After 14 years, what's another couple of weeks to wait for my review of Duke Nukem Forever at thephoenix.com? I tried something a little different this time, writing as a credulous fanboy in an alternate universe in which DNF was released more or less on time. I think it's pretty funny, but I'm never the best judge of my own jokes.
As it turns out, I may not be the best judge of a game's quality, either, because I honestly thought Duke Nukem Forever was all right. It's not spectacular, it's definitely dated, and it displays some major lapses in judgment -- but, so help me, it's a lot of fun in places, too. Yet I've rarely seen such negative reviews for a major release. Maybe seeing the Metacritic scores before I played the game put me in a forgiving mood. But I'd definitely take this over a more technically competent but entirely soulless shooter like Killzone 3. Despite all its problems, it's got a spark.
Not that things started off all that well. I was prepared to hate it as much as anybody when, in the first few minutes of the game, I fumbled around with a white board, first scrawling a bunch of nonsense and then erasing the whole board, while all the while the soldiers around me talked about what a genius I was. Even though that was part of a quasi-dream sequence, in the game's reality, it still seemed clear that Duke was as exalted by others as he was in his own mind.
A little bit later, I managed to scratch out the word "Duke" in a book for a breathless fan, who didn't seem to notice that my handwriting looked like that of an illiterate child with palsy. Then, as I walked away from the fan and his father, I heard the dad remark, "I thought he'd be taller."
Finally, I thought. The biggest problem with the textual reality of Duke Nukem Forever is that everyone else seems to think Duke is as great as he does. That makes it hard to buy any claims that the character or the game is satirical. To see his bravado punctured, even a bit, was welcome. Then it rarely happened again. But my favorite parts of the game tended to be those which seemed aware that Duke was not an admirable character.
At a few separate points, Duke is shrunken to a tiny size, and still spouts tough-guy bullshit with a voice that sounds like he's been inhaling helium. This is legtimately funny, and also makes for some of the most fun parts to play. One standout scene was a platforming sequence through a kitchen, which worked as a spatial puzzle and also included some inspired twists, such as when Duke had to hop from one hamburger bun to the next in order to avoid being burned on a griddle. Maybe I'm easily impressed, but this struck me as inspired.
Actually, I know I'm easily impressed, because much of Duke's dudebro humor worked for me, too. Not all of it, but it turns out that I am the sort of cro-magnon who is legitimately entertained by seeing a button prompt labeled HUMILIATE. I laughed several times during Duke Nukem Forever. I laughed when it made reference to other games. (My favorites quips, in ascending order: "Power armor is for pussies!" while looking at Spartan gear; "I hate Valve puzzles!" while futzing around with steam pipes; "I was expecting a monkey!" after climbing a staircase and killing the pig that was throwing barrels at me the whole way up.) Most jokes miss the mark, but that's not a problem unique to this game.
(For what it's worth, though, I laughed more during the second chapter of Transformers: Dark of the Moon than during the entirety of Duke Nukem Forever.)
Duke Nukem Forever makes more sense, as a game and as a cautionary tale, when you realize that the whole thing is 3D Realms' attempt to make Half-Life. The point of Duke 3D was to take what worked about Doom and give it an attitude, and the point of Duke Forever is to do the same for Half-Life. Yes, it is more than a decade too late, and this isn't the only game that has failed to emulate Half-Life's potent blend of storytelling and encounter design. Playing Duke Nukem Forever, you can start to understand why Broussard and company were never able to finish. Their standards are evident in certain scenes, which makes their failure to meet those standards elsewhere even more glaring.
Oh well. I am still glad that this chapter of gaming history has been closed. If nothing else, maybe Duke Nukem Forever clears the decks for a better Duke in the future.