I remember the first time I played Duke Nukem 3D. I was 11 and three quarters, and I had convinced my parents to hook us up to 33.6Kbps dial-up Internet just to download the demo on the family's Performa 5200/75. The download weighed in at around 6MB, so it must have taken a little over half an hour to complete. After impatiently watching the progress bar reach 100%, I began to revel in the game's awesomely realistic—for the time—and tantalizingly adult setting. I slaughtered pigcops, looked with amazement at bullet holes left by my shotgun, and giggled as a washroom door opened to reveal an alien going number two.
The following Christmas, a copy of Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition sat under the tree. The next six months saw me become completely infatuated with Duke 3D and its quipping, irreverent hero. I played, and I played some more. I even got the action figure. (It's still in a box somewhere in my apartment.) When I had played as much as one could play, I began to wait for the sequel.
I waited, and I waited. Then I waited some more. After many years, the last glimmer of hope was snuffed away... only to be reignited when, in December 2007, 3D Realms released a teaser video showing the Duke lifting weights in a smoke-filled room. The next three years would be a rollercoaster of discouraging and uplifting rumors and announcements, as 3D Realms' development efforts sputtered to a halt before Gearbox Software took over and announced that the Duke, now in safe and capable hands, would see the light of day again.
The wait finally ended last Thursday evening. Back from my trip to Seattle for AMD's Fusion Developer Summit, I sat down in front of my computer, downloaded Duke Nukem Forever from Steam, and began to play. 14 long years had passed.
No game could stand up to 14 years of expectations, of course, but I knew that going in. I had carefully followed the game's development process—at least, whatever little snippets of it became public—and was aware that 3D Realms had restarted development multiple times. The version of Duke Nukem Forever in stores today wasn't started 14 years ago; it's a few years old at the most. Moreover, the team working on it shrank over the years, so comparing the project to one of Valve's long-incubated titles wouldn't be fair. I told myself DNF would be just another shooter—another shooter that happened to pick up where Duke Nukem 3D left off all those years ago. My expectations were, I thought, appropriately tempered. My only hope was to have fun and enjoy the ride.
Unfortunately, for the most part, DNF failed to fulfill that most basic of wishes.
Oh, there are a few glimmers of gold here and there. Due to strategically placed shrink-ray devices, an action-figure-sized Duke must sometimes fight his way through regular-sized levels, battling enemies both big and small. I won't say too much, but some of those levels involve an RC car and taking cover behind condiment jars. The game's ego mechanic is also a neat idea: instead of filling up on health packs or leveling up, Duke can increase his maximum health (a.k.a. ego) by admiring himself in a mirror, playing some of the in-engine minigames, lifting weights, and so forth.
Sadly, other parts of DNF aren't as enjoyable or creatively designed. To be blunt, the game feels more like an indie studio's rough-around-the-edges debut title than a modern blockbuster. Tedious, uninspiring filler levels are all over the place, while the combat and exploration sections seem glued together with awkward, artificial transitions. The combat bits are essentially like shooting galleries with mass spawns of identical-looking pigcops and aliens, and the exploration areas don't give the player much to do besides amuse himself, increase Duke's ego, and fiddle with light switches (oh yes, that game mechanic survived intact from Duke 3D).
A fair number of times, I found myself stuck at one of those awkward transition points, trying to figure out what the game expected me to do to proceed. I once found my way into a room with no way forward except for a two-by-four resting diagonally on an inactive lever just under a ladder. I could easily climb onto the wooden beam and reach the ladder, but there was no way to latch on and climb up. After a good few minutes spent looking around for solutions, I realized that I was supposed to destroy my presumed means of escape. Smashing the two-by-four somehow activated the lever and released the ladder. That puzzle and the many others like it feel like they were designed in the late 90s and stored in a time capsule until now. Far from being fun or clever, they just feel arbitrary and frustrating.
DNF's combat also feels like a trip down memory lane—and not a terribly good one, either. I don't recall a modern first-person shooter in which I've died quite so many times. Regular monsters can take and dish out a ton of damage, and boss fights peppered throughout the game are unforgiving. I'd have no problem with that if DNF gave me late-90s medpacks and weaponry to match... but someone at 3D Realms had the bright idea to couple old-school combat with modern-day healing and weapon mechanics. Translation: Duke has pathetically limited health that must be recharged behind cover, and he can only carry two weapons at once. Those weapons happen to have very limited ammo—as in, just five rockets total for the rocket launcher—and cover is frustratingly sparse, especially during certain boss fights. You're supposed to be this mighty action hero, yet the game makes you fight for your dear life all the time and mercilessly penalizes you for Rambo-esque moments of bravery.
DNF suffers from a number of other afflictions. The PC controls are a big one. I stopped keeping track of how many times I threw a trip mine at my feet when meaning to switch weapons. You see, hitting 1 toggles between your two weapons, but hitting 2 throws a trip mine. (Special items are assigned arbitrarily to other number keys, and I repeatedly had to open the control settings screen to remember the bindings.) The game is also rife with jumping puzzles, which are made all the more annoying by the fact that DNF plays the exact same grunting sound every time you hit the space bar. Why 3D Realms couldn't record multiple grunts and cycle through them, I have no idea.
Then there are the graphics.
Faulting a title that's spent so many years in development for looking dated is a cheap jab, but the game really does look dated. Terribly so. Most of the outside environments are drab and unimaginative, and many of the inside filler levels are populated by empty corridors that would look at home in a Quake game. DNF attempts to snazz up all of its low-quality art with the finest shader effects around, from depth of field to ambient occlusion, but it just ends up like a pig (or a pigcop) wearing expensive lipstick. In his old age, Duke can't seem to focus his eyes on anything beyond a couple hundred feet. Perhaps that's for the better, because many of the game's sky boxes are marred by low polygon counts and flat, repeating textures.
In the end, what saddens me most isn't that DNF fails to live up to 14 years of expectations—it's that it fails to live up to the original Duke Nukem 3D even just a little. The game I played 14 years ago was daring, innovative, and fun. As much as I tried to enjoy the sequel, I could detect none of those qualities in it. DNF gave me a few fleeting moments of enjoyment drowned in a sea of mediocrity and half-baked mimicry. You'd think the team at 3D Realms would have managed to come up with some neat ideas over the past decade and a half, but apparently, they were busy trying to ape other games and to remind players of the good old days.
To put it another way, playing Duke Nukem Forever is like catching up with a cool uncle you haven't seen since you were a kid. Age has robbed him of his former charisma, and while you were giddy to see him pull a quarter from behind your ear at age 8, you're sort of embarrassed when he attempts the same trick all those years later. Your embarrassment only grows when he starts showing you printouts of lolcats. The encounter turns out to be awkward and depressing. Part of you is glad you paid him a visit... but you almost wish you hadn't.