Duke Nukem Forever's Success in Game Design

Duke Nukem Forever's Success in Game Design
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The Duke’s Flop

By now everyone

knows that Duke Nukem Forever wasn’t quite the godlike second coming of Halo, or whatever it was people expected it to be. Expectations ran high when the game was finally given a (real) release date, and when news appeared that it was finally coming out of development hell. No game escapes dev hell without tarnish, however. One thing people don’t necessarily realize is that while Duke Nukem Forever was “in development” for over a decade, only a year or two of that was actually spent developing the game. Most of it was spent in legal turmoil or lost with companies rising and falling. The end result was cobbled together from assets left behind, and for the most part wasn’t originally a part of the game plan.

That’s not to say everything the Duke did was bad.

The Duke Himself


Much can be said about the benefits to keeping a protagonist silent, like Half Life’s Gordon Freeman. You may notice in that article that the first negative example is Duke Nukem himself. However, I tend to disagree.

When you buy a Duke Nukem game, you know what you’re getting. What you’re NOT getting is a deep role-playing experience, with branching dialogue and moral choices. You’re NOT getting a protagonist designed for you to project your own personality onto. What you’re getting is exactly what’s written in that article: a walking cliche, a big macho meathead. But here’s the thing: that’s all Duke Nukem needs to be.

When you play Duke Nukem you expect one-liners. You expect machismo oozing out his pores. You expect the caricatures of women in the game to swoon at his presence and the sexual innuendo, blatant and intentional, to fly. It’s what you’re going to get, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Duke Nukem Forever did all that and more. It has all the sex, all the drugs, all the heavy guitar music in the background you could want. You get to drive a monster truck through set pieces and over enemies. You get a rapid-fire rocket launcher. You get the one-liners and the jokes about other modern FPSs.

So what if it’s juvenile? So what if in a dozen years the humor will be outdated and crass? That’s part of the charm of Duke Nukem.

New and Old


Duke Nukem Forever sits in a sort of limbo between being new enough to be a modern game and old enough to be retro. It’s like when they developed it for modern consoles, they were using ten year old assets updated for engines that are themselves in need of an upgrade. So you receive a mishmash of retro and modern game styles.

Does it do either of them well? Not really, but did it have to? No. In fact, one of the biggest gripes about modern FPS gaming is that every game plays the same. Any Call of Duty plays just like any other, and Halo has hardly had innovation in the years since it was released. Duke was expected to break the mold and do something different, but is stomped for doing exactly that.

The Retro feel of the game is apparent. There’s no cover-based shooting or stealth sequences. The enemies don’t have cones of vision and timers ticking down until they decide that noise they heard and that corpse they found is a fluke. Enemies burst out of doors and through walls and they know where you are. They don’t need to guess, they can’t be outsmarted, and you’re not going to flank them. It’s not the Duke’s style, and he revels in it. He stand there and takes as many bullets as he shoots, and he mows down the enemy in a glorious blaze.

Arguably, it’s the influence of modern gaming that hampers Duke Nukem Forever. The shining example of this is the limitation of only carrying two weapons at a time. Modern FPSs do this so you’re not a walking tank covered in weapons and ammo. It helps to streamline inventory management, sure, but it’s still a limitation old games like Quake didn’t have. People harp on Duke Nukem Forever for being limited to two weapons, but, are you really?

One of the achievements is to carry your starting gold-plated pistol through the entire game. That leaves you with a pistol and one rotating weapon slot. Yet, this is never an issue. Need a rocket launcher? There’s probably one on the ground around a corner. Want a Ripper because the next section is close quarters? I’m guessing the enemies you just killed dropped two or three of them. Same with shotguns, ammo for your pistol, and whatever else the area calls for. Long range areas almost always have rail guns lying around, and there are plenty of ammo crates scattered through the game to give you all the ammo you need. Sure, you only have two weapon slots, but your choices are seldom limited.

The Little Touches

Sometimes it’s the little touches that give you something extra. For example, the first time you open Duke Nukem Forever, you’re presented with artwork inside the case. When’s the last time a game did that? It’s not necessary, but it adds a little something to the experience. Before you’ve even put the game in the console, you get a taste of what’s to come.

Of course, Gearbox goes big too. Some of you may remember this:

Slash000 Preorder

It’s a preorder receipt for Duke Nukem Forever, way back when it first was announced. Slash000, a now-famous internet personage, not only was allowed to redeem that ancient preorder for the game, but he was also given a huge pack of swag by Gearbox themselves. Honoring their fans? A lot of game companies these days don’t really pull that off.



  • Opinions based on User Experience
  • Images from Duke Nukem Forever screenshots