Duke Nukem Forever

“Remember guys, it’s just a video game.” Before we sat down to have our very first go at Duke Nukem Forever, following an agonising decade long wait, its adoptive parent Randy Pitchford was quick to give us that sobering reality check. “It’s not going to live up to the 12 years of hype, no game could.”

Pitchford is engaging, charming and beaming with excitement over his project – but he doesn’t give the typical presentation for an upcoming game. While most developer demonstrations result in breathless plot recaps, excited feature rundowns and lists of ambitious numbers, Pitchford was oddly reluctant to talk the game up.

“I could rattle off all the features and walk you through it, but I don’t want to be that guy,” he asserts. He didn’t want to talk multiplayer, he wasn’t bothered about giving perfect preview quotes of ass-kicking moments or memorable slices of gameplay. He definitely wasn’t interested in talking about the franchise’s future and he – allegedly – doesn’t give much credence to the game’s inevitable critical and fan reception.

Pitchford says he’d wanted to do ‘the Apple thing’ and get the game in stores the day after its reveal, or throw a demo up on Xbox Live without any announcements or teases. Not so much for added gravitas or developer showmanship, but rather to pass the buck on playing pitchman.

“I don’t want to to be the guy to make any promises about Duke Nukem Forever,” he insists on multiple occasions, seeming genuinely nervous about heightening gamers’ already lofty expectations. “We have to ignore that whole problem and just focus on delivering. We have to spend any mind share we can afford in pursuit of delivering this.”

Because who would want to be on the receiving end of this game’s reviews and fan community? It’s taken longer than the most comically delayed properties like Prey and Guns and Roses album Chinese Democracy. Considering the lacklustre responses to those products, for even a second, would be a daunting and paralytic thought. It topped Wired magazine’s vaporware contest for so many years they were forced to give it a lifetime achievement award. It’s inspired lists of gargantuan achievements completed sooner than the game’s development. It’s the butt of gaming’s biggest joke.

But despite the comical history and despite the inevitable reviews and despite the unassailable fan hype, Pitchford says he’d always regret it if he didn’t step in and save Duke. In May 2009, as 3D Realms announced that the game was finally gone, the company was bankrupt, the studio was shutting its doors and lawsuits began to fly, it became clear just how much the game meant to him.

“That was a weird day. It was weird day for me, and my studio.” For Pitchford, because Duke Nukem 3D was the first professional game he’d ever worked on, and for Gearbox because the Texas-based companies were neighbours, and seemingly shuffled employees as often as they shuffled poker cards in cross-developer matches.

“I called George [Broussard, then CEO of 3D Realms] up that day. and he said ‘Randy, this is the worst day of my life.’” There was a lot in that sentence, says Pitchford. “This guy had been working on this for 12 years. This guy was working on one thing – and he failed.” Not to mention the 30 or so employees that he made redundant, or the estimated $30 million he blew on development costs for an unfinished game.

According to Pitchford, A number of factors led to the game’s demise. A lack of trust between publisher Take 2 and 3D realms co-owners Broussard and Scott Miller led to lawsuits and other legal squabbles. But it was ultimately Duke’s own success that brought the game to the brink of destruction. Couple Duke Nukem 3D’s massive sales with an unrelenting, perfectionist drive to deliver a worthy successor, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

“They had the money, and the credibility and the power to say ‘fuck you’ to everybody,” claims Pitchford. Where other studios would be forced into biting the bullet and releasing a game, either by dripping funds or publisher pressure, 3D Realms had gone 12 years without having to make those trade-offs or tough decisions. They ripped through engines (Duke’s seen the back of both Quake and Unreal’s building blocks), ditched assets by the bucket load and remade entire chunks of the game several times over.

But the money finally did run out, the publisher finally got tired of being an industry laughing stock and the dream died. Doors shut, lawsuits flew, Pitchford called Broussard. “Randy, this is the worst day of my life.” It’s May 2009.

The man himself – Randy Pitchford (and two other people who aren't quite as important…)

Gearbox, Picthford says, was in the most “randomly opportunistic position” possible. It was finishing up development on Borderlands, it shared the same publisher with Duke Nukem Forever, and the studio’s key members were respected and trusted by 3D Realms. It was an impossible series of coincidences, that led the Gearbox CEO to his decision. “I bought the franchise and I bought the game. In doing so, I’m now the one responsible.”

Another stroke of luck. The game was far closer to completion than Gearbox had anticipated. While most of 3D Realms’ redundant staff headed off to find development jobs elsewhere, a hardy group of seven creators (including Allen Blum, original creator of Duke Nukem 1) stuck to the impossible dream. “They holed up in their apartment. They didn’t have an income – they were living off of ramen noodles and macaroni & cheese.”

“They knew every asset, every environment, every line of code.” And along with the institutional knowledge was the “spirit of Duke, the heart of soul and the vision for the game.” That team proved essential in finishing Forever. They moved from their tiny apartment to Gearbox’s 10th floor – took the name ‘Triptych Games’, and remained the lead creators on the game.

That’s not to reduce Gearbox’s efforts in creating the game. They added multiplayer from scratch, threw team members and contractors at tough problems and brought everything up to snuff with current generation expectations. But it’s clear that the vast majority of the game was created by 3D Realms. The vision carried through, from George and Scott and Todd Repolgoe, to those seven remaining creators, and to the final game that will be out next year. The game we were just about to play.

Though I don’t like to mention it all too often, I happen to be quite an avid fan of Duke Nukem. Ever since I first set eyes upon the charismatic masochist back in 1998 throwing money at a stripper while simultaneously blowing an alien’s brain into several hundred chunks to the tune of “Makin’ Bacon” – I knew that I was willing to follow him to the ends of the Earth and back again.

I throw this personal back-story in because I know that I am not the only one with a story similar to this, and anybody else who loved The Duke the ay I did can now imagine the feelings coursing through my body as I stood outside the venue where I (along with Ready Up’s Mark) were to be one of the first gamers in the United Kingdom to get some one-on-one time with Duke Nukem Forever and the man ho made it all possible himself, the CEO of Gearbox, Randy Pitchford. I was pumped. No, scratch that, I was beyond pumped. I wish it had been possible to can the feeling that I had waiting for those doors to open, if only so that I could use it as a permanent replacement for the ten litres of Red Bull I get through on a weekly basis.

After 10 minutes of singing ‘Grabbag’ in my head while bouncing from one foot to the other like a five year old dying for a piss amongst a group of fellow Duke Nukem enthusiasts, I (by which I mean, Mark) finally unearthed that the people waiting around us were in fact booked in for a timeslot after us and we rushed (with as much dignity as we could muster) into the secret underground venue location and prayed to every deity we could think of that we hadn’t missed our shot at anything (spoiler alert: we hadn’t).

There was an open bar (brownie points to Gearbox for that), excellent mini burger h’orderves (few more points, Gearbox) and a Duke Nukem Forever teaser trailer set to the tune of ‘Invaders Must Die’ by The Prodigy (Gearbox, you may now officially call on me anytime you require a vessel to carry your babies). Now due to certain embargoes and polite requests from everyone in charge of the event we’re not allowed to talk about what we saw in the trailer. I can however, fully confirm its awesomeness and hope they get that thing available to the whole world as soon as humanly possible!

Now the good news – we are allowed to talk about the demo until our fingertips bleed! After I chugged a few Red Bulls from the bar to pile on top of my excitement, Randy Pitchford’s fantastic presentation and trailer launch, and our interview with the man himself – we were let off the leash and shown the way to the demo. There was only a single space available by this point which Mark very graciously didn’t force me to fight for, and just seeing the title screen in front of me brought a smile to my face the likes I hadn’t felt since I first heard the line: “I’ll rip off your head and shit down your neck,” at the tender age of 9.

It began at the end.

It began at the end. You’re in the locker room, and before you there is a white board – a useable white board. Naturally, as the law dictates, I drew as many filthy high school level body parts as I could think of. I attached them to dogs, cats, stick figures – anything that I could legibly draw using an analogue stick, and smirked with childishly glee when the commander, eagerly glancing over my shoulder, proclaimed: “It’s… brilliant! This is the kind of plan that only you could think up, Duke.” Already I loved what I am going to refer to for the rest of this feature as ‘The Dukeness’ of the game. After spending far too much time using that whiteboard (and building a small queue of other Duke Nukem fans in my wake as I did so) I manned up and left the locker room to the final boss of Duke Nukem 3D in all of its high definition glory. If the term ‘nostalgia porn’ hasn’t already been invented by somebody, then I’m calling it right here and now. The battle had all the feeling of DN3D but this time it was so much more, because it had taken that 12 year gap in my mind that had been lost without Duke Nukem goodness and brought me straight back to the Duke mentality my brain had been clamouring for. As I stood before that behemoth of a boss with my Devastator in hand – I remembered why I’d waited for twelve long years, because despite the delays, the lies, the falters and the engine changes… I still loved the Duke.

With boss eliminated, and credits rolling, I leant closer to the screen. I knew it wasn’t the end of the demo, but I did know that the following scene was going to be the first ever piece of official Duke Nukem Forever gameplay I had seen. It had to bring all The Dukeness it had in its arsenal and make my heart flutter like a scantily dressed girl on prom night. The camera slowly zooms out to show the credits rolling on a television screen; we see a pair of hands wearing an easily recognisable set of nuclear symbolled gloves holding a special Xbox 360 controller with the letters ‘D. U. K. E.’ instead of the traditional ‘A. B. X. Y.’ and a nuclear symbol where the dashboard button once was. I’m sold to it already but wait it gets better.

Chuck Norris ain't got nothin' on Duke!

A schoolgirl’s head pops up from the bottom of the screen, wiping her mouth clean and smiling at Duke. Then another identical schoolgirl rises up next to her doing the same. “Hehe. So was the game any good, Duke?” A pause. “Yeah, but after twelve fuckin’ years, it damn well better be.” Then a fade to black. I squealed so hard inside I think I may have burst a kidney. This was the only mention of the twelve year long development in the demo, but dear God do I hope they throw in one or two more Duke Nukem zingers about it in the full version!

The demo then cut ahead, which had already been mentioned before during the presentation because Gearbox had made the decision to throw us about two thirds of the way into the game for the second half of the demo so we could get our hands on as many different weapons as we could. I liked this plan very much. We re-emerged with Duke sitting in one truly bitchin’ looking monster truck (with the nuclear symbol spray painted on the back, naturally) which had about 60 seconds worth of petrol in. I used this petrol to its fullest. I’m not going to big this level up as one of my favourites, but it certainly was satisfying as all Hell to boost your way through some pigs in a big ass monster truck with Duke at the wheel. Maybe there’s a tad more context to it in the full game, but in the demo it did its duty of letting a few great one-liners out and letting your tires gum up some intestines on the way to the next objective. The Dukeness remained however, so I’m not going to beat too heavily on a section of the demo that was likely taken out of its full context.

Once you’re out of petrol and jump out though, we’re right back into the full swing of things! Golden desert eagle in hand and pigs as far as thy eye could see. Not only this, but more weapons from the Duke franchise than you could shake a pipe bomb at: the shotgun, the chain gun, the shrink ray, the pipe bombs… and of course, the Mighty Boot. This final section was less a level and it was a giant playground filled with squishy blood filled alien pigs and a generous helping of explosive barrels – and what better way to showcase The Dukeness?! I blew those oinking bastards to pieces. I shrank them and watched they splat beneath my might tread. I shot them with pistols, with shotguns, chain guns and more. Those alien bastards were going to pay for shooting up my ride! Tragically after a little over ten minutes of this Duke Nukem porn-like satisfaction, there were no more bodies left to decimate and the dreaded fade to black. My time was up – the demo was over. It was time for me to find the nearest pillow, and weep into it until the ‘2011’ release date was announced. The Duke is back. The Dukeness, has finally returned to the world of gaming.







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