Duke Nukem Forever Is A Tawdry, Sometimes Gratifying, Spectacle

Viewed as the fulfillment of a nearly 14-year-old promise, Duke Nukem Forever delivers on all fronts. But held up to the polish, the technical marvels and the intricacies of the modern day shooter, this game - so belated it is almost mythical - is spectacularly underwhelming.

That doesn't mean Duke Nukem Forever isn't fun to play, it's just an anomaly, a by-product of a long-gone decade and its mores.

A Vegas strip club may not sound like the best setting in which to show off a video game anticipated for more than a decade, but it's surprisingly appropriate.

There is a shower stall here. It's tucked away neatly between two booths draped in faux velvet. Inside the shower stall is a bucket filled with brushes and other things. I don't venture too close. I'm not sure I want to know what exactly is in that bucket. But I can't get the shower out of my mind.

It, like the dozens of flatscreen televisions and Xbox 360s spread around the room, don't really fit in with the rest of the decor. But while the gaming consoles, the Duke Nukem velvet paintings and fake posters, will all leave this strip club by the end of the night, the shower looks like a permanent fixture.

After settling down in an empty booth, propping my laptop on a cushioned seat and slipping on a pair of white headphones, I pick up the Xbox 360 controller and tap through the game's three available difficulty settings: Come Get Some, Piece of Cake, Let's Rock.

Is Duke Nukem the sort of game that comes from more than 13 years of development? No, most certainly not. Was it worth the wait? For fans of Duke Nukem? Probably.

It takes me a second to figure out which will make playing through the game's initial eight levels easiest in the 90 minutes or so I have in which to game.

Duke Nukem Forever opens in a bathroom, staring down at a stream of urine slicking the sides of a porcelain bowl.

Duke Nukem is in a locker room, there is a nearby whiteboard with the words "Operation Cockblock" written under the hand drawn image of some sort of alien. I walk up to the board and, using the controller's thumbsticks, doodle scribbles around the picture.

When I'm done, a nearby soldier enthuses over the brilliance of my plan, which neither he nor I understand.

I finally make my way outside and into a stadium where I face a living version of the crude sketch.

The games controls would be familiar to anyone who's played a shooter. One thumb stick moves Duke's body, the other his aim and view. One trigger fires off shots; the other zooms in the perspective. I spend a few minutes drilling fire into the alien, dodging his return fire and picking up extra ammo before the battle is over.

Then the twist: This isn't the game, it's a game within the game. Duke Nukem has been playing a video game based on his life. And while he's been playing, twin women, "The Holsum Twins", have been pleasuring him.

The twins ask if the game is any good.

"It fucking better be," Duke replies, "It's been 12 years."

The meta nature of a game within a game brings with it a moment's relief. Perhaps the bland nature of the controls, the plastic look of the characters and the settings were all the byproduct of this video game within a video game.

No such luck.

No, the world of Duke Nukem looks very similar to the video games of Duke Nukem's world. The people look oddly stiff, like animated mannequins, the settings are a bit too geometrically tidy. Fortunately, Duke's personality, the over-the-top bravado and his corny jokes, quickly overwhelm the experience.

Even in the 90 minutes I spent playing the game I found myself slowly, subtly falling in love with the one-liners and bloody blowback of Duke Nukem gameplay.

Duke Nukem Forever Is A Tawdry, Sometimes Gratifying, Spectacle

But it takes awhile to get good.

The first two levels of the game essentially set up what I suspect will be all the plot Duke Nukem Forever will contain.

Duke is the savior of the human race, he's the most popular, most famous, most rich person on the planet. When aliens come to his town, Las Vegas, and park a spaceship off the tip of his skyscraper casino, The Lady Killer, the president of the U.S. and the military ask Duke to leave it be. They're in peace talks, they say.

When things go south, with no real notice or explanation, and it turns out that the alien force isn't just intent on invading, but on stealing Earth's women, Duke busts out the steroids, beer and shotgun and starts kicking ass.

It's in the third level, "The Duke Cave", that we start to see something a bit unusual in a shooter. We learn two things:

Duke is apparently a lightweight when it comes to drinking.

When he drinks down a beer the world gets very blurry and a little off-kilter, but he can take more damage.

Later we discover that when Duke crunches on some steroids he forgoes his arsenal of weapons to beat aliens down with his powered-up punches.

The game's levels, like the gameplay and the graphics, also feel a bit dated.

Duke Nukem Forever Is A Tawdry, Sometimes Gratifying, Spectacle

For instance, the fourth level, "The Mothership Battle", plops Duke down into a giant cannon and has him working to take down a mothership while worrying over the rising temperature of the massive gun.

In the fifth level, The Lady Killer, we're treated to a Duke Nukem speciality, a shrink ray which turns the hero into a doll-sized pipsqueak. The entire level has you driving through the collapsing halls of the casino in a toy remote control car, avoiding towering enemies as you work your way through the building.

It's in The Lady Killer Part 2 where I realize suddenly, that I'm quite enjoying the game that I initially dismissed as too simple, too graphically sleek to captivate me.

There are the little things, like the fact that Duke's health is measured entirely by his ego, something you can replenish or increase not with health packs, but with looks in the mirror, weight lifting and general self back-pattery.

There are the games within the game, like the surprisingly fun Duke Nukem pinball machine and the slots. There is the return to puzzles in a shooter, something not often seen in games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.

Duke Nukem Forever Is A Tawdry, Sometimes Gratifying, Spectacle

But what really hooks me is how the game's silly premise, over-the-top character, absurd one-liners and jokes, start to make me act just as silly in the game.

For instance, I find myself muttering my own stupid one-liners when I take out a group of pig aliens. I inexplicably take great joy in tossing trash cans at the general when he finally stops by to admit his mistake. Not one or two times, but throughout his speech. Trash can to the face. Trash can to the face. Trash can to the face. I don't even mind that he doesn't seem to notice.

I giggle a lot, mostly to myself, at the humor which has somehow unlocked some inner... man-child I didn't even know existed.

Duke Nukem Forever Is A Tawdry, Sometimes Gratifying, Spectacle

By the time I get to the game's final demo level, Vegas in Ruin, I am thoroughly enjoying myself, no longer worrying about the lack of character depth, sensible story or a single map not turned into a rat maze of absurdly placed debris.

I laugh, genuinely laugh, at the Halo joke.

And when my time with Duke Nukem ends with a scene involving testicular punches, I genuinely wish I could keep playing.

Is Duke Nukem the sort of game that comes from more than 13 years of development? No, most certainly not. Was it worth the wait? For fans of Duke Nukem? Probably.