Guest Post: Review & Analysis of Duke Nukem

[The following is a guest post by Willow Palacek, gamer extraordinaire and indie game designer. You can visit her blog at Willow Rants. A few weeks ago, Willow asked me if she could do a guest review of Duke Nukem Forever. Seeing as how I intended to never played the game myself, I was quite happy to have someone offer to suffer through the game for me. As such, I owe a debt of gratitude to Willow for playing such an awful game so I don’t have to. Thanks, Willow!]

Like many gamers, I fondly remember Duke Nukem 3D, blowing up aliens, exploring (and blowing up) colorful environments pulled from life, and laughing at Duke’s one-liners. By the time I first became aware of Duke Nukem Forever, it was already a joke, a game no one really expected would ever be released.

So, I was pretty impressed by any design company that has the development chops and guts to pick up Duke Nukem Forever and actually release it. I was sold as a day one purchase.

In retrospect, this was a mistake.

I am a girl gamer. This qualifies me to write a review of Duke Nukem Forever. The girl part qualifies me to call it out for being horribly sexist (which it is.) The gamer part qualifies me to call it out for not really being that good of a game.

“But,” I hear you saying, “girls aren’t real gamers.”

As of the time of writing this article, my Xbox Live Gamer Score was 38,370. Chances are very good that my gaming e-peen is bigger than yours.

Part I, or Why Duke Nukem Forever Isn’t That Good of a Game

Let’s talk first about what made Duke Nukem 3D a great game. Mechanically, it’s essentially the same game as DOOM (although with a more advanced engine, making 3D environments possible). Go around an area, collect weapons and keycards, fight bad guys, get beat up, find medkits, find the exit.

What seperates Duke Nukem 3D is both the game’s unique voice and unique polish on the FPS formula. Wise cracking Duke taunts his enemies, remarks on the environment, and yes, even tips strippers. Our DOOM protagonist is largely silent, occasionally grunting. The levels in Duke Nukem often depict, very clearly, real life locations, such as movie theaters, adult video stores, a burger joint, a supermarket, but retain a fiendish level design that rewards searching every nook and cranny for alternate routes and power-ups. Secrets are tantalizingly hidden everywhere.

To me, the most iconic feature of Duke Nukem 3D is the creative weapon selection: instead of just the standard pistol/shotgun/machine gun/grenades/rocket launcher, the grenades are remote activated pipe bombs, one has access to laser tripwires to lay traps for enemies, and there’s the ridiculous shrink ray and freeze rays, and the absurdly powerful Devastator.

Now let’s talk about Duke Nukem Forever.

In a 90s shooter, you lived by your wits and your reflexes. Health and ammo were regularly hard to come by. In most modern shooters, health is regenerative. (See Halo, Gears of War, and too many others to count.) Get hit, your screen goes red, and you need to take cover for it to recharge. I remember many fights against a nasty monster in Duke Nukem 3D where I frantically pulled out all the stops, burning through Devastator ammo, then Rockets, then using the Chaingun, finally plugging it with pistol rounds until it was dead.

Most battles in Duke Nukem Forever are repetitive. Fight the monsters, duck behind cover, heal, take ammo off their body. You can only carry two weapons at a time instead of the whole arsenal. (The classic array returns, plus the Rail Gun, which is a nice variant on the Sniper Rifle.) Ammo is plentiful. Most boss fights are boring: figure out the weakness, duck in and out of cover, and fire rockets. Rockets are the only thing that damage the bosses, and there’s no ammo scarcity: ammo crates are everywhere in boss fights. (The exception is the final boss, which has rocket wielding enemies spawn into the area you must dispatch to take their ammo. That’s actually an interesting fight.)

What about the level design? We have a few theme levels: Duke Nukem’s casino, and the Duke Burger restaurant, but most of the game is generic industria. The levels are also almost exclusively linear in scope. There is little imagination or passion to the level design. (The Duke Burger is a strong exception, featuring a shrunken Duke and enemies, and gun battles in the stock room and a flooded kitchen. It’s still linear, but at least it takes advantage of the environment to create some interesting gameplay.)

There’s some environmental puzzles, but they mostly involve finding heavy barrels and stacking them to create a weight, and are more tedious than puzzling. There’s also less variety to the power-ups available. Duke Nukem Forever has Beer (toughness), Steroids (melee power up), Duke Vision (night vision, only used in a few places), and the Holoduke (a fun way to distract your enemy, but extremely scarce.) Duke Nukem 3D also had a portable medkit and an underwater rebreather, but the best powerup was the Jetpack, allowing Duke to fly around the level and bypass many obstacles. The lack of even a single Jetpack level is a waste. Also, the controls seem a little sluggish. This is completely subjective, but it’s my damn review.

What’s not subjective is the completely glacial load times. Without the Duke Nukem brand, this game would be completely off the radar, a laughable failure. (As is, it’s a laughable embarrassment.)

Let’s sum up. In a shooter game, the shooting sections are forgetable. The level design is completely generic. During a loading sequence, I literally have enough time to go make a sandwich. I’m taking my copy of Duke Nukem to gamestop today to turn it in for credit. I always keep my games, even the ones I have scored 1000/1000 and know I’ll never play again.

Part II, or Why Duke Nukem is Horribly Sexist

There’s sexism, and then there’s sexism.

I was able to find the humor in the elevator sequence, where a woman says “I’ll go down with you anytime, Duke.” I’ve been known to have a crude sense of humor, and I’ll laugh at a good sexual innuendo (or even a mediocre one.)
Is the fact that Duke is desired by all women in the game sexist? Probably. Is the fact that, in a dig against Halo, Duke says that “Power armor is for pussies” sexist? (Absolutely- although also funny.) But I’m not going to get my panties in a knot about either.

Then there’s Capture the Babe. Where instead of flags, you have ditzy “babes” you hoist over your shoulder, have to occasionally spank (because otherwise they cloud your field of vision), and call out sexual innuendos. (“Did we just score?”)

Capture the Babe is sexist. It’s not endearingly sexist though, or offensively sexist. It’s just stupidly sexist. My response to Capture the Babe was largely the same as Gabe’s.

No, what’s really sexist about Duke Nukem Forever is how it glamorizes violence towards women and fetishizes rape.

Think I’m overreacting? In the level the Hive, we find the women who have been kidnapped by the aliens, and transformed into some sort of (topless) human/alien hybrid breeder. What does Duke do to these women? He kills them. (“Even I can’t save you now,” he says, or even worse, “Sorry babe, it’s better this way.”)

I lack a vocabulary to convey how wrong this is, but I’m going to give it a shot anyways.

No, fuck it. If you don’t understand why that’s twisted and wrong, you’re not worth my time.

As fate would have it, my boyfriend chose that level to sit down and watch me play Duke Nukem Forever. And he was made uncomfortable. (I think he’s a keeper.)

Soon after, you fight an alien queen with three disgusting withered bare breasts.

Then there’s the strip club dream sequence level, Duke Nukem’s Titty City. In this level, you are first confronted with a stripper (naked except for a tiny thong) who gives you a quest to find a bag of potato chips, a vibrator, and a condom. Then you get an unskippable lap dance cut scene.

You know what’s worse than unskippable cut scenes? An unskippable cut scene that’s uncomfortably sexual. (I don’t know of any game that waves a giant dick in your face. If that was the case in Dragon Age 2, maybe that one guy would have had a point.)

Oh, you know what’s even worse than that? In said strip club dream sequence, there’s a number of mini-games to increase your ego. (Health). Air hockey, pinball, a basketball hoop, and the Whack-a-Mole game. Except they completely ruined Whack-a-Mole by making it sexist tripe. Called Alien Abortion. Where the game-space is a naked woman’s body. With aliens popping out of it.

In all of this, I wonder how in hell this game slipped through without an Adults Only rating.

Part III, or Why the Multiplayer is Terrible

Most of the controversy surrounding Duke Nukem Forever is about Capture the Babe (not the single player campaign, which really deserves more scrutiny.) So I knew I had to play multiplayer for my review experience to be complete.

Most of the multiplayer is ripped directly from Dukematch from Duke Nukem 3D, which is to say, it’s the same exact levels, only the gameplay is worse because the servers are terrible and there’s rampant lag. Capture the Babe is the same, only with a veneer of sexism drenched over the awkwardly implemented capture the flag mechanics.

Also, you can only play as Duke. I would have gotten a bit of a chuckle if I could go around blowing people up with one of the babes as my avatar. That would have almost made multiplayer enjoyable for me.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Gamestop.