We have played the lost Duke Nukem Forever build from 2001
Earlier this week, a retro game leaker teased ’90s shooter fans with something they’d never seen before: in-game footage of 3D Realms’ infamous vaporware game Duke Nukem Forever, based on an unfinished build from 2001. (That’s not to be confused with the game of the same name that Gearbox eventually launched in 2011.) Was this an elaborate fan-made fake of Duke-like content in a dated 3D engine, or would this turn out to be the real deal?
We thought we’d have to wait until June for an answer, as this week’s leaker suggested that the build and its source code would be released to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the game’s tantalizing E3 2001 trailer. But after this week’s tease, the leakers decided to jump the gun. On Tuesday, 1.9GB of Duke Nukem Forever files landed on various file-sharing sites (which we will not link here), and Ars Technica has confirmed that those files are legitimate.
As it turns out, this is a surprisingly playable version of Duke Nukem Forever from October 2001, though with so many bugs and incomplete sections, that’s not saying much. Most of this content, which includes moments from the aforementioned E3 trailer, was shelved by the time the game reached a cobbled-together retail state in 2011. So we’re finally getting a closer look at how the game could have turned out differently if it had launched closer to 2001.
Time-to-softcore: 3.9 seconds
The files from 2001, attributed to cracking group x0r_jmp, have allegedly been touched up for the sake of running on modern PCs. The initial release also includes a folder of optional patches that deliver tweaks like emulated surround sound, updates to hair animations, and a “MegaPatch” collection of suggested optimizations.
Even without these patches applied, the release appears to function fairly well on modern Windows 10 PCs (including the Surface Pro 4 I’m relying on while I’m away from my home office). A dated-yet-functional main menu allows users to select levels from the game’s campaign, including dummy entries for unfinished content that lead to loading dead ends. While the interface looks clean enough, it includes some, er, Duke-caliber NSFW content—including a seemingly unlicensed image of nude women being affectionate with one another.
Some of the functioning campaign levels include dialogue from nearby NPCs; these range from fully voiced acting to robo-voiced placeholders, and even rudimentary text in an itty-bitty font. In one example of recorded dialogue, famed ’90s and ’00s ringside announcer Michael Buffer shouts his signature “Let’s get ready to rumble” line before waves of enemies emerge around a casino boxing ring. It’s unclear whether 3D Realms intended to pay Buffer for this appearance or if the clip was taken from another game or film by the developers as a production placeholder.
Start this version of Duke Nukem Forever from its opening chapter and you’re treated to a text-only dialogue sequence that prods Duke to leave his dressing room and walk onto a stage, where he’s introduced as the headlining guest for a TV talk show (here to promote a book he just wrote, as if Duke Nukem wastes time with wussy stuff like Microsoft Word). During this chat, we learn that Duke and the US president are at odds over how Duke dealt with alien invaders throughout Duke Nukem 3D. Duke’s reply in this scene is predictable enough: “Those alien bastards would only listen to the language of hot lead.”
I didn’t expect to see Powerslave as an inspiration
Official, catty responses
Two major players in the development of the original Duke Nukem Forever, George Broussard and Scott Miller, have responded to the leak by opening up a floodgate of resentment and bickering. After Broussard acknowledged the leak’s apparent legitimacy on Monday, Miller wrote a lengthy blog post referring vaguely to “the issues with the game’s development.”
Broussard responded on Tuesday in apparently defensive mode, despite Miller’s post not calling him out by name: “Scott’s a clueless narcissist whose actions are what led to the Gearbox suits/friction that led to us losing 3DR & the Duke IP. Mind blowing the nonsense he spews. Not surprising due to his depth of manipulation and narcissism. Least I’ve had the class to keep thoughts private.”
On one hand, this sequence is interactive enough, as Duke can open doors, pick up objects, and do the silly Duke Nukem thing of using toilets (this time with fully 3D urine—yeesh). On the other, it includes broken textures, a massive studio with no audience members, and nothing happening once the talk show chat ends. Was there supposed to be a battle when the interview concluded? It’s hard to say; despite a cheat menu that lets Duke Nukem Forever players float through walls and explore its incomplete levels freely, I couldn’t find a hidden super-monster beneath any of the virtual floorboards.
By using the game’s menus to bounce between campaign levels, I was able to piece together that the game features a “resistance” seeking Duke’s help to push back against a brand-new alien invasion. As it turns out, some alien forces have been sleeping on Earth for a while, and they’ve arisen as creepy-crawly spider creatures (not unlike the annoying foes found in late-’90s shooter Powerslave) that burrow into humans and turn them into flesh-eating, tentacle-wielding zombies.
Getting the most out of this build requires using the console command “ghost,” which turns your first-person perspective into a “noclip” object, as many of the unfinished game’s doors and triggers either don’t activate or are trapped behind doors that cannot be opened by normal gameplay means. Depending on the level, at least, signature Duke Nukem first-person combat can play out, but levels don’t contain any weapon pickups. So you’ll again want to use console commands to generate a full arsenal of guns and ammo. (While the game supports weapon-specific cheats, the “allammo” command fills Duke’s utility belt with everything imaginable, so interested players should use that one.)
Duke Nukem Forever‘s gunfights are surprisingly solid in this unfinished game, owing as much to punchy sound design and powerful weapons as to the game’s era-appropriate blocky-polygon violence. Much of Duke Nukem Forever‘s gunplay resembles the Soldier of Fortune series, particularly the M-for-Mature option to sever limbs by shooting them repeatedly, and the effects here have aged decently, macabre as they are. If you want to relive the silly Duke move of using a shrink ray and squishing foes beneath your feet, you can do that as well.
Plus, unlike the faked-3D Build-engine stuff of Duke Nukem 3D, this build of Duke Nukem Forever also includes robust explosion effects, and these are (ahem) a blast to trigger. Remote-detonation pipe bombs, a rocket launcher, or even a grenade launcher as alternate fire for the assault rifle: They all bring the boom.
Vegas, baby… OK, can we leave?
But alternate fire doesn’t frequently figure into Duke Nukem Forever’s arsenal, and Duke actually has a pretty limited selection of weapons. (I might have sung a different tune if the game’s teased chainsaw and freeze ray were functional, but alas, both of those are broken here.) Worse, this build doesn’t include many levels with enemy encounters, and a few exceptions are gated by non-functioning doors.
The best combat level I found was a surprise: the entire first level of Duke Nukem 3D, rebuilt in the Unreal Engine and loaded with polygonal versions of its cat-faced aliens. This appears to be a dream sequence because it ends with Twin Peaks imagery as part of a confusing maze to the exit.
Had 3D Realms gotten this content together for a release anywhere near 2001, the game would have been absolutely punishing on hardware of the time. These levels include massive geometrical compositions—tall buildings that Duke has to scale and massive casino courtyards that require so much running that they feel wholly authentic to the tiring Vegas strip experience.
Between the game’s standard FPS traversal levels, 3D Realms also packed in vehicle-based levels, in which Duke drives a motorcycle, operates a powerboat’s Gatling gun, or rides a light-rail train through winding underground tunnels while battling infected riot-gear cops at each stop. These sequences seem very much inspired by the cinematic stuff of Half-Life 1, though in their current state, they’re nowhere near as elegant.
But this build of Duke Nukem Forever feels massive without having a point. So what if Duke Nukem can wander around a huge casino building, built to realistic scale, if it only leads to been-there-done-that firefights? To be fair, the build only has a few enemy types, all with moronic AI, and perhaps a final version would have beefed up both the firearms and the foes to imbue its open zones with more spirit. Many of the levels play out like a confused team coming to grips with brand-new engine technology, simply building out larger-than-usual levels without yet getting to the crucial stages of balancing. (That theory lines up with what we know about Duke Nukem Forever‘s prolonged development, which included constant swapping between graphics engines.)
As the leaked files spread far and wide, it stands to reason that community members will figure out not only where the best included content is but also how to chain it together for the sake of fun gameplay (and possibly mine more quotes from famed gaming voice actor John St. John since there are definitely brand-new Duke dialogue quips here). Heck, fans might even use the built-in level editor or the game’s complete source code to further mold the unfinished game into something more interesting. Based on what I’ve seen and played, that would take significant effort.
Without any community touch-ups, this version of Duke Nukem Forever remains a fascinating collection of assets and level-design attempts, held together with bad jokes and overblown machismo. The resulting gameplay further shows how and why Duke Nukem Forever remained so short of the finish line for so long.