So this is what we've been waiting for, it seems: a tedious and unattractive sci-fi shooter that would quickly hit the bargain bin if it weren't called Duke Nukem Forever. Duke may be an icon, but he's just going through the motions in this stitched-together collection of poorly paced levels, which do the unimaginable: they make Duke boring. Some see the cigar-chomping alpha male as a misogynist pig; others see a clever and ironic take on macho cliches. Neither crowd is likely to get worked up over Duke's actions here. Sure, he spouts the occasional sexist quip. He receives a lap dance from a topless stripper, smacks monsters in the crotch to humiliate them, and has no problem using words beginning with the letter "f." But there's nothing sexy, provocative, or sly about his portrayal in this long-awaited sequel. In Duke Nukem Forever, there is little joy, little excitement, and little fun. That is, unless your idea of fun is to catch an occasional glimpse of digital nipples while you jump and drive around, and only occasionally shoot a few brain-dead aliens.
Duke Nukem Forever is a treatise on what happens when random ideas are slapped together without regard for how they fit with one another. You might spend only three or four minutes on one level, doing nothing but walking and jumping a bit, before reaching the inexcusably long loading screen that introduces the next. Other sections drag on interminably, and there are frequent stretches in which nothing is happening. The game slows to a crawl constantly. Take, for example, a series of levels in which you drive Duke's four-wheeler. In these sequences, you drive over aliens and use ramps to jump across chasms. You see a lot of the same brown canyons and cliffs in these sections, and on scripted occasions, the rover stalls and you have to get out and search for gas cans. It's nice that you get the chance to shoot some aliens amid all this bland driving. But this structure repeats itself three times in a row. The driving just goes on and on, and then on some more. And just when you think you're going to get the chance to do something different, you get in your monster truck and drive up more ramps.
That kind of pace-killing monotony is frequent in Duke Nukem Forever. You do a lot of platforming and some occasional puzzle-solving, but all of these portions are dull as dishwater. Several jumping sequences see you shrinking to action-figure height. Playing as pint-sized Duke is a neat idea, and he spews profane chatter as if he has inhaled a tank's worth of helium. ("Size only matters when you're full grown," Duke reminds us with his chipmunk voice.) But these sections drag on for ages, such as a prolonged excursion across burger patties and kitchen shelves. It's cute at first, but five minutes in, you wish it would just end. An excruciating platforming section across rotating gears is wholly un-fun. Puzzles that have you pushing orbs around on the ground turn a voyage through an alien hive into pure drudgery. Few first-person shooters are this focused on monotonous actions that don't involve shooting.
Duke Nukem Forever isn't just boring; sometimes, it's plain awful. The last 90 minutes of the game are putrid, featuring seemingly unending underwater excursions in which you swim over bubbles to catch your breath. There's only a bit of action here, and the need to constantly replenish your breath meter is frustrating--as is the ease with which you can get caught up in the environment while swimming through tunnel entrances. A level soon after has you running up a staircase as explosive barrels come rolling toward you, all while the rising water level forces you to push forward. Not fun; not even close. Furthermore, the ridiculously flippant ending that follows is an absolute insult. Duke himself says in his unenthusiastic monotone: "What kind of s*** ending is that?" So Duke knows the finale is abysmal, which means the development team(s) did too. But making a joke about it doesn't make it excusable. The game pulls the same trick earlier on, cracking wise about a boring valve-turning puzzle, but once again, Duke's claim that he hates valve puzzles doesn't make this boring and cliched task suddenly entertaining.
Every so often, you shoot some aliens. There are no surprises here: these are mostly the same foes and the same guns from Duke Nukem 3D. But the joy of that game's shooting has been flattened. Pig cops, octabrains, and so on occasionally threaten you, but they don't react much to getting shot, and they just sort of fall over when you kill them. The shooting has little sense of impact: you don't get gushers of blood or goo, only pixelated sprinkles, though there are a few decent moments when the action gels. A few shoot-outs in a ghost town require some fleet-footed movement and offer a bit of a challenge, as does a boss fight atop a dam. And it's always enjoyable to deflate an alien beast with the shrink ray and stomp on the puny thing. On the other hand, a rooftop sequence in which dropships deliver one wave of aliens after another just drags on and on. Here, and in a few other sections, it's also possible to find yourself without the right weapon for the job and have no way to replenish your ammo. It's as if the levels were designed for the old Duke, who could carry a full arsenal of guns at once. But the new Duke carries only two weapons at a time.
You might hope that Duke could at least pep up the proceedings with some trademark raunch--maybe a bit of nudity, some misogynistic humor, and the occasional wagging of a middle finger. You get all of these things, but Duke Nukem Forever's attempts to recapture that old filthy magic aren't funny--just sad. About halfway through, Duke makes a pit stop to visit his strip club. This is the least sexy strip club you could imagine, because there's no stripping, though you do receive a lewd proposal: a lady friend offers a lap dance if you find her three objects, including a battery-powered device designed for her pleasure. And so your visit to a strip club is characterized not by a rush of sexual energy or a ridiculous riff on Duke's sexism, but by a fetch quest. One that involves popping popcorn in a microwave oven. Really.
The reward for your microwaving skills is to have a stunningly un-sexy woman gyrate without her top on. Like all of Duke Nukem Forever's character models, she moves with the grace of a dump truck; and like all of the game's women, she talks with the dulcet tones of a truck stop waitress. Every attempt the game makes to be "adult" comes across as pathetic. You find nudie magazines here and there, but the naked women you ogle are so pixelated, you might as well be looking at the latest issue of Lego Playboy. The idea of Duke urinating in a dying alien's eye socket sounds filthy. But the game doesn't stylize this or other such moments in any way. The generic, public-domain-quality soundtrack lulls you into passivity; the camera angles do what they need to, but no more. And so the sight of Duke peeing into a body cavity isn't shocking--it's shockingly banal. The game's funniest moment doesn't even involve smut: it's Duke's mimicking of the sound of an industrial fan. This isn't the Duke you knew. This is Duke reimagined as an aging gym bunny desperately trying to recapture his youth, and failing.
It isn't just the tedious pace and paltry puerility that make Duke Nukem Forever feel like a thrown-together budget game. (Take note that this downtrodden shooter sells at full price.) It's also ugly. There are hideous amounts of texture pop-in, yet the differences between the original blurred textures and those that replace them are minimal. Blocky characters stand around and unenthusiastically deliver their lines with minimal mouth movement. Buildings in the distance might be all off-white, with no details or textures at all to differentiate them. Yet every so often, you see a clear detail--text on a poster, for example--that sticks out like a sore thumb, considering the hazy surfaces and jagged edges that surround it. In spite of its poor visuals, the game suffers from frequent frame rate stutters, an inexcusable problem in a run-and-gun shooter. How does a game that looks this old not perform smoothly?
Its multiplayer options might have been Duke Nukem Forever's saving grace. The best idea here is Duke's digs, an apartment where you can purchase and admire various pieces of furniture and other objects. The more you play online and gain experience, the more goodies you get, including new shirts and hats to show off during matches. But your digs can't compensate for lag and shuddering frame rates, which turn many matches into a wreck. You might wait a few seconds just for the prompt to pick up a weapon to appear, all while competitors teleport around you, or you might glimpse a foe standing idly in the air above you as if supported by an invisible ledge. The modes are hardly groundbreaking: you get deathmatch, team deathmatch, king of the hill, and capture the flag variants supporting up to eight players. Some old-fashioned deathmatch action is fine, though, provided it's done right. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the maps themselves, which give plenty of opportunity to bunny-hop around and seek out the cool weapons hiding in out-of-the-way places. But the technical hitches make almost every match uncomfortably jittery.
Given its storied development history, you might be inclined to grab a copy of this train wreck. Avoid the temptation. While much of Duke Nukem Forever is embarrassingly bad--the kind of game you point and laugh at--its biggest problem is that it's so tedious. Twisting valves, jumping on pipes and alien tentacles, driving through drab canyons, rolling alien spheres along the ground: this is what Duke Nukem Forever is about. It's not about shooting aliens, and it certainly isn't about fun. This game takes an icon and turns him into a laughingstock. Except, no one's laughing.