Near the beginning of Duke Nukem Forever, you make your way through a bona fide Duke Nukem museum. Statues, paintings, fourth-wall-shattering tributes to Duke’s greatest hits—the place nearly has it all. And we say “nearly” because one thing is missing from that perfume-scented love letter to Duke’s past: Duke Nukem Forever itself. Play for a bit longer, though, and it’s not hard to see why. The game’s a musty, maggot-infested relic, no doubt, but it gets the finer details all wrong. It’s like meeting the zombie of a former loved one; you see it from a distance, and you want to run up and embrace it with 14 years of pent-up longing. But as you close the distance, you take note of its jerky movements and its spittle-slurred babble. And then you realize something: It has no soul.
Duke Nukem Forever quite clearly doesn’t know what it wants to be. Nostalgia-soaked blast-from-the-past or spectacle-driven corridor slog? So instead, it opts to fail miserably at both. Gone is Duke 3D’s guns-a-blazing approach to combat. Now Duke’s fallen in line with every other faceless FPS soldier and gotten himself a recharging health meter. Battles, then, tend to see you scurrying behind cover and taking desperate potshots, because—for all of his bravado—Duke’s a bullet sponge in that he can absorb fire about as well as an actual sponge. This, of course, leads to frustrating, one-hit-kill-packed trial and error—especially where boss fights are concerned. Oh, and that’s only after the game’s nearly actionless opening, which lasts upwards of an hour.
On top of that, Duke’s now limited to only two weapons at a time, so don’t be surprised to find your bullets uselessly pinging off enemies because you left the correct gun on the moon or something. And that’s to say nothing of the shooting itself, which generally feels spasmatic and uncoordinated—like Duke’s a teenager on the wrong side of an overnight growth spurt. Happily, zany weapons like the Shrink Ray are still a blast to use, but after taking a merciless beating at the hands of so many other issues, combat’s fun factor hobbles away barely breathing.
Curse you, Duke! Your tiny car has foiled my plans once again!
Level design, meanwhile, has abandoned the freeform whimsy of Duke 3D for the predictable corridor crawling of today’s shooter kingpins. Which is a shame, because—during rare moments when the King decides to venture off the beaten path—a few glimmers of legitimate creativity shine through. See, open areas are essentially toy boxes. If you find an item, odds are, Duke can awkwardly extend his hand at it—in a weird petting motion—until it does something. This, in turn, increases Duke’s ego, which is the game’s name for his health meter. It’s a nice bit of self-referential cleverness that gels perfectly with Duke’s larger-than-life personality. For instance, you might sign an autograph or lift weights. Or you might fling poop.
Duke Nukem’s always been about borderline-offensive humor, but make no mistake: These aren’t the Duke jokes you know and love. This primarily stems from the fact that they aren’t actually jokes. There’s no punch line—no method to the madness. The game’s just a never-ending torrent of outdated references punctuated by a heaping helping of potty humor. No one is safe from Duke’s keen sense of what was funny seven years ago. Chuck Norris, Christian Bale’s notorious tantrum, a bevy of Internet memes—Duke’s not irreverent so much as he is irrelevant. Then you get to the allegedly “offensive” stuff and it’s, well, not. Sure, the game’s almost frighteningly misogynistic, but in a way so blunt and pointless that all you can really do is pity it. Its fixation on the female form is that of a horny 14-year-old boy. It doesn’t actually understand women or—indeed—sexuality, so it loudly lashes out to cover up that fact.
"Agh! My health meter's stabbing me in the eye!"
Really, that’s Duke Nukem Forever in a nutshell: It’s essentially Puberty: The Game in an industry that’s nearly grown up. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, because it never had a clear direction to begin with. It checks all the boxes (including multiplayer, which is so bare-bones that it barely bears mentioning), but with a haphazard disregard for how everything fits together. Occasionally, fun manages to squeeze its way to the forefront, but frustration and boredom hog the spotlight more often than not. Skip this one and don’t look back until it’s in the bargain bin.