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The King is dead. Hail to the Queen, baby...
Playing Duke Nukem Forever is a bit like hearing your granddad telling a crude joke: it's not funny and it leaves you feeling slightly uncomfortable. Let's forget the overt misogyny for a second; let's forget the fact that every woman depicted in the game offers herself as a sexual vessel for the Duke to plunder at his will. Duke Nukem, as a character, has always symbolised a hyper-extension of base male fantasy. For the most part, the misogynistic content is comparable to what you'd find on the middle shelf of your local newsagent. It does start to get worrying when the game prompts you to 'slap' or 'spank' women (in a light-hearted way, so it's okay?) but, other than this blasé approach to violence against women and sexual harassment, the game's sexual content is commonplace elsewhere across our society - so much so that a 10 year-old might very easily pick it up and read it, or see a calendar of it on a wall while waiting for their dad to get his car fixed at the garage.
Let's not kid ourselves that a bit of tits and arse, depicted through a male fantasy of the female form that simply doesn't exist in reality, isn't all around us already far beyond the realm of video games. That's not to condone it, but merely to point out that it's a touch unfair to exclusively pick Duke Nukem out of the crowd for using it as a marketing tool as if everything else is fine. Pornography dwarves the Duke's misogyny and it's a huge industry for a reason, be it right or wrong. Duke Nukem Forever is a small fish by comparison and to lambast it on these grounds does feel hypocritical - let he who is without Kleenex 'Mansize' tissues cast the first stone. So, when we say Duke Nukem Forever is like your granddad telling a crude joke, it's not simply because it's a bit pervy or creepy; it's because the joke is out of touch, from a bygone era, and coming from someone who really should know better by now.
Just take the Duke himself: he oozes the kind of über masculinity that was ubiquitous in the 90s with its Gladiators TV shows, power protein shakes, and steroid abuse. In 2011 though, it just looks like he's trying to hide something. Those rock-hard pecks, bleached buzz-cut, and red vest now look like they should be coming straight out of a Soho gay bar at 2 o'clock in the morning. When he unleashes one of his cheesy one-liners in the game, like saying 'I'd still hit it' to an alien queen with three breasts, you just think that a closeted Duke is trying desperately hard to maintain his denial. If he'd embraced this homoerotic side in the game, then it would have added an interesting dimension to his character. As it is, the whole thing is just embarrassing; as if you have to maintain the whole charade along with him and ogle the strippers he ogles just to avoid any awkwardness. 2K Games and Gearbox Software would like you to believe that this is all meant ironically; that it shouldn't be taken too seriously, but don't be deceived. If it is a satire, then it's not funny (with the one exception of a half-decent gag about 'The Holsom Twins').
But Duke Nukem Forever isn't all bad. It is a bad game without a shadow of a doubt, don't get us wrong, but there are some positives to be gleamed from it. For a start, the gameplay is more varied than the vast majority of other first-person shooters on current-gen consoles. In fact, it's refreshingly ridiculous in a way that many modern games have forgotten. If you're not being minimised down to the size of a Duke Nukem action figure so that you can fit into a radio controlled car and bomb about the place, then you'll be engaging in some environmental problem solving, doing bench presses to increase the Duke's 'Ego' health meter, or rolling coiled-up balls of alien larvae across a level to unlock the next section. Of course, none of this variation is particularly well executed - driving sections are crass, while problem solving is basic and, at times, a touch illogical - but at least there are attempts to mix-up the monotony.
It is a game that wallows in below par design but occasionally manages to pop its head up into abject mediocrity, and much of this is to do with the infamously long and protracted development cycle. DNF is 95% corridor shooter - that much we'd expected - but in terms of combat there's no real attempt to innovate within that age-old sphere. The AI is of the swarming disposition, which means the only time you'll find enemies engaging in advanced tactics like taking cover is when they're behind a shielded mini-gun turret. It's functional for the most part, and at least the enemies are varied to a degree, but it does feel very dated. Elsewhere, there are signs of modernisation to this very old-in-the-tooth code. Occasionally you'll come across a pillar that crumbles under gun-fire like the destructible environments of some of today's best shooters, but these have been placed inconsistently throughout the game world. More often than not you'll be faced with indestructible computer terminals and wooden crates that crumble to dust with a tap.
High-res textures and some decent lighting effects have been implemented into the game, but it's abundantly clear that they've been sloppily pasted over a murkier shell. At each subsequent game restart, detailed textures fail to load in and you're left with bland, naked textures that look like they're from a game made in 2002 (which, to be fair, they may well be). Any part of DNF with a lengthy draw distance reveals the game for what it truly is: a 50+ hooker with enough make-up on to paint a mural - playing with this old hag is guaranteed to fill you with remorse. When contemporary design features do come into play, you're left wondering why the developers have even bothered. Who wants to play Duke Nukem with a 'realistic' limit of two guns in your armoury? If the rest of the game is going to be so ludicrously outdated, then at least give me the chance to hold any and all of the game's many weapons at one time. Authenticity was thrown out of the window a long way back, so why stop now?
Save points are often too far apart, loading times are excessive, and the health system is a confused mix of an old-school meter and the now more conventional bleed-out filter. Everywhere you look, DNF is a confused hotchpotch of design that's standing steadfastly in previous-gen mechanics while attempting to dip its toe in more current ideas. For a title that offers very little in the way of originality, this really does leave DNF with few regaling features or concepts. You'll be faced with a plot that's straight out of a 90s game too - it's one of those stories that doesn't actually manage to regale any tales of significance despite the fact that it features a full-scale alien invasion. Sure, the President is a bit of a prick, but have I actually done anything more substantial than travel from Las Vegas to the Hoover Dam killing a load of anthropomorphic warthogs? Not really.
Don't hold out any hope for the multiplayer either: four modes, all of which are derivative with slapdash execution, propped up by a levelling-up system that offers little more than empty customisation items. During our time with it, we suffered multiple crashes during matches, indicating that the servers are far from sturdy at this stage.
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