But there it was at PAX Prime 2010, where I got to play it along with thousands of show attendees moments after it was officially revealed to be back in development. That was just a small sample, though, to show that it was indeed a real project again. At a recent event in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to play much more.
Gearbox co-founder Randy Pitchford told the group assembled to play Duke Nukem Forever that we'd get an honest look at the game; we'd be the first people outside of those who'd worked on it to really sit down and play it uninterrupted. It was eye-opening.
I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but to some degree I thought Gearbox intended to modernize the game. That is not the case. This is the game from all those years of development, lovingly completed by a team that includes many who've worked on it in the past. It puts Pitchford's words in new light. Now I see the emotional connection and almost a sense of duty to carry the oft-delayed title to the finish line.
The setup for the game is a new classic for the old-school action shooter. After saving the world, Duke became the most beloved, wealthy, and powerful figure on the planet. And so the game begins with him relaxing in the penthouse of his Vegas casino finally playing the video game adaptation of his heroic deeds, which has taken over a decade to create. He even quips that after so long it damn well better be good.
His gaming time gets interrupted when the aliens return. But this time the President tells him to stand down; they come in peace. Yeah, right. The aliens plan to dupe the earth's defenses, kidnap its women, and use them to breed a massive invasion army. Of course, Duke can't let that slide and he swings into action.
That's where I started playing, right at the beginning, with Duke's casino tower under assault by the aliens. Taken by surprise, I had to make due with just fists at first. Not that the game holds aspirations as a brawler but it offered a good reminder that the Duke likes to throw a good punch from time to time. I also got an early chance to buff up a little and increase my "Ego" meter. Used instead of health, ego represents Duke's state of kick-ass. As the game explains, think of it like a shield, and when it goes down, he gets his ass kicked. Actions throughout the game will offer opportunities to pump him up a little more. In the first I found, pumping iron in the gym granted me a small ego boost.
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Once I acquired a weapon--an alien blaster--the game came into its own. This is the shooter design of a bygone era. Enemies don't juke around or look for cover; they attack with singular purpose, fast and direct. Many take the straight up rush assault. Others pop in and out using teleporters, but never to get away, only to reposition for a better spot to keep attacking. The results are gunfights that become a blur of movement. I'd run around slot machines and poker tables in the casino, constantly turning, strafing to get a shot, and then circling around to keep from getting cornered in one position.
In the first hour-plus of the game I played, Duke Nukem Forever also proved true to its reputation for interactivity. There are little things, like a playable pinball machine and then there are more involved diversions, such as a remote control truck I had to "drive" to retrieve an item I needed to advance deeper into the game. Later, I was shrunk down and wound up driving an RC truck through the casino as pig cops tried to smash me. (Sadly I didn't get to play with the shrink ray but this bodes well for its inclusion.)
The more I played Duke, the more it felt like I'd been transported back in time a decade. It was almost as if I was reliving a game I'd played years ago with aliens rushing at me from every direction, spawning in or jumping through a wall and coming at me hard, taking a break to hop in a laser turret and blast a giant mothership out of the sky, and hopping across a craps table as mini-Duke. But I wonder how long the warm glow of that nostalgia will shield the reality that it is a game of that era. There's no hiding its age. It's right there in the jaggy-edges, the noticeably muddy visuals compared to the latest games of this generation, and direct and in-your-face enemies. For some that's sure to be a trip down memory lane but for others I suspect it will leave them wondering what the fuss was ever all about.
This feature is based on a preview build of Duke Nukem Forever on the Xbox 360, played at an event held by Take Two Interactive in Las Vegas, Nevada.