Friday, September 10, 2010

Duke Nukem Forever, For Now

duke-nukem-forever I don’t know if you’ve heard, but someone’s finishing Duke Nukem Forever.

Gearbox Studios, the folks behind Borderlands, have taken control of the entire Duke Nukem IP.  Not only have they promised to finish a game that left entire studios in its unfinished wake, their total acquisition of the license implies that this is only the beginning.

I’m having trouble processing this, if you can’t tell.  You see, Duke Nukem Forever is supposed to be the gaming equivalent of a fossil, a broken relic of a bygone era.  Announced in 1997, DNF was poised to be the epic sequel to 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D.  Over the course of its lengthy development, it consumed game engines and investment capital like giant robots devour planets

Running on id’s Quake II engine, it assaulted E3 1998.  By the turn of the millennium, Duke creators Scott Miller and George Broussard had shifted the project onto Epic’s Unreal Engine.  Following the release of Valve’s Half-Life 2, physics engines became all the rage, so Broussard did his best to force one down Duke’s throat.

It seemed all for naught.  Last year, 3D Realms shuttered its doors.  Everyone assumed Duke was dead and gone.  One of gaming’s biggest jokes had moved on to that deluxe arcade in the sky.

Apparently, we were wrong.  Gearbox head Randy Pitchford is some kind of necromancer: Duke lives.  But should he have gone through the trouble to resurrect him?

Who is Duke?

Are misogynists cool?  Fans of Jersey Shore might answer yes, but I imagine we’re slowly but surely outgrowing our Reagan-era fascination with dudes who love being dudes that think chicks should just shut up and be chicks.  The Apatow movies, tired as they’ve become, are a product of our zeitgeist and have done their part to dismantle this role, inverting its machismo and revealing it for the braggadocio farce it truly is.  Men driven by their muscles and genitals are generally played for laughs.  We’re meant to see just enough of ourselves in these characters, laugh knowingly and uncomfortably, then go on being the sensitive modern men we imagine ourselves to be.

Duke, however, predates all of this.  He’s a macho wiseass, three parts Schwarzenegger caricature and two parts Ash from Evil Dead.  He’s a broad pastiche of 80s action heroes, a vague mix of parody and homage that fit right in with 90s irony.  His name is Duke Nukem, for crying out loud.  Do gamers even have a point of reference for this stuff?  I guess it’s out there somewhere.  But movies like The Expendables simply highlight how damn old all of our action heroes have become.

And whatever humor Duke had is dustier than Jean-Claude Van Damme’s resume.  In a world where Comedy Central can let Eddie Murphy drop uncensored F-bombs after two in the morning, does Duke looking in a mirror and saying “Damn I look good” even warrant a chuckle?  Surely his crassness will be pushed in Gearbox’s DNF – the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) demo included a three-boobed monster and an implied double fellatio – but is Duke’s grade-school brand of funny going to cut it?

What is Duke?

I don’t think Duke’s brand of anything is going to cut it, actually.  This far removed from Duke Nukem 3D, is there anything about the series that can truly be regarded as unique? 

All reports from PAX say that it handles pretty much like any other mainstream shooter on the market today.  You can sprint, aim down the sights, melee, etc.  I’m not trying to deride Gearbox here.  I’m all for standardization when so many games require complicated control schemes – but there’s the problem: “so many games.”  The demo starts with you peeing. With Borderlands, Gearbox set a competent shooter apart from its competitors by including a plethora of enjoyable RPG trimmings.  What will the side dishes be on the Duke platter?  So far, we know that (much like Duke Nukem 3D) players can interact with the environment – soap dispensers work, dry erase boards erase.  Is this stuff special anymore?  Bethesda populates their games with more plates and dishes than I could ever both to break in my lifetime.  Rockstar games smother you with pop culture references and then reward you incessantly for completing the most mundane of tasks.  I don’t need another game that prominently features “pointless minutiae” on the back of the box. 

The PAX demo includes a moment where, after the player defeats a large boss, the camera pulls back to reveal Duke playing the game while receiving the aforementioned double-job.  Are we to expect more metagame humor in DNFSerious Sam and Matt Hazard tried that in the shooter genre before.  Remember those?  No one else does (except maybe their developers).

Why Duke?

Every year, gaming trots out a franchise people haven’t thought of in a while, hoping to capitalize on nostalgia and goodwill.  Sometimes it works.  The rebirth of the fighting genre is due in large part to the freakish success of Street Fighter IV, and some companies can build up over a decade’s worth of hype and do just fine.

But sometimes it doesn’t work.  After last year’s iteration of Wolfenstein hit shelves, developer Raven Software promptly laid off thirty staffers, likely in anticipation of the lackluster sales looming on the horizon.  3D Realms’ last long-delayed project, Prey, finally saw the light of day in 2006, after 11 years of development.  It sold well enough to warrant a sequel, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you anything about it other than that it had some annoying netherworld that took the place of conventional character death.  I have clearer memories of the week-long coverage 1UP gave Prey’s storied release.

Duke Nukem Forever’s legacy is its awful development history.  Once everyone realized it was never going to happen, once it won Wired’s Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award, once a million things occurred since Broussard and Miller made the initial announcement, it became a historical curiosity, an embalmed baboon heart in an eccentric Victorian miser’s private collection.  Seeing it on store shelves next to Gears of War and Halo will dispel the mystique.  I don’t want the boilerplate shooter now in development; I want to see the train wreck that took thirteen years to kill the company making it.duke_nukem_forever_hail_to_the_king_030910And now, because of the immense improbability that anyone would ever play this game, the hype is colossal.  Randy Pitchford’s calling Duke the king and saying Duke “won the internet.”  Chris and Andrew noted on our most recent podcast that this has potential to be another Snakes on a Plane or Scott Pilgrim – a mega-hit in the making, if you just believe the prelease message board chatter.

The Internet may make a lot of noise as it declares its new king, but history tells us there’s a good chance no one shows at the coronation.