As this sentence spills onto the page, Duke Nukem Forever sits at the top of the UK sales charts. For some, the game's success is a near miraculous conclusion to a saga that seemed destined to end in tragedy, the king restored to his throne. To others, it will be the disappointing punchline to a puerile and aggressively overlong joke.
Randy Pitchford, Gearbox Software's ebullient president, obviously stands with the former. After all, it was Pitchford's apparently sincere respect for 3D Realms' vision that allowed Gearbox to take over development of the game last year, and since then he has beat the Duke Nukem drum with unwavering zeal, seizing every opportunity to impress the idea that Duke Nukem Forever is more than just a game; it is a shrink-wrapped piece of gaming history, with an appeal that falls outside the ebb and flow of critical opinion.
"One could not be a gamer in this world without consuming that and having that experience," he told Eurogamer's Johnny Minkley. "You're just missing out on a ginormous aspect of videogames history if you fail to participate. This game's gonna ship and we're all going to be there, so it doesn't matter what the score is."
Which is just as well, because the reviews so far paint a distinctly unappealing picture. When Pitchford said that he, "would not want to be a games journalist on this one," he hit upon a concern that is discussed in virtually every appraisal of the game so far. Indeed, Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead started his review by quoting Pitchford directly, but while he initially agrees with the sentiment, "with joypad in hand, reviewing Duke Nukem Forever actually proves incredibly simple. Everything else becomes a sideshow when the main event is so obviously, heart-breakingly disappointing on almost every level. The toughest part is deciding where to begin."
"Despite the legendary length of time it has spent in production, Duke Nukem Forever feels terminally unpolished and often unfinished in too many key disciplines to be given a passing grade."
The grade awarded is 3 out of 10, and Whitehead's criticisms touch almost every aspect of the experience: brutal difficulty spikes, sluggish movement, erratic aiming, and "ugly" presentation that commits, "practically every graphical sin imaginable." Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter adds that the PC version is far more stable and thus more rewarding to play, even as he condemns the Xbox 360 version as "a complete mess".
And the fear that Duke Nukem's unreconstructed personality would prove too offensive for contemporary tastes is dismissed as, "barely even worth considering." The game abounds with crude, scatological jokes, but the satire that Duke's creators have always insisted is at the heart of the character is noticeably absent, if it was ever there at all. "The only sane response is to roll your eyes," Whitehead continues. "This is far more coarse than Duke 3D ever was, the humour uniformly witless, a parade of blunt profanity, childish poo and wee jokes and obvious innuendo that makes it feel more of a piece with Duke rip-offs like Redneck Rampage and Postal 2: similarly weak games which failed to mask their lack of polish and ideas under a stained duvet of juvenile outrage."
The game fares little better at Joystiq, where Randy Nelson's scathing two-star review cites many of the same problems, suggesting that it's difficult to recommend something so compromised and archaic when the genre is brimming with viable alternatives. "Want to play the true successor to Duke Nukem 3D? It's called Bulletstorm. It might not seem fair to hold Duke Nukem Forever up to Epic's foul-mouthed shooter, but the truth of the matter is that they're both games released in modern times, priced at $60, and targeted at the same players."
However, Nelson offers reserved praise for a handful of ideas where the years of development and creative thinking can actually be discerned: Duke, brought down to size by a shrink ray, driving an RC car or battling across a kitchen shelf with only mustard jars as cover, or being stopped by an eager fan in search of an autograph. He also enjoyed the Duke's "ego-meter", which serves as a protective shield and can be filled by lifting weights, humiliating enemies, and other "Duke-like actions."
IGN's Charles Oynett is more lenient, awarding 5.5 out of 10 despite highlighting many of the same concerns as Eurogamer and Joystiq. While Duke Nukem Forever is technically inept and largely uninspired, Oynett describes the shooting sections as "simple fun", with the brute force of the shotgun and the novelty of the shrink and freeze rays the stars of a very limited show. "It's all straightforward, classically-styled kill-factory sequences that let you turn off your brain and revel in the primal glory of the aim-and-shoot gameplay loop."
The disappointingly spare multiplayer component also benefits from the fundamental satisfaction of point-and-shoot, but the experience really falls apart in the quieter moments between gunfights, with a series of puzzles so simplistic that Oynett ponders whether they are in fact a bitingly satirical comment on the state of the first-person shooter. "It might be different if Duke approached a puzzle section, laughed, lobbed some curse words at it and moved on, but since we're forced to solve the puzzles to continue it's not tongue-in-cheek satire, unless the joke is on us."
"Duke Nukem Forever isn't a revitalization of the early days of the first-person shooter genre or a middle-finger to the increasingly complex and sophisticated nature of videogame entertainment. It's a muddled, hypocritical exercise in irritation with solid shooting mechanics and decent encounter design. There's some dumb fun to be had in Duke Nukem Forever, but the game tries hard to ensure it's only fleeting."
On PC, however, the scores will give Gearbox more reasons to be cheerful, even if Pitchford does insist on their irrelevance. At present there is a 22-point gap between the console and PC versions on Metacritic, which is highly unusual for a multi-platform release, and compelling proof that the PC offers a superior experience. PC Gamer's Dan Stapleton certainly seems to think so, with an 8 out of 10 review that begins with a stern challenge to the cynics.
"Is it worth the wait? Of course not, don't be ridiculous. How could any game possibly be worth waiting 14 years for, especially one that only ever aspired to be a low-brow comedy first-person shooter? There's no reinvention of the genre here, no real attempt at grandeur. More than anything, Duke just wants to party like it's 1997."
The idea that 3D Realms never had aspirations beyond "a low-brow comedy first-person shooter" is certainly dubious, but Stapleton believes that Duke Nukem is a justifiably iconic character, and a good deal more fun than the po-faced super-soldiers at the centre of so many contemporary action games. More to the point, Duke Nukem Forever "fulfils its obligations" as a sequel to Duke Nukem 3D.
"It's fast-paced, run-and-gun battle against diverse, love-to-hate 'em monsters, using weaponry ranging from conventional boomsticks to over-the-top sci-fi, and fought through a long series of corridor levels where there's almost always something unique to see and interact with. No two settings are alike, and with plenty of Easter eggs scattered around that boost your health... exploring the world is a frequently rewarding high point."
Regardless of the relatively high score, though, Stapleton expresses similar concerns to those that dragged other reviews down into the lower reaches of the scale, though he does demonstrate a tremendous capacity for finding a positive spin.
"As two-dimensional as Duke himself, the story gets right to the point: intergalactic sex-criminal aliens are re-offending, and Duke must defy orders and step in to defend Earth's chicks. Even that flimsy B-movie tribute plot is resolved (sort of) halfway through - Duke Nukem Forever becomes simply about shooting aliens 'cause they're ugly, and bits of the script are little more than profane Mad Libs. Lazy writing or pointed critique of the state of story in first-person shooters? I prefer to think of it as the latter."
On that point, at least, Gearbox will have no argument.
Duke Nukem is available now on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.