When Gearbox snapped up the Duke Nukem franchise back in 2010 – they made a lot of noise about their plans for the series. Sure Duke Nukem Forever was going to be a disaster, but freed from the chains of that monstrosity; Gearbox would be free to do as they pleased and deliver the kind of game fans wanted. Except that didn’t happen. The reality is that the next game Gearbox delivered with the Duke Nukem name on it would only arrive in 2016 – and even that was just a re-heat of Duke Nukem 3D. I find myself asking if Gearbox are really the developers to get Duke Nukem back on track.
The truth is that Gearbox haven’t had the best of times since Duke Nukem Forever hit shelves in 2011. Back then the developer was basking in the afterglow of the original Borderlands; a game that was widely adored. Yet since then – they’ve landed such wondrous titles as Alien Colonial Marines and Battleborn upon gamers. Sure they’ve kept the Borderlands series going – but many view Gearbox as a one trick pony. Given how poor their recent form has been; it doesn’t fill me with confidence that Randy Pitchford and his team will be able to work miracles with the Duke Nukem license.
Let’s make no mistake, for years they’ve done their best to bury the franchise. Not a peep was heard about the series, a series of disinterested hand waves the best we could hope for from the developers. Even the way Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary World Tour Edition was announced left something to be desired; announced suddenly and with little fanfare – the “remaster” was an attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Playing through that offering felt more of an admission that Gearbox don’t know how to use the franchise properly. Instead of building from the ground up – it seems the developer was more than happy to relive the glory days of the franchise. There was nothing in this “remaster” that felt like a series with new ideas. It’s felt less like a celebration of Duke Nukem’s crowning glory and more a homage to just how trapped the series has become in its shadow.
The problem this presents is that it exposes the franchises biggest problem – everything since Duke Nukem 3D has attempted to ride that games coattails. The jokes, the sexualised humor and the direction of the series has been dictated by that one game. At its heart, Duke Nukem Forever was a poor mans attempt to drag Duke Nukem 3D’s essence into the modern shooter scene – something that ultimately cost 3D Realms the license to their own creation. In the time since that game, we’ve heard next to nothing about what comes next for the well-known franchise; and radio silence isn’t usually a strong indicator of promise.
It’s not hard to see why this is in fairness. Any new Duke Nukem title will be trapped between the desire to change things up and to appeal to the very fans who waited patiently for Forever. Controversy won’t be far behind, and I worry that in the modern gaming climate – Gearbox won’t be willing to take that kind of risk. It’s the kind of negative PR that, in the current games industry, would create a maelstrom of tedium and frustration as those offended by the adult content rush to shut the games momentum down.
Instead I worry that any attempt by Gearbox to bring the franchise back will be a by-the-numbers affair. Toned down, stripped back and robbed of the personality that the game will sorely need. What Duke Nukem really needs is an injection of fresh ideas and a new direction. Given the wildly varied content from Gearbox, I find it hard to believe that they can find a spark of inspiration that would lead to a change in fortunes – instead wandering down the path that’s been tread already so as to ensure a quick buck. It’s what they’ve done with the recent remaster; which to my eyes was nothing more than a shallow cash-grab. If that’s all the series is worth to Gearbox, it doesn’t create much hope for the future.
Perhaps even more tellingly, there aren’t many rumors floating around about a new Duke Nukem game. In an age where classic first person shooters are making a comeback, Duke Nukem’s absence speaks louder than anything else. There’s certainly an argument that even gamers have grown weary of the franchise, unwilling to endure the kind of one-tone jokes that characterized the series. But the thing is, these problems aren’t beyond fixing if the developer is willing to make the necessary changes.
The truth is that if Duke Nukem is to be a success again, the series needs to move with the times. What made Duke Nukem 3D work was that it leaned heavily on 1980’s movie tropes. It wasn’t afraid to blow these up to extreme levels and make fun of cultural touchstones. By 2010 however, these references were not only dated but exceptionally worn out. As a franchise, it felt out of touch with the commentary it was trying to make; desperately shoveling in references to more successful game series that have risen up in its shadow. Instead of this, the series needs to focus more on making Duke Nukem
Gearbox have huge potential when it comes to the series. The problem is I don’t think they’re the right people to make it work, and I worry that if they don’t make the changes necessary; any potential comeback could serve as something of a final blow for the series. Gearbox need to do something with the franchise, but I suspect that they won’t do the things needed to truly make it a success.