Developer: 3D Realms, Triptych, Piranha, Gearbox Software / Publisher: 2K Games / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol] / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
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I’ll get to the point. I loved Duke Nukem 3D. Loved it. While EiC at PC Gamer back in 2000 I contacted 3D Realms on a monthly basis to get the scoop and find out when I might be able to put it on the cover again. While those check-ins became less frequent, my interest never waned. A couple years ago I heard the game was back on track and such was my excitement I immediately wrote the intro to my next Duke story. Then it disappeared, seemingly forever; but, like a knight in shining armor, Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford revealed the game was still alive and was coming out. Comedy about the actual release date ensued, but it didn’t matter… Duke was coming.
Now it’s here, and though the game design is certainly flawed in several areas it’s still often fun. This isn’t, nor could it ever be, the industry-changing event its legacy perhaps deserved, but it harkens back to a different era of first-person shooter action. No doubt those honed on perks and modern combat will find the goofy style, lackluster visuals, and odd encounters frustrating. But it is unabashedly a Duke Nukem game. That means corny one-liners, well-endowed ladies giggling and jiggling, and some creative weapon types and alien action encounters (if not much more inventive than 3D Realms introduced 15 years ago). And I don’t hate it.
I’m certainly old enough to know better but I got a genuine kick of excitement when the game opened with a replay of the boss battle from 1996, the camera panned out to Duke holding a controller, playing Duke Nukem Forever, and stating “It’s good, and after 12 fucking years it should be.” Then giggling twin number one appears from, y’know, down below, followed by twin number two, wiping her mouth. I laughed out loud. I did. It’s Duke, felt Duke-ish, and I appreciated it.
From there we learn that Duke has become the king of all Vegas, living large in a penthouse complete with pool table (but no TV showing the OJ Bronco chase) in one of many homages to memorable moments in Duke 3D. Then it quickly becomes an alien slaughterfest, winding through the streets, casinos, construction sites, and alien hives of a war-torn Vegas.
But parts of the narrative and dialogue show clear evidence of the game’s elongated development. Many pop culture references seem so 2002, with one-liners co-opted from “guy” movies like Old School, Highlander, and Commando, which in itself could cause blank stares from most of the current potential audience. It’s like when you see Hollywood movies have six or more writers credited, you never find a cohesive narrative at the end, and the several developers listed for Duke Nukem Forever prove the point. I thought for a Duke game that wouldn’t matter so much, but some of the stuttering flow is sufficiently jarring that it sticks out where it shouldn’t.
Since I wasn’t expecting or hoping for a Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Crysis-like action experience, the straight, traditional, maybe old-school run-and-gun gameplay doesn’t grate for me like it will no doubt for some expecting a depth that this game never deems to achieve. Duke 3D innovated in so many ways with the shrink ray, holoduke, trip mines, jetpac, and more, and they’re all here…with no additions to the arsenal.
You can drink a beer to make you more resistant to damage and take steroids to embark on a brief melee battering rampage. But while skulking through a dark, frustrating alien hive it’s hard to remember that you’re an all-star action hero. Most areas end with a mini-boss style encounter, and while some of those large enemies look pretty good the balance is wonky. Difficulty levels spike and it appears that your Ego meter–what was once health is now rechargeable ego, replenished through hiding in cover–is designed to create artificial threat as it’s easy to be knocked down to a flashing red near-death sliver of Ego rather than accurately representing damage taken from a rocket to the face.
Weird physics reactions to explosions, incoming missiles you don’t see until they’re right in your face, and interminable load times make for some seriously frustrating moments, even when you’re trying to be entertained by blasting flailing pig cops with the RPG or shotgun.
There are fun moments for genuine Duke fans, but you have to be dedicated to find them.
I really shouldn’t be surprised that a game that started on the Quake II engine would have plenty of rough edges. Frame rate drops and pauses and animations skipping multiple frames are only part of the problem. Oftentimes explosions from RPG or pipe bomb blasts look to be superimposed on the world, much like some ’50s B-movie, and while that’s part of the Duke style to a certain degree, I’m sure that wasn’t the intended look.
There are occasional flashes of cool style, like using a wrecking ball to open access to one area, and bits of Vegas look suitably gaudy, but you can’t help but get the impression that this would be considered mundane visually back in 2004.
I committed a phenomenal number of hours playing the LA Rumble map in Duke 3D, but the four modes here aren’t likely to suck up anything like that. It’s definitely old school, with constant strafing while blasting shotguns and those knowing the location of armor and damage power-ups having the advantage.
You can visit your penthouse decorated with items earned by leveling up in the multiplayer maps, which is a neat touch if it didn’t take so damn long to load. Use of trip mines and the holoduke do add a hint of strategy, but this isn’t slick or progressive multiplayer gaming. But if you fancy a spot of Capture the Babe then it may scratch a years-old itch.
I desperately wanted to love Duke more than this. Occasionally I felt I was back at the end of Half-Life (the bounce pads) or beginning of Daikatana (buzzing, leaping, pain in the ass aliens), which illustrates the throwback feeling. I’m not fundamentally opposed to that, and when kicking ass and taking names, Duke Nukem Forever has moments of being a fun challenge. I appreciate tips like “If you fall off a ledge it’s probably your own fault,” and the fact that beer makes you stronger. I chuckle (if a little coyly) at some crappy one-liners and sleazy chat-up lines to the ladies. I like the effort to throw in some vehicle segments, and there’s no doubt the campaign itself is longer than most current shooters… you just want that extended time spent to be more polished, more updated, just more… better.
Duke, it’s great to see you back again, I never thought I’d see the day. My memories mean you’ve earned a few runarounds online, and completing the campaign, but it is more nostalgia driven than being pulled through a compelling, polished experience. Maybe next time in, what would it be, 2026?