By Chris Matel

There's reasoning behind Gearbox Software and 2K Games unveiling Duke Nukem Forever at PAX Prime last year: it was a maneuver to show longtime fans the game actually existed and to find out if Duke was still relevant. Fittingly, the infamous speculation and broken promises of the sequel 12-plus years in development were finally put to rest with double takes from passersby and the numbing legs of those queuing up to play at the event dedicated to the industry's community. Even the show's sole media hour amassed an anxious line of writers, bewildered at the game's unannounced appearance. It was almost as if Nessie, Sasquatch and Marvin (the martian) had all come together for an afternoon of crocheting—it was fantastically, laughably unbelievable.

Sure enough, however, Duke was playable. A short demo showed off the return to 3D Realms' first-person legacy, fitting for a franchise that helped to catalyze the popularity of a genre and make contemporary favorites like Halo or Call of Duty possible. It was a short re-introduction to the crass, sophomoric one-liners and crude, hyper-sexual, ultra-violent atmosphere of a series where double entendre doesn't exist because it's not ballsy enought.

Yet, despite using the Xbox's right trigger to urinate, and following kicking a giant Cycloid's proportionately large eyeball for a field goal, as well as miniaturizing aggressive, mutated swine-like aliens with a shrink ray, picking up heavy weapons in Duke's long-awaited return was not unlike playing most other shooters of today. A reductionist reaction, perhaps, but the truth nonetheless. Others may have exited the enclosed booth exclaiming “Hail to the King, baby!” but I found it hard to think anything beyond “Yup, they actually have a new Duke game.”

Sitting at an octagonal tabletop usually reserved for Duke's favorite kind of, uh,“dancers” just off Vegas' Strip, my apathetic response to his premiere began to lightly peel away as imaginative mini-events and an interactive, lively world reminded me of the more carefree days of gaming. Not failing to accept its over-the-top nature and gratuitous imagery, the first 90 minutes or so of Duke Nukem Forever play like the youngest, rebellious son of entertainment media. It didn't try to be a dramatic, refined experience or lead me on as a story-driven adventure, it was just a dictionary definition of a “video game,” an: electronic game played on a screen.

Co-founder and CEO of Gearbox, Randy Pitchford, even describes the premise of Duke Nukem Forever by sidestepping the use of the word “story,” instead calling it the “setup,” the “situation.” “It's been years since Duke saved the world...he's the most famous guy...he wins at everything he does, he's the king,” Pitchford remarks in a suit jacket, jeans and casual footwear pacing around Deja Vu's main stage, complete with a trio of poles beside him. He goes on to describe the demo shown at PAX that concluded in the controversial cutscene of two women lifting their heads from Duke's lap, then he finally delivers the punchline, “The aliens come back...[their] plot is to steal our chicks.”

Is there any other, more dire reason to bust out tri-barreled machine guns or plasma rifles and spew out F-bombs after shooting off the head of an invading alien? Didn't think so. John St. John's “Come get some!” became the catchphrase of the evening.

If the game-within-a-game introduction to Duke Nukem Forever showed off how typical of a shooter it can be, the rest of the levels demonstrated a potential for a ridiculous, purely-for-the-hell-of-it fun romp to be had.

Once the Holsom Twins leave Duke's penthouse atop his towering Vegas empire, a walk through its lower floors leads you to moments of comical interactivity. Most games might funnel you around bleak corridors of blocked-off thoroughfares, but Forever invites you to investigate closed doors and press X on the scenery. Pick up a bag a popcorn, put it in the microwave, and turn it ON: the demo was full of these innocuous moments complemented by stupidly funny dialogue from meetings with NPCs . With so many shooters conditioning you to focus just on shooting, mind-numbingly shuffling you along from one firefight to the next, it's easy to miss these opportunities; but searching them out instilled some life into the usual bit of running and gunning too often overplayed.

Moreover, you're rewarded for exploring the world and playing around with it, as doing so boosts Duke's health meter, in this case referred to as his “ego.” Take, for instance, a point where, without a weapon, I encountered a duo of unsuspecting aliens in Duke's gym. A few pummeling strikes with his balled up fists and strikes from a 45-pound weight-turned-melee weapon took out my beer-stealing invaders. After using those plates for that bit of violence, I added them to a bench press and felt “da pump” a few times for a plus-three boost to Duke's ego.

Obviously those years, though mired by litigation and various complications, weren't entirely passive. As a product of the now defunct 3D Realms, Gearbox's conditional assumption of the game (and franchise) has consisted mostly of polishing these type of features in Forever for its PC, 360 and PS3 shipment, according to Steve Gibson, vice president at Gearbox. Otherwise, what we played were 3D Realms' ideas, the work of the original late-90's Duke Nukem team. As Gibson describes it, their goal is to “make Duke Nukem Forever the game it should be; make it the game 3D Realms wanted it to be.” So when I used “Duke Vision” to see in the dark, or beer to power up my punches at the cost of an obscured, drunken view, and when I gave him some pills to run faster and hit harder, I was doing so under 3D Realms initially conceived plans.

Levels and set pieces, also, come from 3D Realms. While Gearbox may have replaced lower-resolution, outdated assets, scenes like Duke shrinking down and driving through burning hallways in an RC car, stubbing the hooves of charging enemies, and traversing roulette tables mark original designs from those troubled development years. There's a bit of an antiquated feeling to the formula, but it's a redeeming quality, punctuated with cheeky, arguably lighthearted misogynistic moments, along the lines of using a gold statue of a bent over woman to ramp across a fiery gap.  

This is likely what Gearbox were looking for as they debuted the game at PAX, even if I didn't get it. As Gibson describes, they wanted a genuine reaction from those most likely detached from the series. The story of Pitchford getting his break in the industry working on Duke Nukem 3D, while at 3D Realms, is becoming their popular anecdote, but Gibson's history with the games is equally as telling of all of Gearbox's investment: “I've known George (Broussard) for 15 years myself, how am I going to have an objective view of this.”

And so they essentially pitched the game to the public, to fans, to skeptics. Talking in the club's private dance rooms, Gibson tells why PAX was an important move for the team:“We knew a majority of the gaming press, these guys have been in the industry for a long time. A lot of those guys, they're going to have, perhaps, their own preconceived notions and their own kind of emotional bags or something attached to [Forever], and you may get a jaded view. If you go to a gamer for your unavailing, you're going to get an untarnished, straight gamer's reaction”

Apparently it worked out the way they were hoping. A completely rented out strip club, masked in the advertising of invented brands and playing the game was evidence enough. For, as Gibson explained it, “If [PAX] went poorly, we probably would have made very different decisions about what to do. That helped make a decision for us.”

What the debut was missing, however, was the character the Vegas hands-on showed. The M-rated one-liners, like Duke remarking “Power suits are for pussies!” after being offered a Master Chief-esque set of armor were in full swing, of course; but it was a playful solution wherein I used an RC monster truck to capture an errant power cell that offset the usual, tired gunslinging gameplay. Clunky framerates, muddied textures, finger-rapping load times and oblivious AI might have exhibited an unfinished quality of the game, but the variety in gameplay demonstrated there's a thankful amount of attention to something more than its technical execution.  

According to Pitchford, however, there are more than four thousand tasks to address before they apply the game for final certification to meet their May 3rd release date. It's a studious endeavor as their goal “is to make sure it's absolutely consistent across all platforms,” says Gibson, when talking about the process and concerning the as-of-yet detailed multiplayer side to the game.

Whatever Gearbox have planned for Duke Nukem Forever's multiplayer functionality and the rest of the campaign, it's likely to try to appease faithfully expectant fans and weary onlookers alike. Duke's resurgence at PAX obviously demonstrated he wasn't doomed to fall into a development limbo, but it's going to take more of what was shown in Vegas than Seattle to overcome a serious amount of hype.

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