Out of a mix of morbid curiosity, and an oh hey that's in my game library moment, I just replayed Duke Nukem Forever 12 years after its record-breakingly delayed release. And I've got opinions.
Not just because DNF is as dinosauric and out-of-time as you remember it being back in 2011, with a plethora of scatological jokes, crude quips, dodgy expletive-filled dialogue, and scantily clad women (as well as depictions of them) assaulting the screen literally every 30 seconds.
That stuff matters. But what hurts is how badly this game ends up squandering what could have been a triumphant return for Duke, with this replay crystallizing in my mind exactly what the game's biggest problem always was, and how it buried what could have been a far better, long-awaited return. It's also what we'd need fixing first and foremost to ever see Duke return triumphantly, and not as the frequently cringe-worthy king of DNF.
Finally, I've also got opinions because, actually, my replay has also shown that this game is not the car crash that many reviewers originally dubbed it as. There's definitely fun to be found in DNF, it's just you have to wade through a lot of mediocre gameplay and plenty of crap to get to it.
Here, then, I break down what I feel is the good, the bad, and the downright ugly of DNF after my replay, as well as suggest what I think needs doing to ever bring the king back.
Before we jump into that, though, here's an official Duke Nukem Forever trailer, which is worth a watch if you've never played it before or just need a refresher.
Ugly and missing a trick
Let's deal with the stuff that I think is just downright ugly in DNF first. Guess what, the depictions of women are still terrible in this game. When they're not semi-naked brainless Duke groupies they're passive damsels in distress that need saving, and there's nothing more interesting to any of them than that. This is a game that would absolutely have benefitted from just a single sharp, witty, female character, with any sort of agency other than wanting to make it with Duke. Just, you know, a single counterpoint to Duke's babes. Someone to puncture the macho, over-the-top madness of Duke as a character, and what's actually happening in the game, which is that aliens are abducting Earth's women.
It would have been a great way to ground the tone as satire, not the superhero worship the game, consciously or not, mistakenly descends into. DNF is far from the only video game where this is an issue, sure, with the incredibly poor depictions of almost all female story characters in GTA V springing to mind, but still, here it is really, really marked. And it massively hurts the game.
Yes, fine, we all know that Duke is a ladies' man in his world and it's part of his alpha dog schtick that he's always chasing after them and many are also irresistibly enamoured of him (as too are most of the men!), so I've got no problem with showing that. They should be in the game. But in DNF it's nothing but poor, degrading depictions, and that makes it all feel, well, more than a little tasteless and Leisure Suite Larry sleazy.
This is most summed-up in the section of the game where Duke retreats to his dream, mind-palace strip club. All you do in this place is wander around looking for a few items on a random fetch quest, stopping of course to drink beer, burp, and urinate some more, all while strippers do their thang around you. Once you've trudged around and eventually collected the items, you wake up. The most damning thing isn't the gyrating polygonal strippers, it is that the whole sequence isn't any fun. Think about where they could've gone with Duke's inner landscape: this is just boring.
The sheer onslaught of poo and wee gags, especially during the game's opening, is just ridiculous too. In no way am I against the use of this sort of scatological humour, but seriously, DNF takes it not just too far, but drowns you in faeces and urine. Yeah, yeah, we get it, there's a guy in a toilet cubicle trying to desperately squeeze one out. But DNF is like, "But listen to that dude struggle on the lav! Isn't that hilarious! He's really constipated! Ha ha ha! Let's stick that sound effect on loop so you hear it repeatedly! Boy that's comedy gold!".
Narrator: It was not, in fact, comedy gold.
What's also ugly are many of Duke's one-liners in this game, which alongside a series of macho grunts, often lead to just crude, unfunny insults, a good example being, "Eat shit and die!" There's no charm or wit and the result is degrading to the character when repeated over and over, with a seemingly psychopathic Duke reveling in bringing murder and death to everything that stands in his way, and getting off on it.
Yes, Duke is supposedly Earth's unwilling savior, and yes I do absolutely want to commit the violence with his arsenal of comical weapons 80s action movie hero-style, but these orations from Duke lead to a real tone shift that I just don't think works. The game needed more 80s-style action-movie cheesy quips and less grunting-death-psycho.
For example, later in the game, when Duke gets his hands on a forklift truck, after plowing it into enemies he quips, "Fork off!". That's what I'm talking about. Personally, I wanted more of that cheesy punning, and less "Suck it down!".
The bad engine and design at Forever's core
In terms of gameplay, this is an old-fashioned '90s shooter dressed up in 2011 game engine threads, but that doesn't mean that it was a good-looking game on release. It looked dated then and today in 2023 the game engine frequently looks terrible, with ugly character models, and flat, bland, mostly corridor-based levels. To think that this game came out four years after Crysis, which still looks gorgeous today, really hammers this home. Visually the game is poor.
It feels almost fitting that a game that was rebooted during redevelopment multiple times so that it could adopt a newer graphics engine so as to not look out-of-date, in the end looked (and still looks) really uninspiring and dated for the most part. Very little of the sprite-based character of Duke Nukem 3D survived the transition to Forever's release in 2011, and it hurts the game.
Pure FPS gameplay-wise, the game's shooting is also mid-tier at best, with certain weapons feeling good to use, while others feel notably off. Levels are very linear, which would be fine if many weren't largely uninspired shooting corridors or checkpoint arenas that get filled with spawning enemies, many of which are either comically easy to kill, or cheaply fast bullet sponges. While we're on level design, did those doors really need to look like an anus? And did we really need the cringeworthy triple-breasted boss, either? The answer is a caps lock NO.
Where the enemy forces' failings are accentuated most, though, is when the game frequently puts you behind a gun turret. These set pieces are just so disengaging and not fun in any way. You sit behind the turret and just unload a pretty naff-sounding gun into waves of boring and ugly enemies until the gun overheats. Rinse and repeat. It's the most boring shooting gallery imaginable, and no matter if you're shooting down alien ships or mowing down waves of Pig Cops, it remains something I actively came to resent having to do.
Bosses are also not Forever's strength, frequently being uninspiring bullet sponges. Multiple times I'd just get tired of unloading all the ammo for all the weapons I had on me, leaving me with nothing but my fists, only to have to desperately run around the boss arena while under fire looking for any sort of ammo or a turret, which DNF absolutely loves.
There are good moments in Forever, though
What I did enjoy when replaying DNF was when, interestingly, the game takes a gun out of your hands and a crude one-liner out of your mouth and places you in control of a vehicle. Be that indirectly guiding a small-RC car to grab an energy cell, having Duke drive an RC car himself when miniaturised, and also when he's getting behind the wheel of his own full-fat monster truck out on the highway. It's not like the handling or anything is amazing, and there's no doubt that much of this vehicle action is derived from Half-Life 2's excellent vehicle-based sections, but still.
I didn't even mind the multiple stops to refuel the vehicle, which act as little shooting/platforming diversions, before then more 4-wheel-drive carnage can resume. Small details like an animation for when Duke pours his gas can's fuel into the truck add a touch of charm and whimsy sorely lacking elsewhere.
One other in-game mechanic that stood out to me in a good way, too, is Duke's Ego meter. This meter is Duke's health bar but it can be neatly enlarged (so you're harder to kill) by performing actions in-game that lead to ego boosts. So instead of, say, just walking over a power-up to enlarge your health bar, as you do in many games, or purchasing an upgrade in a shop, in DNF you can, say, admire yourself in a mirror, shoot three-pointers on a basketball court, win a poker game, admire yourself in a mirror, microwave some popcorn and many more. It was fun to look out for potential ways to upgrade my health within the game world. I'd forgotten about this, but it's a pretty neat mechanic that should be in more games.
There are some memorable and well-executed level segments, too. For example, there's a bit in Duke Burger when Duke has been shrunk down to miniature size, but has to navigate around a kitchen that has flooded with water, which is also electrified. So you can't touch the floor, basically.
As such, the level sees tiny Duke platforming around the kitchen, often in humorous ways, such as jumping across burger buns on a hot plate or spring-boarding off spatulas, to reach the power source responsible for electrifying the water. There's a bit of combat thrown in too as you progress around the kitchen. It's a great, well-executed piece of gameplay that is fun and full of Duke Nukem 3D character, but it lasts about 5 minutes. I wanted more of this.
I enjoyed being able to freeze enemies with the freeze ray and then shatter them into tiny pieces, but you don't get this weapon until about two-thirds of the way through the game. Another fun weapon to use was the shrink ray: I mean, if you don't love shrinking enemies and then squashing them underfoot, maybe you shouldn't be playing comedy FPS games.
The minecart sections of the game are great, too, despite the obvious limitations of literal on-rails sequences. It just reminded me of all those classic minecart bits from classic action-adventures like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Rock.
These were moments when grey interior corridors/rooms and empty arenas took a bit of a back seat, and Forever was more colorful for it.
Addressing Forever's biggest problem
All the game's other problems aside, though, DNF's script (and therefore tone) is its biggest problem in my opinion, as it just isn't anywhere near as funny and sharp as it should be, and frequently gets stuck somewhere between being serious and satirical. It's inconsistent. You're left asking yourself constantly, is the game taking the piss out of itself and being self-deprecating and aware, or does it genuinely think this is cool, funny and fun? As it just isn't funny most of the time.
Take this line from early in the game when Duke is miniaturized so that he is really small. You approach a woman and her son in Duke's casino, and the son says:
"Woah, so tiny!"
Then the woman says in a sexy voice:
"I know where I'd stick him"
Um, OK. Yeah, hilarious.
Then a little later, here's another example. Two women again see Duke in miniature, when one says:
"Ah, you're so cute. I could carry you around in my pocket like a little pet."
To which the other then adds in a sexy voice:
"Yeah, your hot pocket."
Great, yet another attempt to make the exact same idea work as a joke. But this stuff isn't funny, it's just super cringe.
One more from early on in the game. This is, verbatim, what I can only assume was supposed to be the funny first thing you heard in a level, with a soldier NPC speaking directly to you:
"Duke, it's good to fucking see you. I knew that retirement bullshit was just bullshit. Fuck that retirement shit. I just got back from helping my friend find his wife, Christ what a fucking pussy."
Again, is this supposed to be a send-up of macho alpha dog marine types? Or are we supposed to be in agreement, that this guy's friend is indeed a pussy for caring about finding his own wife? Is having a wife bad? And does caring about your wife make you a pussy? Duke says nothing, the game doesn't signpost it, and we're left unsure. This feeling repeats a lot in DNF.
Throughout the game DNF acts as if its dialogue is way funnier than it actually is. It reminds me of 2022's High on Life, a game that communicates throughout a ton that it thinks its script and gags are hilarious but, in reality, they're painfully mediocre and often miss the mark by miles. Our reviewer for High of Life concluded that the game is "constantly searching for the joke and only occasionally delivering it", and that definitely feels like it fits Forever.
Worse still, while it is busy pissing away opportunities to be witty and comically ironic, it has the gall to frequently attempt to take the piss out of other games. And not just bad games, either, but some of the most landmark releases of all time such as Half-Life and Halo. Oh, and while it's making these gags, it's serving you up worse versions of gameplay than those games delivered.
In one of the many swipes, for example, Duke approaches a series of valves that need to be figured out for him to progress, before then saying "I hate valve puzzles", clearly in a way that is supposed to throw shade on Valve and Half-Life. But then the game forces you to do this valve puzzle, which is an uninspiring, lame knockoff of a Valve puzzle. Don't throw stones in glass houses.
Replaying Duke Nukem Forever: The takeaway
Duke was always a parody of an American action movie hero, an ironic character that poked fun out of ridiculous properties that took themselves super seriously. And while Duke Nukem 3D can hardly be described as a witty masterpiece, its tone definitely retained that self-deprecating ironic piss-taking.
But somewhere in DNF's troubled development, it lost sight of this, and Duke was turned too much into a character that we were supposed to look up to and think was actually cool and desirable in the real world.
So, if Duke is to come back in a proper new release (and that feels like a massive long-shot), then first and foremost the script really needs to lean back into the self-aware, ironic flavor, as well being a lot funnier and wittier. The tragedy with Duke is that DNF made the character into what his detractors always thought defined him, rather than the absurdist mirror on a certain strain of pop culture he could be. And maybe fewer jokes about pissing would help, too.