Duke Nukem Forever begins in a casino bearing the Duke's name. While slowly making your way through this marble-clad tribute to a hero of decades past (I hesitate to use the word "fighting"), you'll pause to sign autographs. You'll get a blowjob. You'll control a remote control car. Twice. You'll complete a "puzzle", you'll do some platforming, you'll talk to some people and you'll even shoot some pigs.
All in the space of an hour or two. All in the one area. And this game quickly moves beyond it to greener pastures, such as the streets of Las Vegas, enemy sex hives, deserted mining towns and the Hoover Dam.
When was the last time you ever played something so ambitious? So full of ideas, such a dedication to pack a first-person shooter with as much peripheral crap as could possibly fit inside a genre in which you normally only do one, maybe two of those things?
Never, that's when. And there's a very good reason why.
First announced in 1997, Duke Nukem Forever was mostly developed by 3D Realms, the franchise's creators, and was originally destined to be released in 1998. That never happened. For the next decade the game was stuck in development hell, its indecisive director George Broussard blamed for endlessly making alterations to the title, which included a number of engine changes and complete content overhauls.
Finally, in 2009, the plug was pulled, and the game seemed destined for the dustbin of history. Which is probably where it deserved to stay. It has, however, been rescued by Take-Two and Gearbox Software, who have polished up the "game", given it a marketing campaign and done the unthinkable, putting Duke Nukem Forever in the hands of paying customers.
Ah, there I go again. Using "game". Here's why: Duke Nukem Forever is little more than a collection of concepts, demonstrations, half-finished levels and half-formed ideas bolted together crudely at the seams and passed off as a coherent, completed project.
Playing through Forever is like being hung, drawn and quartered, its many fundamental failings in a constant struggle to get your attention as the single worst thing about it.
Should you somehow feel the need to play this game, and have never played a Duke Nukem game before, you should know something: this was originally supposed to come out in 1998. And then, maybe, somewhere around 2003. And then, maybe, somewhere around 2008. While some could argue that lends it a certain rustic charm, what it actually means is that you're playing a game out of time. Out of step with advancements in both its chosen genre and gaming and a whole.
Many things you take for granted in games today simply aren't present in Duke Nukem Forever. Like enemy AI. Or convincing environments that look like actual places. You'll also be constantly reminded of its age by the crude character models you encounter at dangerously intimate distances, boring multiplayer modes and the poor pathfinding you encounter when scripted events required to progress aren't very well scripted.
Games of course don't need all of those things. There's an argument that they're surplus to requirements here, that Duke Nukem Forever is not trying to be Modern Warfare, or Halo, or BioShock. "It's a throwback!", that argument will type angrily on an internet forum. "It's a reminder of when games used to be just about the fun, about shooting shit!".
What's saddest about the game, then, is that it fails even as such a nostalgia project. While much of Forever is full of parts you'll be able to identify as dating back to 2004, or even 1998, there are just as many where you can see where a designer has played a competing product over the past ten years and crudely bolted another's mechanic onto his own game in places and ways it was never meant to be bolted.
Duke Nukem Forever's singleplayer campaign is an old game. Its multiplayer modes are no different. With a handful of basic game types like capture the flag and king of the hill offering absolutely nothing new other than the chance to slap a woman around for a bit, it makes you wonder why the developers bothered with them at all when the singleplayer side of things still needed so much work.
One example is a series of puzzles you must complete towards the end of the game, rearranging steam valves to clear a path through a level. At one point, Duke grumbles "man, I hate valve puzzles". It's supposed to be a joke, and yet comes off as anything but. People love Valve puzzles in games like Half-Life 2 and Portal because they're intelligent and well-integrated within a level. Forever's puzzles are bland and interrupt what little momentum the game is capable of mustering with its broken pacing.
Worse still is the influence of Halo. Old-school shooters, and this is definitely trying to be one of those with its basic AI and lack of cover mechanics, always had two great things going for them: speed and a ridiculous arsenal of weapons. You'd be carrying 6-8 guns around with you at any one time, and when the need arose, you'd switch between them, all the while spinning madly around a level.
Forever eschews this in favour of a plodding pace and two guns. You can only carry two at any one time, just like Halo, so you have to pick and choose which you'll take and which you'll leave. Like the Valve puzzles, though, this is implemented terribly. In Halo, weapons are left according to need and what's coming next. In Forever, they are not.
Should you somehow feel the need to play this and have played a Duke Nukem game before, know this: Forever does not star the Duke you know, nor does it play like the Duke Nukem 3D you once loved.