Duke Nukem Forever (PC) Review

Summary

If you can appreciate Duke Nukem Forever for what it is, a game that should have come out 6 years ago, and stop expecting it to compete with modern shooters, you will get some enjoyment out of it, but there are still rough edges everywhere that will make playing it seem like a chore at times.

Also, for those of you (like me) that thought gore and boobs could be enjoyable enough to mask boring level design or unenjoyable enemies, they won’t. While they do provide highlight moments in the game, the novelty fades fast and you are again left with a subpar shooter with smatterings of fun mixed with a lot of linear and boring gameplay.

Configuration

Since this is a PC game review, here is my configuration:

  • Dual-core E6850 3.0Ghz CPU
  • 8GB RAM
  • Radeon HD 6950 GPU
  • 2650×1600 Resolution
  • All Graphics Settings Maxed

The Great

  • Miniature Shrink-ray Levels – I believe Duke Nukem invented this before it got popularized more in the Counter Strike alternative maps, but the miniaturized level design is back and a lot of fun. This Fast Food Kitchen level in particular was filled with a lot of fun puzzles and great design getting around from the outside to the inside to eventually turn off the power. Part of the fun is deciding where you need to jump and remembering that you are tiny so things in the world have a different effect on you. For example, jumping on a spatula will trampoline you into the air, or walking across a dead body as a bridge is a good way to avoid getting shocked.

The Good

  • Boobs – I know a lot of people will roll their eyes at this, but in a game with relatively few redeeming factors I am not going to pretend that this wasn’t a highlight. It was. There were only a few moments of it though, not a constant or well-paced onslaught of boobage unfortunately.

  • SOME Textures – I had to qualify this as not all the textures are sharp, but enough of them were relatively sharp and nicely augmented with some bump mapping and other post-processing effects that they looked pretty good. From what I’ve read they look downright terrible on the Xbox 360, but on the PC maxed out, DNF looked just as solid as any other decent shooter in the same ilk (The Riddick series comes to mind).

  • Lighting Effects – Some solid lighting effects in the game made rooms appropriately moody and some environments (when used) look better than I expected from such an old title.

  • Gore – Again, similar to the bewbs category, this is some more shock-effect benefits stuck in the game that made it sometimes enjoyable to kill an enemy. Honestly I noticed the gore more in the bodies that pre-populate a scene in a level than I did the gore left over from me killing enemies… that seemed more random and way less enjoyable (nothing like Soldier of Fortune 2 for those of you who remember the Ghoul Engine). It looks like the 3D Realms team spent some serious time implementing accurate dismemberment but honestly you rarely notice it… the enemies are too numerous to ever stop and look and the gunplay so unenjoyable that you never get a satisfying-feeling kill that you want to go admire.

  • Boss Fights – While not all that enjoyable and honestly a bit of a grind, I love boss fights in general and thought it was nice to see them in here.
  • Driving Levels – The monster-truck driving (and to a lesser extent the RC car miniature driving levels) control well and jumping with nitros and smashing enemies ended up being a fairly fun mechanic interspersed with the shooting.
  • Length of Game – Steam says I played for 7 hours… it felt like 12 to me. So I’m putting this under Good. Had this been a 15+ hour game, I don’t know if I would have kept playing and finished it. (This is a semi-snarky point).

The Bad

  • Not Funny – Duke staked his claim in people’s minds because the games were light hearted, funny and lewd. Duke Nukem Forever is too serious. Enemies are way too difficult to be fun and too static to provide complex/enjoyable combat. So you end up in this sort of Serious Sam grind to get through levels, with no desire to look back. That leads to stress and the stress is hardly ever lifted to enjoy or laugh at anything being said. Also there are very few attempts at being funny… quips and funny posters are few and far between in the game and I think I remember snickering once. More than anything the story thread of the game just feels choppy and doesn’t flow. Also Duke has been off the map for 12 years, so hearing catch phrases like “Always Bet on Duke!” a decade late doesn’t have the zing it may have had many years ago.
  • Repetitive One-liners: I am not sure how much voice-work Jon St. John did for DNF, but I heard many of the one-liners over and over and over again. Just off the top of my head, I think I heard “Hmmm, bacon” or something to that effect 71,000 times in one level (rough estimate).

  • Dark Inside Levels – Whenever you are inside things are dark, I think the last 1/3 of the game was only a hair brighter than Doom 3 as you spend much of your time in pooly lit sections of the Hoover Dam. This gives you a feeling of claustrophobia and was just too much time spent in the dark for my liking.
  • Enemies Not Fun – At no point in the game does Duke feel like a badass. For a game built around the idea that this super-human man embodies all the testosterone in the world, the enemy design and damage model in the game NEVER makes you feel tough. You get your ass handed to you when the gorilla-pigs charge you, when a boss unloads on you or when explosions go off near you. You feel just as fragile as Gordon Freeman in Half-Life which leads to fire-fights being as stressful and as much of a grind as the original Half Life. You don’t get saucy with your attacks like in Gears of War on Easy; there is no motivation to try and execute enemies in creative ways, you just want to dispatch them and get to the other spawn-cabinets because the screen has 5 or 6 enemies on it tearing you a new asshole. This really bothered me. Hell, you can only carry 2 weapons at any time. Almost none of the design here makes Duke feel like a badass… it makes him feel like an anemic Resident Evil character that has to ration ammo. Also, how is there no epic kick melee attack in this game? It seems so appropriate for Duke to have a kick that sends enemies like 20 feet, optionally gibbing them if you are near a wall (say less than 5 feet) — that kind of stuff would have made him feel like a badass.
  • Guns Not Fun – (See Areas of Improvement section below for my recommendations for this) Take the previous comment and add to it that the guns themselves are not enjoyable to use, don’t have any unique characteristic or do any hugely enjoyable damage to the enemies and you end up with a lot of “grinding” through firefights. While playing it got to the point that I would sigh when I would get through a puzzle portion of the game and enter a new “arena” where enemies would spawn in… I really learned to dislike the firefights in the game. They aren’t bad, just uninspired stuff we saw in Half Life (the first one) and hasn’t evolved with the times. Again, sort of expected given the life spam on the game, but still needs to be mentioned.
  • Inconsistent Explosive Damage – I don’t know if this is an issue of the technology and hit-detection accuracy, but you’ll notice (especially on the abandoned mining town level) that the splash damage from an explosion seems to do almost no damage sometimes and then tons of damage other times. I’ve blown barrels up on pigs that seems to take no damage, and then throw a pipe bomb that explodes right behind them that does nothing, then a land mine blows them to pieces… I don’t get it. Whatever the model is, it’s not satisfying and makes me feel like I’m wasting explosives for no reason and can’t trust them as a weapon.
  • Not Many Guns – Surprisingly there are not that many guns in the game. I used the Ripper, Shotgun and Rocketlauncher almost 90% of the game. There is a Colt 45, Shrink Ray, Freeze Ray, Two alien guns and the Railgun which I only used a handful of times. I never used the Shrink or Freeze Ray after realizing how slow they are to use and they take up an entire weapon slot. The Colt I only used when there was nothing else around and the Railgun (12 rounds only) is handy only when taking out respawning turret gunners (which were really unfun sequences).

  • World Interaction – While there is a decent amount of world-interaction, it isn’t SO interactive that you are crapping your pants. I think back in 2006 it would have been, but today it’s about on-par with what you would expect. I think the error here is that a handful of items are extremely interactive (e.g. pinball machines, video poker machines, microwaves) and likely took up a huge portion of the development time at the expense of making more of the world interactable or at the least more detailed in more portions.

  • Inconsistent Boss Fights - This is an odd one, but it basically boils down to me being unsure at times when I was fighting a Boss and needed to use boss-only rules for taking them down or when I was just fighting a big enemy. This may have been caused by multiple enemies looking really similar, but I remember being confused a handful of times if I was fighting the same boss over again or if I was just fighting a big grunt. This lead (for example in the pic above) me to run around looking for exits during fights I didn’t realize were normal bad guys so I could use my guns on them and not fret when I ran out of explosives. The one above in particular had a boss health bar, but guns worked on him while others only explosives do. Another time on the Hoover dam when you fight the end boss there, I believe both work on him as well, but then the other boss fights (e.g. serpent under the dam and end-boss) ONLY explosives work. During the loading-screen tips it says only explosives work on bosses… so it’s just confusing what is considered a boss and what isn’t. You’d figure the special health-bar that shows up when fighting them is an indicator, but seems not.

The Ugly

  • Load Times – Wow, even on a decent PC load times on the first load of a play session were typically 45 seconds. After that subsequent loads were 10-15 seconds roughly. I read on the Xbox 360 that they are consistently terrible across the board. If they were always 45 seconds, I would have honestly not played until a God-mode trainer came out, because waiting that much to restart after getting killed is not tenable.
  • Few “Stuck” Levels - For the most part levels are OK and a few actually Fun, but in a handful of cases the level design was so near-sighted that you can find yourself in a boss fight and literally run out of ammo in every weapon you have with NO WAY to kill the boss. This happened to me 3 times, the most interesting of which was fighting two of those fat saucer-flying bosses that shoot rockets. I ran out of all my ammo and only had a shrink ray, so I had to shrink them, then leap off the building’s maintenance roof onto them in mid-air to trigger the foot-crush animation. The other boss fights I had to reload and try again… really damn annoying.
  • Special Boss Rules – If you read our Turok Review, you know I cannot stand “special rules” when it comes to boss fights. While DNF was no where as bad as Turok, the idea that only explosives do damage to bosses is a pain in the ass when you run out. Combine this element with the last point from the section above (inconsistency in the consideration of WHAT a boss is) and you run into some annoying-ass gameplay.

Conclusion [6.5 out of 10]

The Number #1 reason I didn’t enjoy Duke Nukem Forever more was that you never feel like a badass in combat.

  1. You can only ever carry 2 weapons with very limited ammo.
  2. You take damage really quickly when enemies get up on you.
  3. The enemy pacing/attacking is too fast and aggressive, so combined with #2, it is a frantic rush to dispatch enemies on-screen and not actually enjoy the process of killing them (a la Gears of War).
  4. Weapons don’t feel great and you don’t have time to have “fun” with them (e.g. dismemberment, Shrink Ray, Freeze Ray, etc.)

When you combine all those issues together, firefights boil down to a frantic rush to clear enemies off the screen before you get messed up. There is no time to slow down and appreciate a boss fight or slow down and try and get a kill in with a creative Freeze-and-smash or Shrink-and-crush. I tried to use those guns for a few levels, but it was a total fail because:

  1. You have to give up 1 of your weapon slots to the “fun” weapon.
  2. Using the “fun” weapon takes time (freezing or shrinking then chasing around and trying to smash) at which time the other enemies in the scene are pelting you with gunfire in the back.

It was infinitely easier to ignore those weapons all together and just keep using standard weapons the entire game.

For folks that think shooters are OK and either don’t like Duke or have no idea who he is, skip this game. Maybe rent it down the road, but certainly don’t buy it.

For folks that like shooters and enjoy gore and some nudity, you will think Duke Nukem Forever is somewhere between a 6 and 7 out of 10. The shooting gameplay is not tight enough or fun enough to pull you over, but the game will have its moments. Again I still encourage a rental.

For folks that love Duke and have been waiting for this forever, you may give this an 8 out of 10. There is enough Duke-i-ness here to keep you happy, but not so much of it creatively done that you will feel showered in your hero.

Areas of Improvement

I hate criticism when the person giving it cannot provide constructive alternatives or suggestions for improvement, so I try and do the same with my reviews.

Here is a list of changes that would have caused me to give Duke Nukem Forever a solid 8 out of 10 or possibly higher.

  • Classic FPS Weapon Rules – infinite slots. Let me have fun with the weapons, let me carry all of them or something like 5 of them. Limiting to 2 is way too Resident-Evil-esque for a game like this.
  • Insane Melee – There is a huge missed opportunity here making Duke like an over-muscled badass with regards to raw muscular power and melee attacks. Gun-butt melee attacks as they stand now are weak and worthless. Some major improvements that would go a long way are:
    • Add a “kick” melee attack that will send enemies flying, up to 20 feet. If the kick is used to kick enemies into a wall or something less than 5 or 8 feet away, make the kick so powerful that they gib when they slam into it with an awesome-sounding wet sound and leave a big mess on the wall. All those assets are already in the game (gibs, blood/mess textures and kicking animation Duke uses on the doors).
    • In addition to #1, add some fun Melee weapons that make you WANT to get closer to enemies like an oversized sledge hammer that just wrecks things, a big two-handed sword or being able to wield a bench press bar with weight on it to bludgeon things to heaven… whatever over-the-top weapons a testosterone-laden fellow like Duke would use.
    • (Extra) This would require new modeling and animation, but a super-punch that can be charged up that punches through enemies faces or chests would be something truly Duke-ish. You could imagine punching through a pig cop’s face and then Duke saying something like “K.O. baby!”.
  • No Steroids – Get rid of Steroids as a temporary berserk mode — just replace them with the previous point (melee weapons) and have them boost Duke’s life bar for 10 mins or something else. Or leave them as berserk mode and don’t take damage when on them.
  • Enemy Cheapness – Get rid of the pig-cop leap, they can clear something like 50 feet with that jump. They already run fast enough so when they hoard up on me I can stand a chance. Also found it really annoying when the flying guys would flash out JUST as I was about to kill them, then back in again right behind me or above me so I’m spinning around frantically trying to figure out where the gunshots are coming from.
  • Consistent Weapon Damage – Let any weapon do damage to a boss, just make it scale appropriately. For example, I did Steroids and went to punch a boss a few times and it did no damage… really disappointing. Another example of how Duke feels like a normal character and not a badass.
  • Enemy Accuracy – It is really annoying getting belted with gunfire unflinchingly during a fight while you focus on 1 enemy and the other 5 on-screen have dead-eye accuracy. The constantly red-flash on the screen and the stress induced just trying to STOP getting shot is what sucks the fun out of the scene. You can even make the individual shots do more damage or give Duke less health to even the difficulty out, but making it so common to just get riddled with bullets and the stress-inducing response that it has mentally on the player sucks the fun out of the scenes.
  • Enemy Rate of Fire – In addition to the previous point, slow down their rate of fire and make them take cover more or just “lay off” a bit more so you are encouraged to get closer and do something more interesting to them and not hide half way across town just to avoid getting ripped up.
  • More Flexible Executions – Make executions proximity-sensitive (as well as context-sensitive). Don’t only allow it to happen to kneeling enemies, allow it to happen to any (applicable) enemy that you have gotten near enough to, to fuck-up Duke-style (this goes back to my “Duke doesn’t feel like a badass” point). Take a tip from Turok, they put more enemies on-screen but allowed you to use proximity-sensitive kills anytime. It made you feel like a badass.

Just these gameplay changes here (no new asset creation, no heavy programming) would have likely made the gun fighting enjoyable enough that my score would have been an entire point or point-and-a-half higher.

To go higher than that, I would have wanted to see a more polished game with more fleshed out story, better NPC interaction and higher-cost things like that.

What I’m getting at is that with the existing assets and some tweaks I think DNF, as it mostly stands now, could have been a noticeably better game out the door.

Screenshot Gallery

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About Riyad Kalla

Software development, video games, writing, reading and anything shiny. I ultimately just want to provide a resource that helps people and if I can't do that, then at least make them laugh.

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