The main problem with Duke Nukem Forever is that it feels old. The visuals can be generously described as 'unspectacular' for the most part and some of the textures are just ugly. The engine (which is apparently only a heavily modified Unreal 2.5 engine, not even UE3) can do glistening and oozing very well, and the Hoover dam is impressively huge when you view it from the bottom, but generally there's not much in the way of eye candy here.
Unless you count the nudity.
It's all tongue in cheek, supposedly, and you'd be missing the point entirely if you actually got offended, but there are some moments when it goes beyond silly and into the realms of awful. The strip club may well have air hockey and pinball and all sorts of diversions, but the ultimate goal of this section is still to collect vibrators for a glassy-eyed NPC so she’ll gyrate in your general direction. Worse, this section appears as a dream sequence, rather than being incorporated into the levels as was the case with Duke 3D – meaning it’s a tactic that reeks of desperation.
The whole nudity and virtual women thing in the game isn't offensive, it's just embarrassing. Watching Question Time is more erotically stimulating than Duke Nukem Forever's unskippable, zombiefied lap dancers.
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In gameplay terms as visual ones then, Duke is pretty old. Just the jumping animation tells you that – it’s like Duke's auditioning to replace Michael Flatley in Riverdance. Having said that, some of its worst elements are due to newfangled ideas impinging on the old school template. Take regenerating health – it just makes the game farcically easy on Normal difficulty. It's really quite tough to actually die, so there's never really much tension.
You can only carry two guns at once now too – a fact that feels like it’s borne of DNF being adapted for console platforms it was never intended to appear on. The same feels true of the checkpoints, which are too widely spread and unsupported by quicksaves; another hangover of console compromises.
As for multiplayer, it doesn't really improve or lessen the overall package in any way. It's just sort of there, so anonymous and bland it was nearly uncovered in this review. It’s probably the most 'old school' element of the game - a fact owed to the simple gamemodes more than anything; Deathmatch, Capture the Babe, etc. It does have quite a few mutators and options to freshen things up, but at the end of the day, it's just deathmatch in differently dressed up forms. Even the ability to unlock new content for Duke’s Penthouse as you level up isn’t enough to make it worth repeat visits.
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The question that haunts Duke is: Why release a game that's trying to emulate an old shooter without going the whole hog and making it actually retro in a meaningful way? This is a game that wants to be old school but can't actually bring itself to be old school. It's modern but not modern, old but not old, fun but also not fun in equal measure. It's a hybrid of all sorts of different motives and approaches, a fact befitting its elongated development cycle.
Let's use two of the mini-games to demonstrate this curious dual approach. The air hockey game has Duke's hand visible, controlling the paddle and connecting physically with the puck. Playing pool is just a case of clicking on the white ball and watching it magically fly away to the other end of the table, just like it was back in Duke 3D.
If you're going to 'go modern', do it. If you're going to 'go retro', do it. Just don't go half-and-half and end up failing to appease fans of both approaches. While DNF is kind-of fun, is playable and can be enjoyed all the way until the end, it's far away from what it should have been.
Oh, and Gearbox: What's with the obsession with tampons? It's just weird.