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.”