Betting against the odds: how Duke Nukem Forever is actually happening, and how awesome that truly is

“Extremely frustrating.”

That’s how Jon St. John, the longtime voice of Duke Nukem, described sitting on the sidelines and watching the well documented twelve year history of Duke Nukem Forever unfold. “Wow…I lost count,” he said when asked how many times he has recorded and re-recorded dialogue for Duke Nukem Forever. “It’s been through so many different phases and changes, but whenever they call me, I’m ready to go”.

At the 2010 Penny Arcade Expo today, there was no longer wait to play one game than the wait to play Duke Nukem Forever. The three hour long line stretches completely around the walled off black box that houses about fifteen kiosks featuring a playable build of DNF on Xbox 360. There are five security guards patrolling the perimeter. Outside the walls are framed portraits of Duke catching a shark with a fishing pole, Duke in space, Duke winning multiple Emmy awards, and other shots of Duke in his natural habitat.

Once inside the house that Duke built, you’re introduced to a giddy-as-a-Japanese-schoolgirl Randy Pitchford. I’ve seen a lot of developers and PR professionals fake enthusiasm before, but believe you me when I say that I have never seen a developer so emphatically stoked for their product in my life. The Gearbox CEO had a grin from ear to ear, was jumping up and down, swearing up a storm, and screaming  things like “are you guys ******* ready to ******* play Duke Nukem Forever!!??!” He gave the same presentation for hours today, and every time he was on the verge of wetting himself with glee.

And when you find out why he’s so excited, it all makes sense. In 1995, he moved to Dallas, Texas to work at 3D Realms, and the first game he ever worked on was Duke Nukem 3D. At the show, he was wearing  a Duke Nukem shirt that George Broussard pressed for him in 1996 to celebrate the release of Duke Nukem 3D. Some people have said Gearbox working on a project like Duke Nukem Forever is a step down for the developer, but to Pitchford, it’s an honor of the highest caliber. In his eyes, he owes his entire livelihood to Duke.

After Pitchford cooled down a little bit, we were treated to a trailer. It looks like the premise for the game involves aliens messing up Earth in a big way, but once they decide to steal the world’s supply of women, Duke finally decides it’s time to take action, and it’s time for those alien bastards to pay for shooting up his ride.

When the trailer ended, we were guided next door to finally play Duke Nukem Forever. Yes, it is real. Yes, I have played it. And yes, I feel like I’m in some super special club for doing so. It’s the first time ever that the game has been shown to pretty much anybody, and Pitchford mentioned journalists are “pissed” that Gearbox chose to show it at PAX before they showed it to any of them. Coverage isn’t he’s goal by showing it at PAX first; “Everyone in this room is tired of being dicked around,” he said, “so we’re letting the fans play it!”

The demo opens up with Duke taking a piss at a urinal. You hold the right trigger to urinate, and this move highlights one of the things that made Duke 3D so great: interactivity. In 3D, you could pee, you could make porno movies play, and you could make strippers work for it. Every level was littered with little doo-dads in the environment you could mess around with, and the first level of the demo highlighted the commitment to this legacy. When you leave the bathroom and head into the locker room, you can take a pen and mark up the dry-erase board all you want, but then you head out of the tunnel and fight yourself a big ol’ cycloid in the middle of a huge football stadium with your trusty devastator. It’s a simple enough fight with lots of ammo pickups and circle-strafing, but everything from the graphical style to the awesome one liners screams Duke.

Then I kicked his eyeball through the field goal posts. After the level was over, you find out Duke has been playing Duke Nukem on his TV this whole time while…in the company of blonde twins in matching schoolgirl outfits, and at that exact moment, all was right in the world.

The second level of the demo took place in a desert locale and starts out with Duke in his trusty dune buggy being chased by enemy spaceships. You jump some big ramps, run over some baddies, and then you’re on your feet ready to kick ass and chew bubblegum. First and foremost, Duke Nukem Forever is a zero BS first-person shooter where you shoot aliens in the face. If you can daze one of your enemies, you can run up and smash their face with Duke’s mighty fist, but that’s about it. The shrink gun made an appearance, which made the nine-year-old in me very happy. The demo closed with a fun little turret session, and then a girl in a school outfit gave me a t-shirt which, once again, felt very Duke.

If the two shown is any indication, DNF isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but that’s not what’s important. Duke Nukem has been dragged through the mud (and deservedly so) over the last decade or so, and a revolutionary FPS isn’t what I’m looking for anymore from Duke Nukem Forever. I want big guns, cheesy one liners, babes, cigars, pig cops, field goals, guitar riffs, and American flags. And that’s exactly what we seem to be getting once the game releases next year. Yes, next year.

Because Randy Pitchford always bets on Duke. Always.