Lipstick on a pigcop: My take on Duke Nukem Forever

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.

Comments closed
    • reneedescartes
    • 8 years ago
      • SecretMaster
      • 8 years ago

      I just have to laugh that this is the 69th comment

    • roont
    • 8 years ago

    I will never understand why they took out the KICK!!! Dukes melee kick was the best in any game.

    • anotherengineer
    • 8 years ago

    CS:S FTW!!

    • Sam125
    • 8 years ago

    I wasn’t really a fan of the original but maybe the reviews will get Gearbox to fire up the original Duke to see what made that game the cult classic it’s become and try to build on top of that instead of trying to make Duke games that’re a throwback with little conceptual focus.

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]The game is also rife with jumping puzzles, [/quote<] OK, I could put up with everything else in this review, but that seals the deal. I won't tolerate jumping puzzles anymore, that was what the 80's were for.

    • alphacheez
    • 8 years ago

    I played some DNF with a few friends at one of their houses on their PS3. I am terrible at console shooters so mainly I watched the others play.

    Something I noticed is that it seemed like the developers would see other games coming out and say, “We have to put that feature/game mechanic/joke in!”; lots of God of War (press x quickly to open door! quick time events, etc.) as one example of this.

    There were a lot of disjointed game mechanics like the RC car stuff, platforming, puzzles that were just frustrating rather than clever. The grunting noise was quite bad & annoying and the animation of Duke when he jumps made everyone roll around laughing it was so badly done.

    The humor was also hamhanded and not well done. It felt like the “wink wink, nudge nudge” Monty Python sketch but in a completely nonself-aware way. It didn’t have the feel of being clever at all the way Duke 3D did…but that might have been because I was 15 when I first played Duke 3D.

    We died a lot…I think I lived at most about 30 seconds in an actual fight, though I would sometimes figure out a working strategy for the other guys to use in fights. The other guys are pretty into video games and shouldn’t have had as much trouble as they were; we played on middle difficulty.

    The thing that made Duke 3D great was the amount of innovation and excellent level design, not just the crude humor and silly antics. I think I’ll have to fire up my 1997-era computer and play some Duke 3D to know for sure.

    • FireGryphon
    • 8 years ago

    At least I have closure. I can put that part of my mind to rest. I’ll buy the game when it’s $5 and hope it’s at least a little bit better than the demo.

      • danny e.
      • 8 years ago

      i didnt even make it through the demo before i uninstalled it. terrible.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        I didn’t even finish taking a leak. I was like “OK, really? this is how we’re starting?” and quit.

    • DeadOfKnight
    • 8 years ago

    Man, you must have some weird relatives.

    • burntham77
    • 8 years ago

    I enjoyed the game, aside from the occasional frustrating area (like most of the underwater segment at the dam). Still, I think 40 dollars is the most people should pay for it, and that’s if you are a fan of Duke. Non-fans just looking for an old fashioned shooter, I’d say less than 30 dollars.

    • swaaye
    • 8 years ago

    I didn’t really have any expectations for the game because I wasn’t a big fan of the original anyway. But I thought the demo was ok. One day I will get this game but I’m not interested enough to pump $50 its way.

    • dashbarron
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<] No game could stand up to 14 years of expectations, of course, but I knew that going in. [/quote<] I present to the jury with almost such an anomaly, Starcraft II.

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 years ago

      i present a dissenter to your opinion. sc2 was/is mediocre. it’s not that good. it’s ok, but 12 years? nope. it’s a good strategy game, but not as good as 1.

        • willyolio
        • 8 years ago

        starcraft 2 is an excellent game. Perhaps the word you’re looking for is “revolutionary,” which SC2 isn’t. It’s the best RTS game in the world right now, bar none. It is well-balanced, fast-paced, and has an excellent user interface. It’s taken all the bad parts of SC1 and polished them to near-perfection while retaining pretty much all the good points.

          • Game_boy
          • 8 years ago

          It’s also more addictive than WoW, and more expensive, if you follow the tournament scene.

          I spent $50 today on the GSL, GSTL, HSC-III, and last week was Dreamhack and before that MLG, and this is the off-season for the TSL, IEM, FXO-I, and IPL, and of course NASL is ongoing.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          it’s probably the best NEW rts. I still don’t think it’s as good as one. i think it lost of ton of good stuff.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            Don’t forget SC1 got BW, and with it new units. Compare vanilla SC2 to vanilla SC1 and you have pretty equivalent games. If HoTS fails to deliver new multiplayer strategies, then your complaint is valid.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            that’s a good point, vanilla sc blows.

            • willyolio
            • 8 years ago

            as much as i played and loved SC:BW, there’s no doubt in my mind that SC2 is better- if nothing else, the user interface rarely ever gets in the way of me wanting to do something and actually doing it. At the same time, it doesn’t limit my choices by doing things automatically. SC:BW still has the unit-selection limitation, dumb unit pathing and grouping, etc. The changes “under the hood” of SC2 are so great I doubt I could ever go back to SC1 without feeling like my hands are tied.

            I honestly feel that my playing capability in SC2 is currently only limited by how fast I can THINK- my commands are never lagging behind my thoughts, whereas they often were in SC:BW- there were always plenty of extraneous clicks just to perform, as far as my brain was concerned, a single action.

            can you actually name what SC2 “lost” compared to SC1 (or another RTS)? It’s ridiculously well-polished and there’s only a few “features” in other RTSes that aren’t there, but generally wouldn’t fit the playstyle of Starcraft anyways.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            f’ing Dragoons. I can’t believe Blizzard never fixed pathfinding in SC:BW.

          • Krogoth
          • 8 years ago

          Starcraft 2 is Brood War 2.0 with a face-lift. There’s no way to deny it. Does it make it a mediocre game? Nope, Starcraft 2 is a pretty solid game and the powerful tools it possesses give modders a ton of unlocked potenial.

          For the RTS genre, there is still little that can match Total Annihilation. Supreme Commander and Forged Allaince came close, but had stupid issues that prevented them from bridging the gap. Supreme Commander II is a complete joke.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]Starcraft 2 is Brood War 2.0 with a face-lift. [/quote<] You keep making this statement. Not that it's incorrect, but two things: 1.) No shit, Sherlock. 2.) That's actually what everyone wanted. The title of the game is, you know, Starcraft II. It's not an original thought. It's not a revolutionary thought. It's not even an intelligent thought.

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            It is the lack of any significant change and innovation that prevents Starcraft 2 from being truly outstanding. It doesn’t offer anything new to the RTS genre. It is discouraging to know that it took Blizzard seven years to do a face-lift and tweaked gameplay a little bit. They could have easily done it years ago. It is just underwhelming to say the least.

            • dashbarron
            • 8 years ago

            Disagree. Revolutionary? No. Fun as hell and engaging, yes. Face-lift? Maybe but it is more than that:
            The cinematics, split-story lines, upgradable armies, walking around the ship, all the cute little Blizzard IP references, achievements, challenges, etc. are what make it more than “Brood War 2.0 with a face-lift.” No these things aren’t new and revolutionary, but it offers considerable more content and substance in at least the single-player campaigns alone versus the original game, let alone Brood Wars.

            As others have said, it has a lot of the same stuff from the original…which is what makes it a sequel and the fastest selling video game to date.

            • KoolAidMan
            • 8 years ago

            You obviously have a very shallow understanding of the games and the RTS genre in general. The races, especially Protoss and Zerg, play very differently from how they did in Brood War. Managing creep spread and pylon warping has changed mobility for both races so much that they almost play like new races. Other things like unlimited size army groups has done basic things like change engagements from smaller strike teams with longer fights to death balls with units that die much much faster.

            Again, to call SC2 a superficial reskinning with the same gameplay and machup balance smacks of ignorance and complete lack of understanding.

            The main thing that they have in common is that they are macro focused RTS (games like WC3 and DOW2 being more micro/tactical based RTS), and that is how Starcraft should be. Complaining about this is as ridiculous as complaining that a Quake sequel isn’t a cover based tactical shooter.

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            Nope.avi

            The Protoss and Terrans haven’t really changed that much. Blizzard just remixed and spice up old units to make them feel “fresh”.

            Protoss were always supposed have to the ability to warp units in their plyon fields, but SC1’s engine limiations prevented this. It doesn’t really change the gameplay for the protoss, it is mostly a trade-off (Warp Gates versus Gateways).

            The only change that Terrans have is that they have a heavy-hitting ground unit at early (Marauder) and late game (Thor) stages of the game. The rest are just remixes of old units into more functionable forms (Medivac = Dropship and Medic lovechild, Hellion = Firebat + Vulture lovechild, Viking = Goliath with wings, Banshee = Wrath that sacrifces AA for better AtG, Ghost got buff up, but loses the potent “Lockdown” ability for a cheesy EMP shockwave rip-off.

            The Zerg’s biggest change is their “new” Queen. Otherwise, most of their forces are pretty much relabels, remodels of the old stuff. Infestor = lovechild of Deflier and “old” Queen, Roach = Hydralisk that sacrifices anti-air capabilty for more hitpoints and faster regeneration. Baneing = more useless form of a Scoruge a.k.a mobile mine. Corrupter = cheaper, weaker devourer, Brood Lord = Guardian Mk II. Overlords get nerfed, since you need to upgrade them to Overseers to gain detection ability, but lose the ability to transport ground forces.

            The only race that plays differently is the Zerg because the early “Zergling” rush is no longer as effective (too many people bitch about it being OP). They depend far more on the “new” Queen for the centerpoint of their strategies (Creeping, healing and spawning tons of larva).Infestors are pretty handy though the infested marine tactic is a throwback to Warcraft 3’s Necro + Selektons combo.

            Starcraft 2 plays exactly like a 90s era RTS game. The interface, unit balance and economy make it painful obvious. The RTS genre has evolved from this era.

            Homeworld 1&2 = complete 3D combat where the “z axis” can make a difference. Formations can make or break a fleet. Damm shame that no RTS has attempt to replicate HW 1&2.

            Total Annilation/Supreme Commander = long-range radar/sonar intelligence, control-point based economy, real arilitery/indirect fire units working with newtonian physics (mostly TA), shields and walls to protect your assets, battle wreckage that can be reclaim for extra resources, expermential/strategic class units/weapons.

            Hell, EA era of C&C games at least try to something different. Crazy weapons and weapon combinations with a heavy focus on micromanagement and tactics.

            • Meadows
            • 8 years ago

            Remodels and “combinations” seem fresh enough from a fine-tuned gameplay standpoint that you just proved yourself wrong.

            Also,
            [quote<]Damm shame that no RTS has attempt[/quote<] For real? For the thousandth time, "damm" is [u<]not[/u<] an existing word, and obviously [b<][i<]you can't grammar[/i<].[/b<]

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BOG4p1-H2Q[/url<]

            • KoolAidMan
            • 8 years ago

            Protoss warps alone change the dynamics or mobility and reinforcements.

            Also, all of the RTS games you mentioned as improvements on the genre are either inferior, or they cannot be compared as they are micro/tactical emphasis as opposed to macro. Other macro oriented RTS like TA or SupCom are poorly balanced and just not as good.

            The best I can say about any of them is the awesome soundtrack of Homeworld. Sorry.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            Significant changes are what made Warcraft III just completely unbearable to me.

            • Krogoth
            • 8 years ago

            Warcraft 3 was a fresh breath of air. It played like a “real-time” tactics game with a greater emphasis on micromanagement. You couldn’t easily win by just throwing huge armies at the enemy. You have to take unit types and hero combinations into consideration. Expanding required addtional effort and risk (Creeping).

            I can’t fathom why you didn’t like Warcraft 3. Starcraft 1&2 depend a lot on micromanagement at higher levels of play. The same element of risk still exists with expansion, although it is mostly time and map based.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        Now that you’ve (presumably) played SC2, go back and play BW. I think you’ll change your mind based on enhancements to the actual gameplay alone.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          I have sc2, and to be honest, i rarely play it, cause i’m playing one instead. it has, no question, improvements to the UI, and control, but I don’t think the game play is as tight.

            • walruslove
            • 8 years ago

            I find statements like these weird, what exactly do you mean by tight? There are tons of tedious things in bw that require extra apm but in sc2 do you ever find yourself just sitting around with nothing to spend actions on? if you do you could probably be doing 10 things better to improve. SC2 took away a decent amount of tedious things that exist in bw while not sacrificing the amount of skill you need to be amazing at the game. I find it hard to see a valid argument that the game play in bw is more “tight”.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            I don’t think my automating things that means they automatically improved the game. I can watch a computer play all day with no problems. I think the game is better balanced, and that the game just [i<] feels [/i<] better. IDK.

            • willyolio
            • 8 years ago

            in short, you’ve found a comfort zone in SC1 and you’re unwilling to learn a whole new set of strategies.

            SC2 is not perfectly balanced, but it’s pretty damn close already, and there’s only been a few minor balance tweaks since release. It’s enough for former SC1 progamers to switch to SC2 full time, and nobody has found anything that can’t be defeated with more skill.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            I don’t know if that’s what it is. I suppose that might be some level of it, IDK. when i first played sc, after playing many other RTS’ it felt incredible. It changed everything. I guess i was expecting something like that with sc2.

      • SPOOFE
      • 8 years ago

      They’re not just talking about gaps between games, they’re referring to the amount of hype. SC2 was announced, what, a couple years before it came out? How many release dates was SC2 given? How many different E3 trailers did it have?

      And I too think SC2 is great.

      • Game_boy
      • 8 years ago

      An 18-year example: NSMB Wii

        • Corrado
        • 8 years ago

        NSMB was great, but it wasn’t the revolution that SMB was. EVERYONE had and played SMB. I barely run into anyone that has played NSMB.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      Starcraft II, along with all the other examples here, didn’t have any sort of rocky development period where the game was effectively aborted and started again.

        • dashbarron
        • 8 years ago

        I see your point but I think one could argue that a project that was scrapped and recreated even at least once should have a better outcome than DNF. I know it isn’t out yet but take Diablo 3 for example. It was scrapped at least one and switched sub-companies at least once as well; so far at least it is looking like quite the successor—conjecture. Basically what we’ve been told is that among other reasons they didn’t like how the game was shaping up, scrapped it, and started anew with something that is going to be much better in the end. It will be at least 10 years once D3 comes out. As I said, “almost” an anomaly.

        The only reason they couldn’t have done the same with DNF would have been because of time. I don’t know the production details of the game but I was under the impression that the only time-constrains they were under were the ones they set themselves probably due to sheer public pressure. They could have worked longer on it if their budgets allowed.

        And…as secretive as Blizzard is who knows how many times SC2 was worked on in the last 12 years. Maybe that is why it took so long, it was scrapped many times?

          • willyolio
          • 8 years ago

          technically, the original starcraft was pretty much warcraft 2 in space, but then it was completely scrapped and a new game engine was written from scratch. it turned out pretty well.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 years ago

            that’s true, but that game never got released, so it doesn’t really count.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 8 years ago

    game looks bad… well hope that gearbox learns from this.

    • thesmileman
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]the game's sky boxes are marred by low polygon counts and flat, repeating textures.[/quote<] Darn those sky boxes only including 6 polygons! And darn those 6 polygons being so darn flax. Honestly I don't know what they were thinking!

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      Sky boxes haven’t been simple textured cubes for a long, long time. I’m talking about all the decorative, non-explorable geometry beyond level boundaries.

        • thesmileman
        • 8 years ago

        I didn’t know we were calling the current 3D background LOD scaling environments, “skyboxes” anymore.

        It was a good right up I just thought your comment sounded funny.

          • sweatshopking
          • 8 years ago

          “write up”

        • sweatshopking
        • 8 years ago

        he’s just buggin you. the sky did look like balls. oblivion is like 5 years old and looks 10x nicer.

          • thesmileman
          • 8 years ago

          I didn’t say the sky didn’t look like crap because it did

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            then wtf are you bitching about?

            • eitje
            • 8 years ago

            accuracy – someone on the Internet was WRONG.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            It wasn’t even that, it was mocking Cyril for making a statement that, apparently, he agreed with. I’m shocked – SHOCKED – how stupid people can be some times.

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 8 years ago

            Plus Cyril complained that the textures were flat, not the polygons.

      • Meadows
      • 8 years ago

      Why 6, of all things? That’s not even a common number for skyboxes.

        • willyolio
        • 8 years ago

        maybe the skybox was house-shaped…

          • derFunkenstein
          • 8 years ago

          THERE’S A FLOOR IN MY SKYBOX

            • Meadows
            • 8 years ago

            That doesn’t even make sense.

            • ludi
            • 8 years ago

            A cube has six sides.

            One of them is a floor.

    • sweatshopking
    • 8 years ago

    ya. that’s what i felt like too.

    • paulWTAMU
    • 8 years ago

    Another piece of my childhood dies. Thanks.

      • SPOOFE
      • 8 years ago

      That just means its energy goes into the rest of the pieces of your childhood.

      • bittermann
      • 8 years ago

      Let the DNF franchise die as well…but I heard this is the just the beginning…maybe the beginning of the end?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This