I shouldn’t have done it. I was even warned not to by friends that had gone. But I did it anyway because I had to see it for myself. It was Saturday morning at PAX East and the media was being let onto the show floor an hour early for one day only. I was gathered together bright and early with Jarret Redding, Jason Wersits, and Rob Allegretti from Mash Those Buttons, along with throngs of other media folk, trying to take advantage of the hour and spend some quality time with games that had been a little too crowded to take a look at previously. We made up our plan of attack to cover the most ground, and soon they released the hounds onto the floor.
I had just left one hands-on demo for a game and was staring at a gathering at another prospective booth that would have drained away too much of that precious hour when I saw it. It was not the biggest booth at PAX East, but yet it commanded attention and felt like it was the center of the show floor. Cast in hues of red and gold with His portraits lining the outside of the booth, it called to me. “Come and see” it said, and I was helpless to resist. Who could resist His call? The call of the King, the one, the only, Duke Nukem.
It was fate, I suppose. There were spaces filled with people playing the demo, but no one was waiting in line, just a couple of gentlemen chatting idly at the entrance for the space of a few moments that they didn’t have to play bodyguard. I walked up, drawn to the booth as I was, to show my ID so I could experience the M-rated affair that is Duke Nukem Forever. For the couple of minutes I had to wait for a station to open up, I took in the surroundings inside the booth area and contemplated what I’d be in for when I finally got to pick up a controller.
There are few things in this world that know exactly what they are at all times. Everyone, everything goes through moments of doubt, periods of change. Not even Duke Nukem seemed to be immune to this. How many vaporware awards did his long-rumored game receive, how many jokes did it become the butt of in the industry? We doubted the King, we thought he was done, gone, finished for good. But our perception was not Duke’s reality. Duke Nukem has always known exactly what he is, and he hasn’t faltered in that on the long road here; now all the world knows – no, remembers – exactly what he is too.
A trailer for the game played on two huge TVs mounted high in the walls of the booth showing Duke in his glory, cutting down monsters and aliens, being exactly who he is. A throne, lit by spotlights overhead, sat in the center of the booth area flanked by two buxom ladies in schoolgirl attire. Here, we mortals could sit upon the throne of the King for a few moments and hope to capture His glory and majesty for ourselves in pictures and video. While I waited, a few other media folks did just this, beaming happily while the sultry ladies leaned next to them. In the midst of all this, suddenly my observance was ended; it was time to actually play Duke Nukem Forever.
I was guided to a station by one of the 2k booth helpers where I sat down my bag and grabbed the headset so I could immerse myself fully. Before I put the headset on, the attendant let me know I’d have twenty minutes with the demo; he’d just tap me on the shoulder to let me know when time was up. I nodded, fitted the headset on my head, picked up the 360 controller, and set off upon my date with destiny. The demo I experienced was actually two demos: one being the demo that a great many of you might have heard of in 2009-10 after Gearbox had taken over to finish Duke Nukem Forever, and a preview of an actual level present within the game.
The first – let’s call it a teaser demo – puts you in Duke’s shoes, standing at a urinal quite literally with your dick in your hands (don’t worry, it’s blurred out for your protection). You can amusingly pull the trigger to pee until a guy yells into the bathroom that it’s time to start. You run out into a locker room area with some body-armor laden soldiers going over a game plan. The soldier leading the planning asks for your input, at which point you can grab a marker and draw whatever you’d like on the board. I think I drew a smiley-face…or something vulgar, one or the other, at which the soldier exclaimed how brilliant and genius my addition was even though he had no idea what it meant. You run out of the room with the other soldiers in time to watch them all get cut down in explosions and weapons fire.
You eventually end up in a stadium with a giant part alien, part mechanical monstrosity and a large weapon, which you pick up and proceed to kick ass with while a drop ship offloads ammo for you to use as yours runs low. For anyone who played Duke Nukem games growing up or any first person shooter recently, the controls are a no-brainer. There are no gimmicks here, no alternate fire modes, no button mashing mini-games, just straight up 90s era strafe-and-shoot gameplay. Eventually the monster falls, and you can punt its eye through a field goal post, setting off fireworks in the arena. The camera pulls back to reveal that Duke has been playing the demo for his own game on a TV. Two girls (in the same schoolgirl outfits as the ladies in the booth) lift their heads up from their…polishing to ask Duke if the game was any good, to which he replies, “Yeah, but after 12 [bleeping] years, it should be.”
It’s good to know after all this time that the trappings of Duke Nukem still have the humor at their heart that they’re supposed to. I chuckled many times during the course of the teaser demo, and Duke is still spot on with his one-liners. I would say here that if nothing else can be certain of Duke Nukem Forever, you can rest assured that it will be funny, but that’s not strictly true. That’s because then my experience with the actual game level demo started, and the King and I hit a snag in our reunion.
The demo level put you in a canyon area, strapped inside Duke’s monster truck. I wouldn’t dare judge Duke on the merits of this sequence because it’s an FPS, not a driving game, but the monster truck steered like an intoxicated beluga whale. You get your first look at the series’ iconic mutated boar enemies here as they shoot at you ineffectually and get squashed under your monster truck tires. Eventually you have to jump a gap in the canyon and then the truck runs out of gas. Nonplussed, Duke hops out of the truck with his default handgun and a rocket launcher to carry on the fight on foot.
You get to mess around with a few different weapons in this level as you run around killing the pigs who come after you wielding the shotguns of yore, along now with dual pistols, machine guns, and even using turrets. The demo concludes with you taking on the dropship that was deploying the pigs you fought during the level, which I didn’t destroy before my time was up. Playing in standard difficulty I found myself getting killed and having to restart the FPS section after the monster truck a number of times during my demo. I wasn’t the only one who dealt with this, but I can give respect to keeping in place the difficulty of the older Duke games.
We, as gamers, have perhaps grown too coddled by design choices in modern games that don’t really punish us (unless you choose to be punished by the highest difficulty levels) anymore in playing games. We’ve moved into a world of constant checkpoints and auto saves, where even if you do catch a shotgun spray in the brain, you can always dust yourself off just a minute or two before that encounter and try again. Gone are health bars (that you can see) and lives and true game over screens. In this respect at least, Duke has caught up with the times a little. There aren’t any true game over screens, but the checkpoints don’t seem as numerous. Duke also still has a visible health bar (called Ego), but now much like other FPS games, your health refills after you stay in cover and don’t get shot.
In most ways, though, Duke is the same as when we left him last. Like I mentioned before, the controls haven’t changed in the least. Enemy AI still seems to be as vicious as Duke Nukem 3D with enemies being deadly accurate as well as relentlessly chasing you down when you do retreat. The graphics are decent, with some areas looking a lot more polished than others. Of course, when you put into perspective how old the graphic engine Gearbox probably had to work with for the game is, it actually seems pretty amazing. The cutscenes and Duke’s commentary were still funny, but I found no humor within the actual gameplay itself. It was nostalgic in its way, but it felt every bit the 14 years old it was. In fact, in running into fellow MTB writer Jason Wersits after playing Duke Nukem Forever, he said that he had seen me playing the game as he passed by and that there was no joy on my face whatsoever.
I can’t blame Gearbox for this, as they haven’t made any secret of the fact that they’re simply finishing up what 3D Realms started and giving the world the Duke Nukem it has been missing. I do find myself wishing that Duke was put under wraps for a few more years and given over to Gearbox entirely to remake, because I feel that the result would be much more exciting and worthwhile, but it simply isn’t meant to be. Perhaps the first level was a poor example of how much humor will be infused in the entirety of the game, and maybe the humor and nostalgia factor will carry the burden for its journey.
But it still doesn’t change the feeling I was left with walking away from the King’s corner of PAX East: disappointment. It was not a terrible demo, but if it wasn’t Duke Nukem the game wouldn’t have even been worth mentioning. I can’t help feeling that my disappointment is only partially because of the somewhat stale demo I played of Duke Nukem Forever, and that the rest of the disappointment is leveled at myself. Because Duke Nukem knows exactly who he is, and in 14 years (for better or worse) he hasn’t strayed from it, while maybe I’ve changed too much; become so used to the status quo over time that I can’t just enjoy the simplicity of Duke’s hallmark ‘Hail to the King, baby’ and all it entails anymore.