When I signed up to attend Penny Arcade Expo 2010, the last thing I expected at the show was to be the recipient of virtual double fellatio. But I guess that's just because -- like the rest of the world -- I had no idea that I'd actually be playing a real, live demo of Duke Nukem Forever.
And hell, why would I? Supposedly the perpetually delayed game died (forever) last year under a fusillade of bankruptcy, legal maneuvers, and desperate bailouts by developer 3D Realms and publisher 2K Games. While there were rumors that Gearbox had been tasked with salvaging the game, I don't think anyone could have predicted that we'd see the fruits of their labors quite so soon. And, honestly, the name Duke Nukem Forever has become inextricably associated with failure and empty promises, so even if we'd been told that a playable demo of DNF would be showing up at PAX, I don't think most people would have believed it.
This was Gearbox president Randy Pitchford's thinking, too, which is why he and 2K kept DNF's presence at the show a complete secret until this morning. A huge line -- even by PAX standards -- formed around 2K's booth almost immediately upon the show's opening, crammed with gamers eager to finally try their hand at this long-rumored, perpetually delayed, seemingly dead shooter.
The 15-minute demo (visible only behind closed doors after a two-hour wait) is... well, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a Duke Nukem title. No game, however brilliant, could ever justify a 13-year wait, of course. But viewed with more realistic expectations, it seems exactly what old Duke fans would want from the series. In short, it's violent, crude, vulgar, sexist, brutal, cocky, and misogynistic. It's also a solidly crafted first-person shooter that doesn't seem particularly revolutionary but definitely plays well.
What really caught my attention, though, is the feel of the controls. Duke Nukem 3D wasn't a hyperactive shooter -- sure, it threw a lot at the player, but much of the unique character of the game came from its relatively deliberate pacing compared to Doom, Marathon, and the other shooters of its era. DNF maintains this feel, and the Duke himself moves like you'd expect a swaggering meathead to move. You're sauntering more than running, and your movements possess a certain weight lacking in many other shooters. There's no aim assist, and Duke's reticule tends to drift slightly when he takes a hit. The result is a shooter that stands apart from the majority of its contemporary peers in small, subtle ways.
The demo's contents seemed to comprise a pretty straightforward demo of what Gearbox (and the former 3D Realms employees who joined up to work on this latest iteration of DNF) is aiming for. The first portion is an introduction clearly inspired by the opening level of Halo: CE. It begins with Duke at a urinal in a football locker room as aliens attack, rushing into the fray as the bad guys invade and tear apart human soldiers and close off Duke's routes. Eventually, the scripted events lead you to a missile launcher and an elevator shaft onto the football field, where you take on a massive Cycloid, a huge one-eyed enemy that peppers Duke with its own missiles and occasionally rushes across the field at him.
The second portion puts Duke in a massive 4X4 off-road vehicle navigating a canyon packed with armed foes, rolling boulders to evade with sharp handbrake-enhanced turns, and gullies to leap with turbo boosts. Eventually, the off-roader runs out of gas, so Duke hoofs it on foot toward a mine. This section of the demo gave a better sense of the game's gunplay, as Duke began with a pistol but gradually acquired more and better weaponry from fallen opponents: a shotgun, then a rail gun, then a mounted turret to defend against waves of pig soldiers pouring out of a dropship. Each weapon has its own distinct feel, with the rail gun's sniper zoom easily making it the most satisfying gun for someone like me who likes to stand safely at a distance and pick off targets with precision shots. Interestingly, once Duke stepped into the mounted turret, he was stuck there until the demo ended... with a direct missile strike by an enemy ship that knocked Duke off his feet. Undeterred, he struggled automatically back to his feet and thrust out an unarmed hand... which deliberately formed into an upraised middle finger. End of scene.
Needless to say, DNF also stands apart in obvious and deliberate ways as well as its subtle touches. The playable demo was prefaced by a video trailer that showed a broad spectrum of the larger game, and it's clear that Gearbox and 2K are playing up the meathead angle of the series here. The trailer opened with a bit of sci-fi scenery for context, but quickly switched over to things like a topless stripper gyrating around a pole, women dressed in "slutty schoolgirl" type costumes, and the like, all accompanied by a tough-guy voiceover by Duke extolling the virtues of killing pig-aliens and making time with the ladies. The first half of the demo even ends with a camera trick that reveals the whole thing was actually just a game that Duke himself was playing, and as he puts down the controller the camera slowly pans downward to reveal a couple of girls obviously doing unmentionable things to Duke. "Was it good?" purrs one, wiping her mouth. "And what about the game, was it good?" asks the other. "After 12 f---in' years, it better be," he sneers.
Classy? Not even slightly. But even though this is the sort of thing I normally hate to see in games, it's hard to imagine Duke Nukem without this kind of brash sexism and frat-boy mentality. Duke is gaming's original bro, and his Neanderthal personality comes off less like a setback for the medium and more like your friend's racist grandpa -- uncomfortable in mixed company, sure, but you just shrug and accept that this is how he's always been and nothing's changing now.
Not that Duke cares what I think. His survivability is determined not by his health but rather by his ego. And if carpet-bombing and alien missiles can't destroy his ego, there's no way my reminders of political correctness are going to do much, either. But that's not so bad, really. For the first time in ages, Duke seems unstoppable -- and so does Duke Nukem Forever. Maybe after all this time in the vaporware column the final result will turn out to be nothing more than the Chinese Democracy of video games... but it exists. And that alone is enough of victory for today.