The Duke abides: Gamer takes on "Duke Nukem Forever"

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Duke Nukem Forever
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
(3D Realms / Triptych Games / Gearbox Software / 2K Games)

Duke Nukem Forever is an exploration of myth and ego, a commentary on celebrity-obsessed culture...

Oh, who are we kidding? Duke Nukem is a steroid-popping meathead who loves beer, blow jobs and blasting aliens. DNF is a direct sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, a PC game that debuted in 1996 – in those dying days of action movie excess, nu-metal and witty one-liners – and the sequel does not stray far from its roots.

That it took 15 years to release a sequel makes DNF the oldest video game joke in the industry. Following numerous delays, funding issues and company closures, its imminent release is a moment being watched by many gamers with cautious anticipation: Will the game enjoy the same success it might have had in the 90s? Or has the world changed too much, lending this joke a pitiful punchline?
Somehow, both of these things have happened. DNF successfully channels the crass humor of the original game, which was full of strip clubs and naughty curses, and it benefits from employing the same voice actor, Jon St. John. But the world has changed: it is still capable of containing a character as radical as Duke but the celebrated Duke gameplay is a tad past its sell-by date.

Following the events of Duke Nukem 3D, Duke is enjoying the good life in Las Vegas, where seemingly everything is Duke-branded, from burger joints (Duke Burger) to strip cubs (Duke Nukem’s Titty City.) As Duke is on his way to a late night talk show appearance, aliens attack once again and steal all of Earth’s women. It’s hard to tell whether, at some point in the game's development, there was ever more to the story. Here it acts as a thin framework to drive the action across Vegas towards the Hoover Dam.

I was only half-joking by describing DNF as an exploration of myth and ego. Certainly, the game makes no great statements on matters of fame and narcissism, but the developers have fumbled the character’s celebrity into a game mechanic where your health is called “Ego” and performing tasks like signing autographs and admiring yourself in the mirror increase your Ego bar permanently. Yes, the first thing you do in the game is press the right trigger to "Piss" in a urinal.

While this jibes with the humor of the original game, it is also suspiciously pandering. There’s a strong disconnect between newly conceived gameplay and whatever was conceptualized over the course of 15 years. Fifteen years is a long time and Duke Nukem 3D wins no awards for its mechanics in today’s modern playground, but DNF more or less sticks to its guns. If you missed circle-strafing enemies, you’re going to have a blast with this.

Likewise, the platforming sections that interrupted the original game’s carnage can’t hold a candle to the type of sure-fingered control we enjoy today. Its inclusion here brought a smile of recognition and a frown of frustration when I couldn’t make jumps that I should have. Let’s not even bring up the fact that it takes over a minute to load a level after you die. How is that possible in 2011?

It’s hard to say what it would have taken to please everyone waiting for Duke Nukem Forever. In adhering to outdated mechanics you frustrate new players, and by updating everything you wind up with a relic of the '90s in a world where Duke doesn’t belong. DNF straddles the line. It’s funny in a 12-year-old potty humor kind of way, and the Duke character survives his awakening into the 21st century. But 15 years of anticipation overshadows anything less than a home run and DNF is not a home run. If you are a card-carrying member of the cult of Duke, DNF often brings back the ridiculous feeling of playing that game, warts and all. I found myself excusing its failures whenever possible.

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