The tale of Duke Nukem Forever has been a long and emotional one. Many of us who have been waiting since it was first announced in 1997 have run the full gamut of emotions and when 3D Realms finally crumbled in May 2009, it seemed all might be lost. Yet here we are now, once again expecting the game on store shelves within the next 12 months, courtesy of the guys who brought us Borderlands, Gearbox Software.
How they arrived here is quite the epic tale and will probably make for a great book once all the dust has finally settled but for the basic gist, swing by How Randy Pitchford Saved Duke Nukem Forever
over on Wired. In a nutshell, Duke Nukem Forever owes his salvation to a small group of developers who wouldn't give up and a single studio that out of pure fortuitous circumstance and coincidence had the exact criteria required to take over the wheel before the ship sank.
Now with 12 years of fruitless development history, it was going to take a little more than a new trailer and a screenshot or two to renew interest in something that many had given up on a long time ago and at the 2010 PAX Prime expo in Seattle, 2K Games and Gearbox did just that, offering a playable hands-on demo to the general gaming public with none of the usual closed-door press-only exclusives or embargo shenanigans. Following an exhausting series of US and European public appearances, Gearbox founder and President Randy Pitchford and VP Steve Gibson last week found their way to Brisbane and Australia's successful videogame themed "Mana Bar" offering the Aussie gaming public the same opportunity.
So was it worth the wait? Well realistically, that seems like an impossible goal for any game to live up to and anyone expecting Duke Nukem Forever to really reflect 12 years of development is likely to be disappointed -- particularly since that period includes major engine transitions and according to Gearbox, that nothing in the game today is over four years old. Now I won't waste time detailing all the events of the demo here -- you can see that for yourself easy enough with a quick YouTube search
, but what was on offer is a section of the beginning followed by a jump ahead to a western-themed level toward the middle of the game -- the complete demo experience lasting only a little over 10 minutes.
The core elements that made Duke Nukem 3D so entertaining appear to be mostly intact; the interaction and gameplay variety, the brightly coloured style and most importantly the sense of humour. On the gameplay side of things, there's not really any one
thing that is terribly remarkable on its own, but more the amount of little benign things. Some examples from the demo are pissing in a urinal; grabbing faeces from a toilet, walking around with it in hand and throwing it at people; and drawing on a white-board with multiple marker colours. During a public Q&A Randy Pitchford went further to explain that a feature like the interactive whiteboard "probably took an engineer about 6 months and I'm thankful for that as a gamer, but that's not something you see in other games, for a reason" that reason of course being the time investment in development versus the end value to the player.
Continuing, Randy shared with us another item he'd been amazed at while playing the game at 3D Realms years ago "at one point I played in the game, there's a fully functioning pinball machine and that alone could be a commercial game. It's fully designed and probably took two or three guys a year just to make that one thing in the game. I was playing the pinball machine -- it's really fun -- and I lost the ball and just about shit myself because Duke says "I've got balls of fail"".
All these little things seem like a waste of time and effort when viewed separately, but somehow the sum of them as little distractions as you play through seems worthwhile. The same can perhaps be said about the weapons and combat. There's nothing groundbreaking here so far, but when given the variety of the standard pistol, shot gun, rail gun, machine gun arsenal then adding novelty weapons like the shrink ray it has the potential to keep things interesting.
After playing the demo, I wasn't overly deterred by the slower run speed or the restriction of only being able to carry two weapons at a time, these contemporisings all seemed to fit well enough within the context of the game. What I was a little concerned about however, was the sluggish performance that dropped to noticeably choppy framerates quite frequently. Admittedly the build is obviously a few months old, but the demo machines here were high-spec PCs, so if optimising can only go so far, one can't help but wonder what they might have to sacrifice to get things running smoothly on the consoles.
In terms of the Duke himself, and his relevance in a world now 14 years on, during the public Q&A Randy explained that "when he first existed, he was definitely an amalgamation of all of the heroes of that era and he was like the most extreme of those heroes. Since then, there's almost been a pussification of our heroes, they're all very emo today and it's so odd to think that this character that was created as a stereotypical cliche is now actually kind of fresh compared to how today's heroes have gotten all deep and emotional".
Thinking about many recent games, this does ring quite true and although a few exceptions spring to mind -- Brutal Legend's Eddie Riggs for one -- there's nobody quite like the Duke around today. In Duke's universe, he's an internationally revered superhero and saviour of the Earth -- they make movies and videogames about him and his alien-stomping, chick-rescuing exploits. That premise and Duke's larger-than-life personality -- voiced once again with the distinct gruff of John St. John -- offers so much good comedy potential. So although the gameplay itself doesn't offer anything terribly remarkable, it's that comedic value that Duke's success will depend on.
But even though we've finally gotten a taste, it's too tough to say whether Duke Nukem Forever is something worth getting excited about just yet. Much like a funny trailer for a comedy movie, this demo could either be just a small slice of great things to come, or it might have just crammed all the best parts into one concentrated preview. Although Gearbox's hint that the single-player should push past 15 hours does offer some comfort, it won't mean much if the game's encounters stagnate or the laughs aren't consistent enough.
Then of course, there's the whole multiplayer side of things that we still know very little about. A solid multiplayer component has the potential to validate the purchase of a game regardless of the value of it's single-player, but if poorly executed can potentially do more harm than good by cheapening the experience. No indication has been given as to how much work (if any) 3D Realms had completed on multiplayer and Gearbox is somewhat unproven in this regard too. As while Borderlands offered a solid enough multiplayer experience for four players, that "listen server" model won't cut it for a PC gaming crowd raised on dedicated servers -- if they're (presumably) going to be offering at least eight-player "Dukematch".
Cooperative was also a huge value-add to Duke 3D, and in actual fact, the single-player campaign maps were designed in such a way that accommodated for up to eight-player co-op by including individual spawn-points and specially constructed gates and teleporters that would open up to avoid tailing players from becomming trapped when the leading player triggered an event that prevented back-tracking. Nobody cared that there was eight Duke Nukems with different coloured clothes, it was just great fun. So whether this consideration or even co-op capability at all is planned for Duke Nukem Forever remains to be seen.
What we've seen and played of Duke Nukem Forever so far though presents a lot of potential to be the game we all want it to be; and nothing else we've read and heard so far indicates to the contrary. But then, this viewpoint is admittedly limited to a 10 minute demo and PR-filtered information. Ordinarily when previewing a high-profile game we'd also have the developer's past efforts to offer a bit more perspective, but Gearbox have only had Duke for a year and 3D Realms' track record, if not expired completely by now, doesn't have much nice left to say.
The bar of expectation is very high, perhaps impossibly so for some, but for those of us willing to cut Duke a little slack for his harrowing 14 year journey, there's definite potential. Whatever the result though, the behind-the-scenes tale would make a good book -- a cautionary tale of "feature creep".