The hypocrisy of Duke Nukem Forever's distaste for new shooter heroes is clear early in the game. Duke is disgusted when offered a Halo-like suit of armor, asserting that his unassailable machismo is more resilient than any association with modernized entries of a genre he helped define in the mid-1990s. Yet Duke can only carry two guns at a time and has a regenerating health bar, elements popularized by the game he so readily dismisses. Duke Nukem Forever suggests Duke's compulsive need to pull the trigger to broadcast his manliness is enough to overcome any obstacle, which, as it turns out, it's not.
There was never anything complicated about Duke Nukem. He was an icon in his 1990s heyday because he was more than a floating gun. Duke had a voice, spouting action and comedy movie quotes. He made Army of Darkness' "Hail to the king, baby" his own, and lifted lines from Aliens, Dirty Harry and more to make sure his enemies knew he didn't accidentally pull the trigger. Duke Nukem has always been a walking joke, a vainglorious 1980s-style action star parody overflowing with testosterone and disdain for anything that doesn't involve squashing aliens, drinking or girls. In Duke Nukem Forever, he hasn't changed.
An early boss fight.
Duke still has the maturity of a twelve year old boy, objectifying women whenever possible, and barking out movie quotes with voice actor Jon St. John's bassy cadence. He's unapologetically vulgar, which is good for a few nostalgic laughs as he again kills aliens to save the world. It's disappointing that during Duke Nukem Forever's preposterously protracted development, nobody took advantage of the immense opportunity to do something thematically creative. Instead of playing with the idea of Duke as an anachronism, Duke returns in classic form, and he's never felt so old, so out of place, and so embarrassing. Just wait until you find the wall boobs.
Duke is one of the elder heroes of gaming, and could say whatever he wanted with legitimacy if there was a first-class shooter experience backing him up. To the game's credit, Duke Nukem Forever's shooting sections are simple fun. Charging humanoid pigs and zig-zagging jetpack aliens spawn in battle zones and Duke gets to pulverize them with shrink rays, freeze guns, shotguns and his fists. The real star of the show is the shotgun, which unlike the other weapons that lack a sense of power, can obliterate enemies at close range, sending them arcing off in the distance after a well-placed burst of lead. The shrink and freeze rays are toys, adding some humor value as Duke stomps on miniaturized aliens or executes their frozen bodies. The multitude of stage bosses are enormous and some of the action set pieces exciting. It's all straightforward, classically-styled kill-factory sequences that let you turn off your brain and revel in the primal glory of the aim-and-shoot gameplay loop.
One of many turret sequences.
What falters is just about everything else. Duke Nukem Forever takes cues from games post-Duke Nukem 3D and clumsily straddles over a decade of genre growth. Turret sequences are too often used as a crutch to break up on-foot fights, but they're a welcome alternative to the frequent first-person platforming segments that make up an unnecessarily large percentage of the story mode. I understand that games like this need to slow down from time to time in order to space out encounters. But when Duke shrinks to miniature size and drives toy cars over jumps and hops across shelves over an electrified kitchen floor, Duke Nukem Forever loses all its entertainment value. It's creative in concept to have Duke bounding over hamburger buns to cross a hot cooking surface, but the actual mechanics are as dull and straightforward as possible. Then there are the Half-Life 2-style physics puzzles where you'll need to remove barrels to lighten minecarts or add barrels to shift the positions of platforms that do nothing but waste gameplay space, forcing us to relive poor imitations of 2004's highlights.
In most cases, the sections in Duke Nukem Forever that connect the shooting are dull, derivative experiences that feel like they exist for no other reason than to bloat the story mode, and it isn't clear if they're meant to parody video game filler content. It might be different if Duke approached a puzzle section, laughed, lobbed some curse words at it and moved on, but since we're forced to solve the puzzles to continue it's not tongue-in-cheek satire, unless the joke is on us.
There are throwback moments in Duke Nukem Forever to his early days when keeping a finger off the trigger earns rewards. In a strip club stage that's crudely deployed as a dream sequence Duke can play air hockey, a version of whack-a-mole, and a simple pinball game. These are meant as distractions, but along with his ability to interact with a handful of other random objects, they're distractions with a point. These 'Duke-like' actions extend the length of his Ego (health) bar, adding concrete incentive to explore and discover more ways for Duke to express his boundless self-satisfaction.
A parking lot gun fight.
Once the story's done, you can drop into the online modes like deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag (or, more accurately, capture the babe), and king of the hill. Online play is characterized by fast, frequent kills and success is largely determined by your ability to memorize map layout and weapon spawn points. It's a traditional approach to online first-person shooting filled with chaotic action, jet packs, jump pads and goofy weaponry like freeze rays, shrink guns and trip mines so you'll never feel safe. It doesn't try to tell a story and doesn't force you into poorly conceived vehicle sequences or drawn-out platforming sections, so it doesn't share the story mode's identity crisis. There's also a modernized persistent leveling structure layered overtop, which rewards you with content for what's probably the best piece of fan service in the game, Duke's penthouse, which is an actual virtual space you can explore and admire paintings, statues and more that further glorify Duke's wafer-thin persona.
That Duke Nukem Forever looks dated and long load times on PlayStation 3 maybe shouldn't be surprising, and though the grinding guitar music is entirely appropriate considering the subject matter, it's not catchy enough to stick in your head. Aside from serving as an end point to an overlong development cycle, there's nothing remarkable about Duke Nukem's return.