According to Jewish law, Duke Nukem Forever would be a man by now. First announced to the public in April 1997, this game has weathered the longest cycle of delays, cancellations, resurrections and cryosleeps, effectively mocking everything we know about game development and the space-time continuum in the process.
Well, the wait is nearly over. While it's by no means complete DNF has been seen, heard and played by visitors to this year's Penny Arcade Expo.
The story of how this happened is a long and twisted tale. It's the story of 3D Realms' determination to provide the successor to their 1996 hit, Duke Nukem 3D. After numerous delays, 3D Realms went bankrupt in 2009 - and Duke went with it. "The dream had died," lamented Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.
But not all was lost. Pitchford, as it turns out, got his start at 3D Realms back in the day. After leaving to start his own company, Gearbox, he began work on the wildly successful Borderlands. It was released last year, just after it looked like Duke had bitten the dust for good.
"But you can't kill the Duke," Pitchford exclaimed. He returned to the now defunct 3D Realms and helped out by absorbing some of the studio's staff into Gearbox. There, the idea was, they could finish the game. (Fun fact: Duke Nukem co-creator Allen Blum is still working on the game. Now that's determination.)
With all this in mind, I sit down at PAX to go hands-on with the demo. It begins promisingly, with the fan favourite quote "'It's time to kick ass and chew bubblegum" splayed across a black background, Pulp Fiction-style.
The screen fades to Duke's point of view. We're looking at a urinal. The very first button you press in the game makes you pee for what feels like, well, forever - perhaps a nod to the audience's impatience, then relief at getting to play the oft-delayed title.
And perhaps reassurance that DNF will stay true to the series' trademark potty humour. You can go up to any toilet and pee, never running out of urine, which suggests Duke is the most hydrated hero in history.
After spending a minute messing around with the novelty pissing mechanic, I meet up with a squad of soldiers in a pep rally room. On the wall is a whiteboard bearing crude doodle of an alien which is labelled "cock block." You can draw on the whiteboard with dry erase pens in a multitude of colours if you so desire.
Duke was never much of an artist though, so leaving that behind I try joining the soldiers. However, collapsing roofs and piles of rubble get in my way. I head out into the middle of what turns out to be an American football stadium, where it looks like I'm going to have to face a giant alien cyclops alone.
The only gun available in this section is called a Devastator. It's a hybrid between a machine gun and rocket launcher, so it shoots lots of rockets very fast. The cyclops can shoot projectiles and dodge towards you, but he's not hard to dodge. In fact I deal with him just by circling him while strafing until I run out of ammo - at which point a helicopter appears and drops a fresh supply.
There's a spectacular finish, however. Duke yanks out the cyclops' eye and kicks a field goal with it.
Then the camera pulls back to reveal we've actually just been watching a videogame Duke is playing. A blond woman in a schoolgirl outfit emerges from under Duke's lap and asks, "Was it good?"
Her twin then reveals herself and asks, "And the game? Was it good?"
"After 12 f***in' years it had better be," replies Duke.
The next level on show is set not in the kind of metropolitan environment the Duke Nukem games are known for, but in familiar Borderlands-style desert terrain. You start out driving a red truck through a canyon. The controls are responsive but I run out of gas early on, before encountering a single enemy. The vehicle's appearance feels all too brief.
But now we're in more traditional Duke Nukem territory. Hog-headed aliens resembling Ninja Turtle's nemesis Bebop have popped out from behind rocks and are firing away. This is no cover-based shooter, however. Back in Duke's day there was no such thing as cover. Men fought in open battlefields, fighting it out until one side fell. Like real men.
And as for auto-aim? Forget about it. You kids today have it too easy. The DNF demo suggests this game will be surprisingly difficult for the likes of you, offering few concessions to modern gaming conventions.
Duke's health system has evolved, though. On finding myself down to my last sliver of health, I seek out a spot to recoup and watch it recharge to the mid-point. It's a happy medium between the mollycoddling rechargeable health of today and the more archaic health packs of yesteryear.
There isn't a huge selection of weapons to choose from in the demo. The starting pistol is pretty standard. The disintegrating scoped rail gun adds a bit more flavour. But what really catches my eye is the shrink ray. Watching the opposition transform from a threatening hulk of meat into a housepet is hilarious in its own right and in keeping with Duke's philosophy that size does matter.
Putting the strippers and silly quips to one side, Duke Nukem 3D was known for its tight level design and host of secrets. These traits aren't apparent in the demo of Duke Nukem Forever. It's extraordinarily scripted with little room for deviation. However, it's a brief demo, and only time will tell what Gearbox has in store.
The demo certainly sets the tone. Everything in the game is big and stupid, but knowingly so. Duke's quips are by no means clever, but they're so dumb they're funny. It's as if Beavis and Butthead developed the skills and drive to make a videogame, yet maintained the same simple-minded sensibilities.
It's ridiculously crass and not for everyone, but DNF still has a goofy sense of camp that separates it from other, similarly violent guilty pleasures, where the pathos is incongruous to the action. Duke may not be deep, but he is consistent.
More on Duke Nukem Forever
Face-off: Face-Off: Duke Nukem Forever
Review: Duke Nukem Forever
The king is dead.
Interview: Finishing Duke Nukem Forever
Randy Pitchford on the end of history.
DLC drops, gets Duke duplicated.
The story of Duke Nukem Forever isn't really about aliens so much as it's about itself and how it came to be released. That's the story everyone wants to hear and Gearbox knows it. DNF had the longest line of any game at PAX (about three hours' queuing time according to Gearbox staff), and we all know why.
There's an air of mystery surrounding what has become the industry's longest running joke. But once the curtain lifts and the novelty has worn off, DNF will need to step up if it's to stand the test of time - lest it become the next Daikatana.
By wisely throwing in so many nods to Duke's legacy, this game hopes to swap common criticism like "dated" and "linear" for positives like "retro" and "streamlined". My time spent with Duke Nukem Forever was enjoyable, even if it did little to innovate. This game isn't trying to rewrite the first-person shooter rulebook. Instead, it's hearkening back to a simpler time, when story was just an excuse for guns, girls and gags.
Duke Nukem Forever is slated for a 2011 release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.