Duke Nukem Forever: the game was always going to be overshadowed by Duke Nukem Forever: the infamy. After some 14 years in development and the collapse of its developer (the last hurdle instead being jumped by Borderlands creators Gearbox), expectations had become impossible. It's fair to say that, however Duke Nukem Forever had turned out, there'd have been disappointment and mockery after that long, strange wait. Whether this excuses just how stumbling a first-person shooter this consciously throwback action game is - well, that's another matter.
Even describing it as a first-person shooter is bizarrely troublesome. DNF is a bizarre grab-bag of technical experiments and minigames, strung together by pedestrian gunplay and artless, groin-centric puns. Nominally, yes, it's a shooting game - but realistically, it comes off as a bunch of ideas mashed awkwardly together with no over-arching objective.
If presented as a back-of-the-box features list, DNF would sound pretty astonishing: truck racing, playable pool tables, shrink rays, working microveable popcorn, holographic projectors, whiteboards you can draw on, pinball machines... Oh, and the option to throw faeces around. That icky latter both speaks to the game's never-subtle humour and to its random, cartwheeling nature. What might have been impressive technical achievements at some point between 1997 and 2011 are simply layered on top of a fairly clunky, uneven shooting game. So much effort seems to have gone into small details and pointlessly interactive frippery, but the meat of the game has been left to fester.
By and large, you'll walk into a small room, find all the doors are locked, shoot everything in sight with one of the two weapons you're allowed to carry at any one time, then find one door has magically unlocked. On the other side? Another small room. More locked doors. The environments change regularly enough - deserts, slime-covered caves, the alien-devastated outdoors of Las Vegas, inside an abandoned casino - but it's rare that the content lives up to the surroundings. Minigames like remote control car driving (irritating) and manning giant turrets (tedious) are dropped in irregularly, as are boss fights which offer enormous monsters but stale, over-long combat, more a matter of endurance than skill. This is also true in much of the common-or-garden combat, with Duke's oddly weedy health and the restrictive spaces meaning he can become pretty easy prey for the hordes of pop-up aliens.
While aggressively pitched as the return of the shooter king, it's a completely different game from its ancient predecessor, Duke Nukem 3D. That Doom-era shooter offered wide-open spaces and relatively non-linear exploration, but this is a game of glorified tunnels. Duke himself is supposed to be the true link to the past - an affectionate and massively exaggerated pastiche of Arnie'n'Stallone-style action heroes, master of the insulting one-liner and with an open enthusiasm for strippers. In this age of achingly earnest, ponderously 'gritty' game plots, a little bit of tongue-in-cheek hypermachismo seems just what the doctor ordered.
Alas, Duke has devolved into out-and-out toilet humour and supposedly satirical but actually discomfiting contempt towards women. Everyone and everything's a cartoon, and bodily functions the only topic of conversation. There's absolutely no reason this schoolyard approach couldn't have been a giggle in other, subtler hands, but whatever irony DNF is striving for collapses under the monstrous weight of constant self-congratulation and lowest-common-denominator gurning.
Like the game itself, half the time the writing doesn't seem to make sense - vaguely rude-sounding words strung together apparently at random, and screeched at excessive length by instantly forgettable, less-than-one dimensional characters. At its worst, it's openly hateful. At its (very rare) best, it's charmingly childish. There's something appealingly unpretentious in there trying to make itself heard, but it's drowned out by toothless sneering and chest-beating.
In its favour, Duke is a true spectacle. It makes no sense, it's often boring, it's frequently irritating and it seems to have copied bits and bobs from any number of recent games while learning absolutely nothing, but you never quite know what it's going to do or what it's going to show you next. It might not look quite cutting-edge, but it can do big'n'brash with the best of 'em. Many of Duke's long-term fans are celebrating it as adhering to long-lost, simpler gaming values, a look back to a time when raw entertainment was prided over pomp.
At times, Duke does manage this: moments when it seems to be a good-natured parody of videogaming or it finds its flow and leaves you with the right weapons, the right enemies and the right amount of space to cut loose and be the indestructible meathead it keeps on claiming its hero is.
Then it'll do something absolutely vile, like make light of women being sexually assaulted by aliens, or something tediously stupid, like make you backtrack through the same series of small, boring rooms you've only just yawned your way through, and its slight light flickers out again.