Before I could stop her, the helpful 2K rep had steered me over to the Duke Nukem booth and put me in front of a demo unit. On the other side of the carrel, a series of encounters between awkwardly smiling visitors, a throne, and a quartet of breasts were immortalized by incessant camera flashes. Then the demo started, and I was shooting a big monster in a stadium just like old times. After the monster died, the camera pulled back through the big-screen TV in Duke's rec room. He was holding a 360 controller and sounded pleased, but then the camera revealed two women who were taking turns servicing him. "Was it good?" one of them asked.
"After eleven years, it better be!" Duke said, inaugurating a final, grim passage in his odyssey toward irrelevance.
I have no doubt that, had 3D Realms ever finished the game and brought it to launch, the promotions and demos would have been much like this one. But they didn't finish it, and we all know it wasn't for lack of time or funding. Duke Nukem Forever and its original developers suffered from a terminal case of stage fright, and I can only assume it was because on some level they knew that the jig was up. With its prophetic acronym, DNF was always racing to catch up to a field of shooters that pulled away technologically and stylistically. DNF never saw the light of day because it was never going to measure up, and all 3D Realms' efforts to salvage it only succeeded in postponing the day of reckoning beyond the company's own expiration date.
Long, long before 3D Realms bowed out, DNF was more an object of morbid fascination than a hot title. I don't ever remember the questions about DNF being about how good it would be. It was always, "What could possibly be taking so long?" or, "What scale of disaster are we talking about?"
What bothered me about the DNF booth, and the direction that 2K, Gearbox, and Piranha seem to be going with in marketing and finishing the game, is an overall sense of denial. Duke Nukem has all the appeal of a roadside accident, and the people lined up to play it are there to rubberneck the aftermath. Yet there they are, pushing DNF as if it were a real game that people wanted to play on its merits.
They would do well to consider those merits before celebrating them. The game presented by the demo is that of an old-fashioned shooter deriving its identity from a combination of juvenile sexism and broad genre parody. Except Duke isn't smart enough to seem ironic and is too dumb to offend, so the game's attempts at parody come across as ill-conceived sleaze. It gets stranded halfway between making fun of its own trashiness and using it for titillation—and in the meantime, Duke's adventures play like a "Why didn't I think of that?" homage to Painkiller or Serious Sam. It's not hard to see why 3D Realms could never quite bring themselves to complete DNF. They just wanted to make an ironic send-up of exploitative schlock, but instead they got mired in it.
It always struck me that the way to bring Duke Nukem Forever to an end was to make it playable with as few changes as possible, then release it without comment. Nobody cared about Duke's new adventure. After almost fifteen years, you find fewer people who care about his last one. What is interesting is the final fate of a title that has become a symbol of failed game development and a bygone era.
In a decision that threatens to turn the entire release into an elaborate piece of corporate performance art, 2K and Gearbox have embraced anachronism and are ostentatiously reveling in DNF's tastelessness. Although, that might be the only way to play it from here. A developed sense of embarrassment already killed Duke's first handler. Perhaps Gearbox and 2K are the pair that can finally finish him off.