’t want to be entrenched in this world. As the setting for a breezy homage to old-school shoot-‘em-ups, fine. But after the opening battle with Cycloid, it’s literally at least 20 minutes before we get our hands on a gun, which tells me that the game’s creators truly thought there was some depth to be explored here, some reason to stop and gaze around. But there isn’t. And what’s more punishing is that the game would have warded off many of these issues if it had succeeded at being funny, but here’s the game’s idea of humor: Players are encouraged to tinker with environmental objects to boost their health, and shortly after the Cycloid intro is over, you’ll get the chance to do so by playing pool, to which a nearby woman says, “Duke! You don’t have time to play with your balls!”

Balls! Get it? Because testicles! GET IT???? Please kill me.

It gets better. About a quarter of the way through the game, after a turret mission, a seesaw puzzle and a sequence that has Tiny Duke driving around in an RC car, we experience a relatively jarring tone shift as we’re taken into a gooey alien hive. It’s a generic gooey alien hive, as far as these things go – Singularity had similar levels, and that was a BioShock clone about Russian time-travelers (or something) that had no reason to include gooey alien hives. But then we see naked women, covered in slime, pinned to the walls and hanging from the ceilings, moaning as they’re being raped and impregnated by the aliens. They sob realistically – it is, in fact, the only convincing sample of voice work in the entire game. It’s genuinely disturbing, and for a moment there’s nothing to indicate that the designers and artists weren’t dead serious about depicting alien rape in the grossest and most tasteless way suitable for an M-rated game.

But then Duke encounters the pair of women he was looking for, and he delivers the punchline: “Looks like you’re… fucked.”

“You’re fucked”? Seriously? So this was all played for laughs, and that’s the best they could come up with? I’m no stranger to vulgar humor, and I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of breaking taboo to make a statement or a joke. But if you’re going to go that far, you had better at least have the decency to make me laugh. Forcing me through a disgusting tentacle rape level only to settle for such a cheap pun just doesn’t cut it. Some have labeled the game as misogynistic, but I think it’s more accurate to simply say it was written by insensitive, unfunny idiots. Forever is a sleazy product, the kind of thing that makes you want to cleanse yourself afterward, both with a shower and a better game.

Duke Nukem Forever asset

Like I said, by the time Forever reaches its final act, it drops nearly all pretense of humor in favor of generic grey corridors. This is where I wish I could say that the combat itself is better than everything else Forever attempts, but unfortunately, it’s just as lousy. The controls suffer from Killzone 2-esque aiming issues (the kind where it’s always either too sensitive or too heavy, and fiddling with the options doesn’t help), and the two basic enemy types are both boring and cheap: One can lunge at you from ludicrous distances, and the other teleports incessantly. And on the few occasions in which the action kicks into high gear, the developers often settle for the old “stand in one room and fight off waves of enemies” routine, which is the laziest type of game design there is. So even when the game gets “exciting,” it’s still boring. Amidst everything else I hate about Forever, it’s somewhat poetic that the one thing I expected it to do well, it gets wrong.

Early in Forever, the President tells Duke that he’s “a relic from a different era.” I was wondering whether this line was written ironically, and I spent the rest of the campaign trying to interpret its creators’ intentions: what was supposed to be funny, what was supposed to be serious, whether various tonal shifts were the result of the game’s hellish development cycle, or if the people who made it simply didn’t know what they were doing. The point, ultimately, is that it doesn’t matter and it’s not worth the unsettling amount of thought I’ve given it, because whatever the case, Forever isn’t funny, and it’s an awful game anyway. Everyone who ever worked on Forever acknowledged that it was, at one point, the biggest joke of the industry. I wish I could say that the game we were eventually given is the punchline, but instead, it’s just a joke of a different kind, and an early contender for the worst game of the decade.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (June 25, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Duke Nukem Forever review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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JoeTheDestroyer posted June 26, 2011:

In just a few hours, this review has already received more hits than my latest one. YOWZA! And well deserved, too! Great review, Suskie!
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Suskie posted June 26, 2011:

Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.
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zippdementia posted June 26, 2011:

But then we see naked women, covered in slime, pinned to the walls and hanging from the ceilings, moaning as they’re being raped and impregnated by the aliens. They sob realistically – it is, in fact, the only convincing sample of voice work in the entire game.

Videos or it didn't happen.
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honestgamer posted June 26, 2011:

You don't want to see video of it, Zipp. It plays out exactly as the review describes.
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Suskie posted June 26, 2011:

But since you asked.
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zippdementia posted June 27, 2011:

Man, only an epically bad game could make tentacle sex boring.
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radicaldreamer posted June 27, 2011:

I am not entertained, amused or captivated by tentacle sex in any context.
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zigfried posted June 28, 2011:

I guess it's a good thing then that Duke Nukem Forever doesn't have any.

Two of the girls (the ones who are first introduced to the game as fellating Duke) admit to having consensual sex with aliens. The strong implication is that the aliens use human women to breed -- if people don't like that sci-fi trope, fine, all up to taste. It's not a tentacle rape level (I think the Destructoid review is the one that called it that). By the time Duke arrives, everyone has already been transformed into aliens. There's no reason to think there are any tentacles doing naughty stuff, or that there ever were any tentacles; people are too fixated on Japanese porn.

It's a level where you run around inside a gooey, slimy area and see (topless) women who have been transformed into aliens, and see cocooned men. Smaller aliens burst from the alien womens' stomachs; I'd moan, too, if I had one of those inside me (that's the player's cue to be on alert). As for the men, shoot their cocooned bodies to score some sweet loot.

The video looks boring because it is boring -- the offensive thing about that level is its dull design, not the topless aliens.

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honestgamer posted June 28, 2011:

To be fair, Zig, Duke Nukem makes numerous comments about tentacles throughout the proceedings.
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Suskie posted June 28, 2011:

I threw the phrase "tentacle rape" in there because that's the impression I walked away with. The level's depiction of it skirts around the details (and wisely so, as otherwise it would have risked falling into AO territory), and I said "tentacle" because, given that the game's alien biology is slimy and slithery and rife with tentacles anyway, that's how I pictured it happening without wanting to devote the level of thought and analysis to the subject that I'm about to give it. It's certainly no more baseless than the claim that the Holsom twins admit to having consensual sex with the aliens. I've just gone back and watched the video, and here's their entire conversation:

"Duke, what's happening to us?"

"Looks like you're... fucked."

"Duke, it was our first time... with an alien."

"Duke, we'll get the weight off in, like, a week! We swear!"

[The twins then scream and die as the aliens burst out of them.]

Being as I am a fan of the Aliens movies (well, the first two, anyway) and that the game had already pulled at least one quote from that series by the time I got to the Hive level, I likened what I was seeing with the process used in that fiction, in which a human host is penetrated and impreganted (through the mouth, in that case), after which the hatchling breaks free of its host, who dies. I missed any implication that what the game depicts isn't at least a variation of that (as opposed to the women actually being turned into aliens). Couple that with Duke's one-liners ("You're fucked," shouting "You've been aborted" after he kills a hatchling) and the fact that the level's most noteworthy image is naked women being held down as they sob, and that's how I came to that conclusion.

But seeing as how, as we've covered, the game skirts around the details, let's just examine it at surface level: These women are naked and being humiliated and obviously in great pain or despair, the aliens are violating (or have violated) them in some form or another, hatchlings burst out of them violently as a result of whatever is happening to them, and Duke uses the situation to drop a "you're fucked" pun. Lo and behold, the point that I was trying to make doesn't change. It's disgusting and overblown, and the writers seemed to be using the scenario to make a stiflingly unfunny joke.

And now I pray that's the last contribution I have to make to this conversation.
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zigfried posted June 28, 2011:

Shouting "you've been aborted" after punching an alien hatchling out of the air is pretty awesome. The other line, yeah, not so much.


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