Radiation Sickness: Duke Nukem Forever Review

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I remember the first time I saw Duke Nukem Forever, which was about a year ago. Surprise was the only word I could use to sum up my feelings. This legendary piece of vaporware existed? It was playable and funny and self-aware too? Man, if it could come back from the edge of oblivion, then it might actually be good …

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That thought process right there is reality warping, as it’s occurred to me that there’s a black hole surrounding DNF. And as anyone who studies the astrological phenomena knows, anomalies can be seductive. Focus too much on the black hole and you’ll forget the universe it exists in. It voids context by the sheer force of its gravitational pull.

And context is everything with DNF. It’s more famous for being a game that would seemingly never come out than it is for any legacy. Once you get drawn into the myth of a game that was announced well over a decade ago, it seems like a victory that it even made it to store shelves.

But that’s not the case.

Here’s what DNF needed to do to have its very existence classified as a triumph:

• Not be buggy as all hell

• Not be so ugly as to render even its strippers repulsive

• Incorporate at least one good idea from games of the past decade into its design

• Come out on time

I’ll admit that last dig is dirty pool, but it’s relevant. If DNF came out as scheduled lo those many years ago, then the game that is appearing in stores this week would’ve been deemed passable. Worthy, even.

But in 2011, the code on the disc just fuels embarrassment for everyone involved. The story involves the aliens Duke beat 12 years ago, who come back to exact revenge and steal Earth’s women. Horrific load times hit you as soon as the game begins. Once you’ve got control, you’re assaulted by terrible texture pop-in — you can often see the tech drawing in the world as you play, which is a cardinal sin for gamers. The poor lighting doesn’t help.

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Leaden animation, especially with the faces and lip-synching, makes the characters seem like reanimated corpses. And yet, all of that would be forgiven if the game play or humor were good enough, but DNF fails in this area too. The first penis joke and lewd comments may make you laugh, but after the one-note jokes are hammered over and over again, you start to hate everything about this game. The game play is what bears the most hallmarks from early-1990s game design, and it wears its age badly. Enemies just run at you without any apparent AI programming, and the environmental design — when it’s not being used to tell jokes — is bland and confusing.

More than a bad game in the present day, DNF makes you reconsider the esteem some original games still draw. It’s not the shock humor that DNF rolls out that insults; it’s how dated that shock humor is. Games like Epic’s Bulletstorm yuk it up in crude fashion, too, but they don’t ask you to swallow an anachronism like it’s part of the joke.

The thing is, I never really cared for Duke. If gaming’s like music or comics and your nostalgic sweet spot exists around the time you lost your virginity, then my heart belongs to Midnight Marauders, Icon #16 and Metal Gear Solid. Duke was already speeding toward irrelevance when his last game came out, and in a weird way, the perpetual delay of Forever just extended the ride.

The worst part of this Duke Nukem’s overwhelming awfulness is that there are germs of funny ideas in the game. Replacing a health indicator with ego, Duke’s cashing in on saving the world and a smattering of video-game in-jokes all make you wonder what might have been had Gearbox the courage to start from scratch.

Maybe there was something to Duke’s brash popularity back in the day, and maybe a spark of that could have been introduced to modern-day players in an engaging way. But the muddy execution of Forever snuffs out that hope. Duke Nukem Forever may ultimately wind up doing what hordes of alien invaders couldn’t: make it so that no one cares about Duke’s next game.

Techland rating: 4 out of 10

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