There’s a sequence in “Duke Nukem Forever” (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PC, $49.99) that’s destined to be remembered as one of the all-time low points in the history of video games.
It takes place in the Hive, a sort of alien incubator. The Hive is filled with naked human women who have been abducted and impregnated by the aliens. When Duke - the “hero” - accidentally kills one of the women, he makes an extremely tasteless joke.
Duke eventually stumbles upon two women. They beg for their lives. Duke responds with an F-word-based pun and watches as the two women explode.
I’m not a squeamish person, but there’s a point at which even the strongest stomach says enough is enough. Unfortunately, I had to keep playing “Duke Nukem Forever” - and while it never again reaches that low, there’s nothing that justifies that level of sadism and misogyny.
You may be familiar with the long, strange history of “DNF.” It had been in development since the mid-1990s - the adolescent years of the first-person shooter, before “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” Last year, it was finally rescued from the scrapheap by Gearbox Software, the studio behind 2009’s superb role-playing shooter “Borderlands.”
What Gearbox has assembled is a mishmash of poorly paced, archaically designed chunks of action. Along with the gunplay, “DNF” incorporates driving, running-and-jumping platform antics and even some rudimentary puzzle-solving, all of which would be welcome in a modern-day shooter if they were better executed. Instead, when you finally get to do something fun - like driving Duke’s monster truck, the Mighty Foot - the game grinds to a halt by forcing you to stop and find gas.
The worst game issues are reserved for the excruciating boss battles. At the end of the Hive section, for example, you face off against the alien queen, who can only be taken down by high-powered ordnance. Every time you score a hit, though, she knocks you off your feet, so you have to hide from her while your “ego” (this game’s equivalent of health points) recovers.
That’s right: During one of the core battles in “DNF,” the hero - established as the toughest, most fearless hero Earth has ever seen - spends most of the time hiding. And if Duke runs out of ego (which he will, often), you’re subjected to a 30-second-plus loading screen. Pile up enough of those and you’ll eventually decide the limited amount of “fun” you’re having isn’t worth the aggravation.
Survive the alien queen and you’re treated to a pointless fetch quest in which you have to find three items in a strip club. Your reward? The creepiest lap dance ever.
All of which left me wondering: Who is Duke Nukem? The character was established in the ‘90s as a parody of two-fisted action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme. But during Duke’s decade-and-a-half in limbo, those targets became toothless, and the gags here about contemporary stars like Christian Bale and Justin Timberlake fall flat.
So in 2011, Duke is just a parody of his former self, spouting jokes that are either lifeless or sickening. At one point, the president of the United States tells Duke he’s “a relic from a different era.” I wish he had stayed there. No stars out of four.