The sad ending to a long-running joke.
That's really the most one can say about this game, a 12+ year mess of development hubris. Considering there are likely people who were way too young to play Duke Nukem 3D who are old enough to play Forever, I would suggest first playing that classic game, if only to see what the hell the fuss was about. Now that everyone is up to speed, let's continue.
The first thing that one notices almost immediately is that, despite being an Unreal Engine 3 game, Duke Nukem Forever looks like something out of Id Tech 4. The shapes of the environments and characters are right, but the textures look wrong, stretching with the character models and looking somewhat blurry when viewed up close. Heck, if it wasn't for the grotesque abuse of shimmer effects making nearly everything look wet, this game could have been an Id Tech 4 game, and probably performed as well on even older hardware than the already dated parts recommended for this game. The weapons look fine and have a nice punch when firing, but having only introduced one weapon that wasn't in Duke Nukem 3D, the weapons were really the most likely area to have the most polish.
The game itself is pretty standard fare mechanically when compared with shooters nowadays. Duke has a two-weapon limit and regenerating health, as has been the standard for the genre since Halo, and the game's level design is a mix of tight corridors and large battlefields, though those battlefields don't have nearly enough cover for the flank-happy enemies, especially the teleporting aliens. For the most part, though, the game provides a good level of challenge at Come Get Some (hard) difficulty without feeling like it's cheating most of the time.
This is, of course, during combat. For a game promising almost non-stop explosions and action, combat is surprisingly sparse in Duke Nukem Forever. There are rarely encounters involving more than three or four enemies at one time, not counting critters that can be crushed underfoot. Much of the game is spent jumping from one platform to another or solving basic physics puzzles, neither of which feel particularly inspired, though at least they're inoffensive.
What isn't inoffensive is much of the content in the game. Swearing abound is the least of this game's offenses. There are chunks of the game (including an entire level about halfway through) that are devoted to depicting women as animals in heat, just waiting for you to put your knob in them. The one moment in the game that tries to depict women as anything other than mindless sluts fails miserably, with characters promising to lose their pregnancy weight while others cry miserably for their daddy. However, this schizophrenic moment is the highlight of a game cast with nothing but moron characters.
And it's not just women that are depicted poorly in this game. The Earth Defense Force is staffed in its entirety by grunting neanderthals, including one who calls a team mate a woman's genital area (and not in those words) for wanting to save his wife, and the President of the United States is such an imbecile that his own top general turns a tin ear to him. Then there are the ill-advised barbs at other games. Duke takes thinly veiled jabs at games such as Halo, Gears of War, and Half-Life, which only serves to highlight just what more competent studios have done in less time. This is a game dedicated to putting everyone off at one point of another, and it is the only endeavor in which Duke Nukem Forever succeeds.
There are lots of extra-curricular activities to partake in during the game, and most of them offer an upgrade to the maximum amount of damage that can be taken before needing to take cover. The problem is that none of them are particularly fun. From the mind-numbingly boring (weight-lifting, pissing) to the broken (air hockey, pinball), to the inexplicable (slapping boobs on a wall - no, that is not an error), Duke Nukem Forever's attempt to recreate the interactivity of the classic Duke Nukem 3D falls flat, in part because gaming has moved on in ways to engage the player, and partly because the interactions themselves are poorly thought out and/or mechanically unsound.
The game's environments are all over the place. Casinos, highways, fast food joints, caves, old west towns are just some of the myriad of locations the game takes place in. The problem is that there's no real thematic consistency. In Duke 3D, each of the episodes had a common design aesthetic, making the stage transitions more natural. Here, the thematic changes are oddly abrupt, an odd analogy for the weird development path this game has taken, with four different developers and hundreds of people working on this one title (credited developers are 3D Realms, Piranha Games, Triptych Games and Gearbox Software). Indeed, what little in this game doesn't feel ripped directly from Duke 3D is a scattershot mess, reflecting the peril in the "when it's done," philosophy.
It's not a secret that developing large games requires a bunch of time and money. However, a disciplined developer with a clear vision for the project can in most cases mitigate the development time required and put out an entertaining game. Perhaps Duke Nukem Forever can be best described by the complete lack of discipline. It's an ugly game in both graphics and concept, unable to stand up to its predecessor in nearly every possible way. It isn't so much a product of a single vision as it is a disorganized mash-up of so many different ideas over such a long time. Considered a joke for the longest time, Duke Nukem Forever is now a sad piece of history, leaving all to wonder what might have been had the game come out in 1998, with only 3D Realms developing it. Hopefully now that Gearbox Software has the Duke Nukem IP, the King will get the modern game he deserves, because this just isn't it.