Duke Nukem Forever is crude, sexist and dated, but playable
One of the first things I did in "Duke Nukem Forever" was this: I walked Duke over to a toilet, had him reach in and grab a piece of fecal matter, and then had him throw it at the wall.
That end product -- a piece of **** thrown against a wall -- seems to be how many other reviewers are describing the game overall.
Somehow, I don't totally agree. I've played games that fit that description, and "Duke Nukem Forever" isn't deserving of such ignominy.
Yes, it's very dated in terms of storytelling, game-play and overall design -- and it's completely sexist and demeaning to women -- but the undeniable fact is that the standard campaign mode is quite playable.
If this game had come out in this form in 2004 or 2005, everyone would be praising it to high heaven (well, except for the chauvinistic parts). But it didn't, so we're lambasting it instead. And that seems a little unfair to me.
I think the problem is that "Duke Nukem Forever" was seemingly in development forever. Work on the title originally started in 1997, with the public getting a first look at it in 1998. Yet it wasn't released. Instead it languished on and on in development as it bounced around from one publisher to another. Occasionally, new trailers for the game would be released. (And I find it really interesting to see all the different visions for the game those trailers represent.)
I can't say that it's become buried under the weight of expectation over the years, because lots of people gave up on expecting anything from the game a long time ago. And that's maybe why it's getting such a negative reception now.
But enough with reviewing the reviews. Here's what I really think about the game:
To understand the action in "Duke Nukem Forever," you first have to understand the character of Duke Nukem himself.
He's a throwback to an earlier time, when action stars were unabashedly macho and misogynistic.
Couple the brawn of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger with the egotistical confidence of Kurt Russell in "Big Trouble in Little China" and the attitude -- and one-liners -- of Ash from "Army of Darkness" and you start to have a picture of this character. Now add in a fondness for strippers, beer and steroids (OK, Arnold might have us covered on some of those too) and the picture is complete.
The result is a character and game that represent an adolescent power fantasy, where it's not enough to kill the enemy; you've got to violate the corpse too.
"Duke Nukem Forever" is a sequel, so we begin the game with Duke in semi-retirement. Several years before, he crushed the alien empire that had come to Earth to steal our babes, and now he's a world-famous hero. Men want to be him; women want to be with him.
This game begins with Earth's uneasy peace with the aliens coming to an end. If it didn't, there wouldn't be much of a game.
Duke comes out of retirement, because the aliens are already gunning for him. Even worse, they are again stealing our hotties. They must be stopped.
There's three parts to the Duke Nukem equation.
Part One: Run-and-gun action.
This isn't a flavor-of-the-month cover shooter. You've got to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, interposing scenery between you and your enemies in order to protect yourself while retaliating as best you can with shotguns, machine guns, rocket launchers, lasers, shrink rays, etc.
Most enemies -- muscular humanoid pigs and teleporting lizardmen -- absorb a lot of damage before they fall, so battles aren't exactly short and you'll spend plenty of time looking for more ammo in the midst of the fight.
But you can involve strategy if you've got the right armaments. For instance, shrinking a tough foe before switching back to a regular gun allows you to take them down much faster.
And if things are too tough, you can chug a beer or pop some pills to power Duke up.
Still, there's an unevenness to the armaments. The guns are far more effective than the alien tech in most cases. For instance, what's arguably the best laser rifle takes forever to power up and start blasting when it's in Duke's hands; aliens have no such disadvantage that I can see. And the freeze ray is pretty much useless unless you're facing a single foe, which is seldom the case; it takes too long to freeze anything, leaving you wide open in the meantime.
And, to be honest, targeting is a little sketchy and loose, which makes it difficult to aim when fighting enemies in close quarters, as odd as that sounds.
Part Two: Platforming.
Even though "Duke Nukem Forever" is a first-person shooter, there's a lot of jumping from place to place, sometimes at regular size, sometimes as a shrunken action figure of yourself.
It's decently done, with clear paths laid out for progression. But I don't know; it throws off the game's pacing. It's distracting to go from hard-core action to jump, jump, jump.
Yes, I know it works in "Uncharted" and a few other games, but those titles are designed to seamlessly blend the two things. "Duke" is not.
Part Three: A crude, sexist, juvenile sense of "humor."
Most of the Duke's world is built to entertain adolescent sensibilities. Thus the player is able to pick up and fling excrement, urinate in toilets, peruse adult magazines and calendars, take steroids as a melee power-up and chug beer to gain a measure of invulnerability.
And that's why instead of health, Duke has ego, which is worn away by enemy attacks but restored if he executes a foe in brutal fashion. And players have many chances to increase Duke's maximum ego by triggering certain events throughout the game, such as preening in a mirror or pumping iron in a gym.
It's all part of a male power fantasy.
Of course, another part of the typical male fantasy centers on women. "Duke Nukem Forever," unfortunately, continues the series' trend of objectifying and degrading them.
Women in the game are objects to be leered at and victims that are eventually made fun of. Yes, in typical Duke Nukem fashion, there are strippers to ogle. There are many depictions of the nude female form.
And such sexism is even found in the multiplayer game, where instead of playing capture-the-flag, players must capture the babe. The babe in question is slung over the player's virtual shoulder and spanked if she tries to get away.
It's meant to titillate players, and I'm sure it succeeds on that front with many of them. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't completely crass.
I won't pretend, however, that it offends me. I'm too familiar with the "Duke Nukem" franchise to be surprised by any of this, and I remember being that young and stupid once.
But I also believe it's OK if it offends you. Don't play the game, and if you're a parent, feel free to not let your kid play this game either. After all, it's filled with violence, profanity, nudity and sexual situations.
Just so I can feel that I've covered all my bases, there is a little more to "Duke Nukem Forever" than its three main components. A few vehicle sections also exist, for instance, and players will find themselves manning a turret on occasion.
And there's the multiplayer game. It's pretty much got the typical game modes for a first-person shooter, i.e. deathmatches, team deathmatches, capture-the-babe, etc.
I don't like it very much. It's visually unappealing, looking more akin to an early original Xbox title graphically than the games of today. It barely even resembles the single-player game in many respects.
And even though you can see how good the Internet connections of all the players are, the game remains jittery even with solid "ping" scores across the board.
Frankly, there are many better multiplayer shooters to enjoy. The only bit of originality here is that as you level up, you gain new toys to play with and new babes to ogle in your private pad. It's not enough to keep me playing.
Ultimately, "Duke Nukem Forever" isn't a great game by any means. But though it's got problems, it's not the worst I've ever seen either.
I don't know that I'd recommend it, really, but I can't bring myself to completely pan it.
"Duke Nukem Forever"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: 2K Games.
Price: $59.99 consoles. $49.99 PC.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: While it's not a game you should go out of your way to avoid -- unless you object to the crude, sexist contents -- it's also not a must-own or even a must-play game. At best, rent it.
Images courtesy of 2K Games
First image: Humanoid pig aliens drop from the ceiling to do battle with Duke Nukem.
Second image: Duke signs an autograph for a young fan. I've digitally altered the image to obscure the naked lady's assets on the pen Duke is using.