Every now and then, I find myself trying to explain modern technology to my grandparents. I’m not very good at it, and by the end of it I always feel like I’ve made a couple of people who defeated Hitler and survived the Depression feel bad for not knowing how to install an mp3 codec.
Duke Nukem Forever makes me share their pain, because after playing it, I feel like I should write a letter of apology to today’s youth for the 1990s.
Surely you’ve heard of it by now—it’s gaming’s Chinese Democracy, the game that brought low the once-powerful developer 3D Realms by virtue of its unending development cycle. After beginning production in 1996 (!) following the blockbuster Duke Nukem 3D, the development team was mired in setback after setback, culminating in their messy dissolution in 2009. The franchise was later bought by Gearbox, allowing Duke Nukem Forever to finally be finished and released.
But just like Chinese Democracy, after years of soul-crushing delays, restarts, fumbles, mulligans, and resurrections, Duke Nukem Forever kinda sucks.
Everyone who watched the game’s pre-release struggles knew that it would be a disappointment. Anticipation is so often inversely proportional to a product’s actual quality, after all, and time only serves to distend that phenomenon. But Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t merely fail to live up to the hype—it’s a cross-section of gaming artifacts dug from the very core of the industry’s own worst practices.
It would have been easy to give Duke Nukem Forever a palatable storyline. Imagine a living embodiment of 1990s-era action movies stepping through a time portal or out of cryogenic storage into the “real world” of a modern action flick, trying and failing to impose his outdated standards on the world around him, and then spending the next few hours running like hell through an environment that rejects him like an unlucky cardiac patient rejects his baboon heart.
That kind of caricature was practically the point of Duke Nukem 3D, which was a funhouse-mirror exaggeration of pop-culture tropes of its era. Duke Nukem Forever, on the other hand, opens with a spot-on yet completely unintentional analogue of 3D Realms’ own downfall, with Duke as the amoral Caesar resting on his laurels and whoring out his own long-past successes to an uninterested world.
The plot then drops an alien invasion on Earth, and from there we spend a couple of hours watching Duke stomp out any hope that the game would somehow pull something more than well-polished excrement from the toilet that the franchise has dwelt in for the last 15 years.
But no, Duke Nukem Forever is yesterday’s game with today’s paint job trying to sell promises of tomorrow to players who are either too young to feel Nukem nostalgia or too old to care about it. It’s almost as if the development cycle was so long that its relative time actually reset, and one game created by six companies over more than a decade somehow turned out older than its predecessor.
After 15 years, the franchise seems to have traded in epic stagnation for reverse progression. The elder DN3D, a well-coded, robust shooter with a variety of weapons, a streamlined code base, and at least the semblance of an original idea, has finally been followed up—but with a simple, poorly coded corridor shooter with a few hackneyed gadgets and little resembling its predecessor’s charm. Forever just doesn’t play well; it sits like a bad egg in the stomach, weighty and sour and nauseating both to experience and to think about later. Duke handles like the old man he now is, stumbling and jittering through one bland, poorly-rendered corridor after another with no end or reward in sight.
But the biggest problem is the fact that anyone, 3D Realms or otherwise, bothered to release Duke Nukem Forever at all. Forever the forever-unreleased made Duke an industry Blagojevich, a bombastic windbag with a silly haircut and an overabundance of confidence who refused to accept his own defeat long after the rest of us had moved on.
Now that the end has come—and in any sane world this would be the final, blessed end for Duke Nukem—the industry is left without one of its pillars. Duke Nukem Forever the perpetual non-release was a guide to what not to do with a franchise (or a development house, for that matter). Now that Forever is a thing that can be bought and played and forgotten, it will inevitably become yesterday’s news, its lessons lost to an industry that desperately needs them.