I hardly know where to begin. BeyondUnreal's original home was just coming online around the time Duke Nukem development announced a switch to the Unreal Engine. And here we are almost thirteen years later.
I'd played the demo and had concerns of my own and while I waited patiently for the North American full version of Duke Nukem Forever to launch, the rest of the world began reacting strongly to the game Gearbox Software had set before them. Honestly, I tried not to read too much discussion or too many reviews in order to avoid spoilers, but as one massively negative review after another began to surface my already restrained hopes for a successful return of The King began to wane. Thoughts of cancelling my pre-order began to swim through my head though I knew I could not - both because I knew I must review the game and I was really intrigued by the thought of viewing this digital trainwreck for myself.
It is in this frame of mind that I began to play.
My first impression was that the game starts strong in a Duke kind of way. Not since the days of Postal 2 have I urinated in a first person shooter. The level of violence, interactivity, and debauchery you're tossed into right away brings back pleasant memories of his last starring role. Aliens are kidnapping Earth's chicks... and what more could you possibly want from a Duke storyline? You should know that if you're easily offended this is not a game for you. Duke pulls no punches with his one-liners and there will be boobs aplenty. Much has been made in the press of the bawdy humour that permeates Duke and his world - even to the extent of calling him mysogynistic - but that is to miss the point. He is a self-parody. It's satire. And it's mostly harmless.
Your quest takes you across a battle-ravaged Las Vegas, a fast-food restaurant, alien breeding grounds, and just about everything inbetween. Variety of locale is Duke's strong point. Along the way you'll comandeer turrets, drive full-size and RC monster trucks, and experience a full level of a delightfully duke dream. If you're looking for a pure shooter - this isn't it. Oh, there's plenty of that, but go in expecting to wear a few different hats. The only grievance I have in this area is that the trucks are a little difficult to drive and in some parts of the game you're under immense pressure to keep moving. I've seen complaints about the length of some of these sequences, though I never felt any of them dragged on for too long (and who can resist the thrill of running over pigcops as they wallow in the mud?).
But we all know that Duke Nukem always comes to kick some ass and despite the fact that he packs quite a whallop with his fists, he can wield a weapon with the best of them. All of the old favorites are there - the ShrinkGun, FreezeRay, Shotgun, RPG, Minigun, Devastator, and the Pistol - and a few new alien-based energy weapons make an appearance as well. He's also got the tools from yesteryear - Pipe Bombs, Laser Trip Mines, Duke Vision, and the Holoduke (a Duke-like decoy that runs about shooting and shouting "I am the real Duke Nukem"). You can chug a beer if you need a little defensive boost (and don't mind the double vision) or pop some steroids to power up your punch. Sadly, the Mighty Foot is gone, but it does make an appearance when you get an opportunity to do a special "execution" move on a stunned enemy. Everything is a blast to use though sometimes you get that odd feeling that you're not really sure if your shots are hitting their targets. It's good to see the old things return alongside a few new, but none of the new items are anywhere near as inspired as their predecessors.
Level design is pretty good overall - 3DR did have some solid talent in that area, but some don't always feel as finished as others and there are occasional spots where there's not as much going on as you would like. Visually, it's a weird mix of current gen post-processing effects and the occasional low res texture or low polygon model. The enemy and NPC models are reasonably good, but again, they don't reach the level of recent top-tier games. It isn't enough to annoy, but it serves as a reminder that the lengthy off-and-on development cycle have left a bit of a Frankenstein game in its wake.
Pacing could be better as it's true there are portions of the game that are underwhelming with the choice of antagonists and the frequency and amount in which they appear. When things are clicking onscreen and Duke is firing off a verbal barb you can really get a sense of the underlying brilliance of the game. Likewise, being rewarded with additional health (Ego) for leafing through a seedy calendar hanging on the wall or browsing porn on an unwatched computer serve to remind you that this is no ordinary game. Along the way are quite a few memorable fights and scripted set pieces as well as a few decent boss encounters. You just can't get that mix of shooting action and humour that the King can deliver.
There are concessions to more modern shooters such as a restriction to carrying only two weapons (plus all of your items) and an Ego bar (which is effectively a regenerating health bar) which may seem shocking at first, but in the end they didn't make much of a difference to me either way. I found myself barreling through levels with guns blazing probably moreso than I would had I had to rely on discovering new health kits. Saving is all done through checkpoints, but are mostly fair and they're appropriately placed throughout the levels.
One of the most important aspects of Duke is his now famous voice and with Jon St. John back in the saddle you get the real deal. His occasional quip to an enemy or reaction to something happening onscreen helps set the game apart from a lesser shooter. There are even a few juicy jabs and irreverent references to other games. The one-liners sometimes fall flat (but humour is subjective, right?) but mostly they serve to induce a smile from Duke fans. The NPCs are appropriately fawning and are well cast, though unmemorable. The in-game music didn't really stand out for me, but it worked well enough as a soundtrack to the action and I have no real complaints.
Something they've done quite well is packing the game with numerous extras. A single playthrough will open up a menu of videos, concept art, a development timeline, photos, and a soundboard. You can even unlock some great mutators like Big Head and Instagib. There's even a mode that renders a level as a mirror image of itself, adding a bit of a disorienting twist to maps you've already mastered. As you progress, each chapter becomes available to start at any time through a separate menu. Duke is a Steamworks title with achievements, cloud saves, and plenty of stats. Add that to a game that clocks in at anywhere between nine and twelve hours - depending on the amount of exploration you choose - and you never get a sense that you're getting a bare-bones package.
The multiplayer aspect of the game needs some work. At its core is a fast paced collection of standards such as deathmatch, king of the hill, and capture the babe. The weapons are all quite entertaining in this mode and it's just as hilarious today to shrink your foes and step on them with your foot as it was all those years ago. The maps are varied and all quite playable. The problem lies in the lack of a dedicated server and probably a bit of wonky netcode. Players warp around intermittently and shooting doesn't feel as accurate as it should. I understand they are working on it and there are quite a few people playing today, but if the fix doesn't happen quickly interest may wane fast. One unique twist is the ability to unlock extras through gaining experience and achieving specific goals, but unlike most modern military shooters that grant extra weapons, these are mostly cosmetic and most of them can only be viewed at Your Digs, a separate offline map that acts as your mansion. My first unlock, for instance, was a nice French Maid to greet me at the elevator door. A nice Duke touch.
The singleplayer build was locked down in 2009 when it was deemed that development for the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions should begin. Though the wait may have hardly been worth it as the platform of choice in this case is without a doubt the PC due to the fact that it has absolutely none of the texture load-in found on the consoles and the frame rate is much much higher. All but the more powerful processors, however, will occasionally chug for a second or two. Not constantly, but it does happen every now and then. This is, afterall, Unreal Engine 2.5 with some major modifications and it's handling quite a heavy load.
All in all, Duke doesn't deliver what his legendary development time would lead you to expect and lacks the gleaming overall polish found in the best modern first person shooters. It isn't antiquated, though it just doesn't reach the bar. However, it does deliver more Duke and it does so in a mostly competent manner. If that's okay with you and you don't mind a few rough edges then you may just find yourself at odds with the incredibly negative opinions found at review sites around the 'net and you'll probably find yourself having a good time.
Pick it up if you're a fan and are prepared for the concessions I've listed above. Wait until it goes on sale a bit so that the price is more in line with the generation of shooters to which it belongs. I paid $45 for it and have no regrets. In fact, it's staying right here on my hard drive because I just may make another run or two through it yet.