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Duke Nukem Forever (PC/PS3/360): A Product of Before Its Time (Detailed Review)

TW: Misogyny, rape.

I’m no stranger to holding unique or contrarian views in regards to games. You kind of need to have either unique opinions or insight in order for people to want to hear what you have to say after all. There unfortunately comes the risk of having people accuse you of being purposefully contrarian in an attempt to garner attention rather than giving your own honest opinion.

The truth is that these are all my genuine opinions, I just don’t put that much stock in what everyone else thinks. I’ve always disliked how cliquish and conformist most mainstream gaming sites are in regards to games (among other things) and it always comes across as cringe worthy how people will take their word as law despite the fact that gaming media has become widely distrusted as of late.

I did not go into Duke Nukem Forever expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Aside from the game’s poor reception there is also the fact that I never got into first person shooters even when they ARE well received. My only experience with the Call of Duty series for instance is playing about two hours of the first Modern Warfare and quitting because the game just didn’t click with me. Granted that was a few years ago and I did not play enough to get a full impression but I have other games I’m far more interested in.

Duke Nukem Forever | Holsom Twins
Bimboification goals

The only reason I even bothered to play Duke Nukem Forever was due to the fact that the copy I got was only $3.00 and because of a certain reviewer who I used to watch but stopped watching because he turned out to be a total transphobe. It’s also worth noting that I played a brief bit of this game a few years ago as well but stopped because that was the point where my gender dysphoria was at its worse and made me feel awkward and cruddy for playing something like this.

Not gonna lie it felt awkward playing this game even as a trans woman who has been out for almost four years and on HRT for almost two, and it felt even more awkward enjoying it. I would also like to disclose that I have not played any previous Duke Nukem titles before this one but I do now have a greater interest in the series after having played it, enough of an interest that I bought the latest re-release of Duke Nukem 3D during the October Steam sale.

There is a lot to unpack in regards to Duke Nukem Forever considering that it almost feels like a betrayal of character to have enjoyed this game. I don’t even mean this in regards to the gameplay but rather because Duke Nukem Forever is an infamously misogynistic game, and as a feminist I kinda have to agree on that observation. Duke Nukem Forever is so misogynistic that I have seen it browsing Return of Kings! Hail to the king baby indeed.

If you think I’m exaggerating, the game’s substitute for the typical FPS multiplayer mode “capture the flag” is called “capture the babe” and equates women to literal objects to be collected. You may as well have titled this the “game of patriarchy” because women are literally the fucking ball… or flag, whatever.

Duke Nukem Forever | Capture the Babe
(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

This did not bother me because I did not bother to play the multiplayer. I tend to not be into multiplayer games so you are unlikely to hear anything else on that front but I figured sharing this mode would make my point. But what about in the single player campaign?

For most of the story it could be argued that Duke Nukem Forever treats women the same as how it treats men; as fodder to stroke Duke’s enormous ego. I think there was maybe one woman in the game who did not immediately want to ride Duke’s cock but then again, there is only one man who doesn’t worship the ground that Duke walks on.

While it is true that just about every character in the game is so rooted in traditional gender roles that you’d swear it was in development for even longer than it actually was, this only serves to remind you why said roles were bad to begin with. The main plot of the game is that the same aliens from Duke Nukem 3D have returned to earth to get their revenge on Duke and have captured their women.

And yes, this shit is fairly common in games of the 90s and early 2000s and that Duke Nukem Forever was merely an unlucky victim of circumstance. In fact, it is quite clear that Gearbox got the message when they created the DLC episode The Doctor Who Cloned Me where they have a sub level where you meet the sole female character in the game with any sense of agency or personality , are tasked with beating up pricks at a brothel who are antagonizing the women AND where you come across an arcade game where a pimp “disciplines” his ho.. to which Duke will refuse to play if you interact with it and say “No fucking way I’m playing this piece of crap.” It is capped off with an achievement called “Hedonist… not misogynist.”

Duke Nukem Forever: The Doctor Who Cloned Me | Pimpslap 5000
When you have to invent a misogynistic game for your main character to disapprove of in order to show how not misogynistic he is it’s not a good sign.

It’s really a testament to how fucked up this game’s portrayal of women is that I felt genuinely happy to see that. But the more I think about it, the more fucked up it is. While this does immensely help player immersion and let the player know that they are not playing as a woman hating scoundrel, the fact that it got to that point is telling.

But the key problem with Duke Nukem Forever’s misogyny is not only the fact that it is a relic of the 90s, but also the fact that the increased production values make draw further attention to these flaws. The most infamous case is in the games “Hive” level where Duke Nukem Forever forgets that it’s a silly comedic action game and turns into something that wouldn’t be out of place in a hentai game.

While Duke Nukem 3D also had women being kidnapped and impregnated by aliens, I would at least assume that you wouldn’t listen to the tortured moans of the captured women as their bodies are altered and they become impregnated with alien spawn. I also assume that Duke Nukem 3D didn’t have two previous established characters (assuming that being a slut counts as having a well developed personality because if it doesn’t then I may be out of a job) who upon seeing Duke and minutes from death by aliens bursting through their stomachs say “Duke, we’ll get the weight off in like a week… we swear!”

Duke Nukem Forever: Holsom Twins Weight

And it is clear that from the creepy music that sounds like what you’d hear in a black and white horror movie, as well as the fact that the game allows the option to mercy kill the captured women which will prompt Duke to respond with a solemn “she wasn’t human anymore,” that the game intended for the player to find this creepy and disturbing. Yet here you have Duke capping off with his typical one liners and treating this scene with the same type of dignity as Logan Paul coming across a dead body in Japan. While Duke Nukem responds the same way towards the end of the game to Dylan’s dying monologue, it does not change the fact that there was a serious sense of emotional disconnect when this scene occurs. Also the fact that Dylan gets brought back in the DLC episode while the Holsom Twins don’t is just fucking weak.

So the question is, if this game is so misogynistic then how did I end up enjoying it? I should mention that I’m a bit different then most feminists in how I factor political themes into game review. Contrarily to what the fuckboy crowd accuses me of, I don’t go into games looking to be offended. I’m still fully capable of enjoying a game that has offensive content… so long as the offense is not intentional.

The sheer fact that Duke Nukem Forever showed genuine improvement in the DLC episode is able to clear my conscience of enjoying a “misogynistic” game. I generally have fairly thick skin, I just don’t feel the need to sugarcoat it when a game I review says something fucked up or that promotes a regressive or bigoted view. I’m still capable of enjoying something provided there is something to be enjoyed in the first place, and I do think Duke Nukem Forever had enough moments that I was able to enjoy most of the game.

Since I spent most of this review ranting about misogyny like some kind of feminist or something, I think it’s about time I talk about the rest of the plot. Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t exactly go for a deep and meaningful story line so it naturally does not end up with one. Instead the game is simply trying to make you laugh and it succeeds for the most part.

Duke Nukem Forever | Hail to the King: The Musical
This needs to become a thing.

A lot of critics of this game have cited the fact that one of the developers thought Duke should be portrayed as a serious character rather than a parody. I briefly addressed this in my response to hbomberguy where I talked about objectification in games and really should not have brought this game up since I barely played it at the time. Duke Nukem Forever is definitely guilty of objectification of women, but I do stand by what I said about death of the author being in full effect. Based on the way the game was designed, it is clearly obvious that a good portion of the development team did not see Duke as a serious character. What this shows is that the development team did not all have a clear direction, and that much was obvious from the beginning.

If anything, even in the games worst moments, Duke is a very unserious character. No one playing “straight man” could respond to two girls being hideously disfigured and inches from death and tell them “I guess you’re… fucked.” Nor would they respond to an ally’s dying speech with “I guess he won’t show up for the sequel.” I don’t know if Duke’s character is consistent with the previous games, but I genuinely don’t see how anyone could see Duke as a serious character when he’s presented as nothing more than a walking punchline.

The humor is mostly over the top and juvenile so that naturally ensured that it was a perfect fit for my tastes. Many reviewers have claimed that Duke Nukem Forever is just one giant joke and I would have to agree, but I also don’t think that is inherently a bad thing. In a way I find Duke’s character fascinating in just how detached from any sort of typical human emotions he is. It makes things funny when he actually shows real emotions.

The billiards mini game was kind of frustrating but it actually was priceless to hear how frustrated Duke gets when he shoots the cue ball into the hole. It is even funnier when you have Duke pick up a turd from the toilet and he reacts “What! No! This is disgusting!” This ends up being funny precisely because Duke is less a character and more so an amalgamation of masculine stereotypes. I can’t stress that I likely would have found this dialogue overly cringe worthy and unfunny if this were any other character, but when Duke’s entire personality is based entirely around looking cool it just becomes all the more hilarious to see him acting like a normal human being.

Duke Nukem Forever | Anime Tiddy mags
How it should be, but unfortunately not how it is.

I am not ashamed to admit I genuinely laughed at a good portion of the gags in this game and thought it was funny. As overly vulgar as Dylan’s over the top quips are I did genuinely chuckle at a fair few of them, especially in the DLC episode where he got shrunken down to the size of a dick (his words, although considering he always was a dick maybe that’s more appropriate for him). I really don’t know what people were expecting from this game. While I can’t speak on how accurate it was to the original, if one is going into a Duke Nukem game and not expecting crude humor, then you are probably the type that goes to a Dane Cook show expecting to laugh.

Presentation wise, Duke Nukem Forever is fairly solid. The graphics are solid and the sound effects are all well placed and used effectively. The voice acting is all solid and John St. John is back to provide several impeccable one liners such as “time to stop pissing around and get back into action!” and “power armor is for pussies!” Note that the latter line is especially ironic since it appears close to a level that was clearly inspired by Halo and is in a game with regenerating health, so it isn’t very consistent, but it’s still funny though.

The soundtrack is pretty solid and there are a significant number of kick ass tracks that fit all too well. Some of my favorites have been the the theme that plays in the boss battle against the mother ship, the track from the second Battlelord fight, and that badass “Ride of the Valkyries” remix (even if its use as an Apocalypse Now reference completely misses the point of the scene in question). Also as infamous as the Hive level is, the ominous and unbearably unnerving music does its job very well (although it would have worked much better in a more serious game).

There is one presentation aspect that I cannot defend and that is the fucking load times. Loading screens in Duke Nukem Forever last up to a good 40 seconds and you need to sit through one every time you die (which will be a lot). Granted I still had fun with the game despite this and it is manageable for anyone who has ever played a PS1 game, but it really is a sign of just how messy the game was when it was released. Some people just will not want to put up with those loading screen so that will likely be a red flag for them. I only found it a serious issue during some late game segments where it was way too easy to die and you sometimes only got about a minute of playtime before needing to see that fucking loading screen again. Also this game could have really used an option to skip cutscenes.

Duke Nukem Forever | FAQs Online
On the plus side, some of the tips are funny.

When it comes to the gameplay of Duke Nukem Forever, I actually found it pretty fun and had no major issues with it aside from the load times. I felt there was a fair difficulty curve (on normal difficulty) and that there was a decent variety in level design. I thought the boss battles were enjoyable as well and required a decent amount of learning skill and strategy. I’m not so sure how I feel about bosses only being damaged by explosives since it limits the ways you can fight them but it also means that the player needs to do more than just unload into them with whatever you have.

The same goes for the inability to carry more than two guns (which has been patched to allow up to four in the PC version but none of the console versions). On one hand it does encourage more thought on the player to choose what to carry with them, but it also means that items like the shrink ray and freeze ray will see little use in the main campaign. The short version is that I don’t mind the game being like this but also think it was unnecessary.

Level design was mostly solid aside from a few questionable segments (the underwater portion in the generator stage comes to mind) but I still thought there were quite a few clever ideas. Ones that really stood out were the Duke Burger and the ghost town stage. The former is notable in that it has a segment where Duke is shrunken down and needs to navigate across a wet floor that is also electrified. I also felt there were a number of interesting puzzles that add a fair amount of variety to the game.

Admittedly though, I probably enjoyed finding the “ego items” and completing the mini games to be more entertaining than the actual shooting. That’s not to say I disliked the shooting but I really liked the amount of personality in the design of these stages and how much you could interact with. Plus you finally get to play the Balls of Steel pinball game in Duke’s room. Now Duke DOES have time to play with himself… I regrettably did not come up with that joke myself.

Duke Nukem Forever | Balls of Steel
What Duke means when he says he has balls of steel.

My favorite stage in the game would definitely be the strip club level, and for once it’s not for the obvious reason. I found it nice because it’s a level made up entirely of collectable ego items and mini games and it’s interesting to explore the level and find out every thing you can do. I like especially how the achievements encouraged going after the Easter eggs and playing the mini games to their fullest. While I didn’t platinum the game I did get a large portion of them and genuinely wanted to get them all (from both the main game and The Doctor Who Cloned Me).

I won’t deny that there are a lot of flaws with Duke Nukem Forever, nor will anyone else for that matter. Yet you really need to hand it to GearBox and 3D Realms for actually finishing this game. Even though the game sold genuinely well it was unlikely to be enough to be worth the 12 years of development. No one would have blamed these guys if they just canceled it, and if it got a few more delays to iron things out then no one would have complained.

It is important to remember that not every day of the twelve years spent working on Duke Nukem Forever had people actively working on and testing it. There was a lot that was left in limbo and it is a genuine miracle this game made it through development hell, even if it took some damage coming out.. a lotta damage (this reference will be used in the next mainline installment, Duke Nukem Fivefold that will be released in 2023).

The misogyny is likely a deal breaker for most of my readership and those people likely had no interest in this game to begin with. Chances are it would have been too much for me as well if I hadn’t already experienced vastly more horrifying shit from Starless and Euphoria. I’m not gonna recommend that these people change their minds but for those who are still curious after all this time I’d recommend giving it a shot. I found a used copy for $3.00 and this game likely goes on sale for pretty cheap so even if you are like most and think this game is trash, you won’t lose much money.

As for the possibility of an actual new installment in this series, it’s unlikely given the tarnished reputation of this series. But given that Duke Nukem 3D is still profitable enough that it’s being milked with remakes then there may be hope. Also I should probably play Duke Nukem 3D for myself. I will probably do that before a hypothetical sequel is made and released

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