A version of Duke Nukem Forever that was worked on in 2001 has come to light as being nearly completed before being shelved. 3D Realms, the company behind the initial releases in the Duke Nukem franchise, had gotten their 2001 version to about 90% completeness. The game would have been significantly darker and deeper than the published 2011 version.
Duke Nukem Forever remains one of the longest and most tumultuous developments of a video game. A cautionary tale and punchline, the rights to the game had to be transferred from 3D Realms to Gearbox Software (makers of Borderlands and Battleborn) in order to finish development. This followed a lawsuit between Take-Two Interactive, who owned the publishing rights to the game and 3D Realms for failure to complete the title. Duke Nukem Forever had been in development since 1996, just after the release of mega-hit Duke Nukem 3D.
DSOG broke down the revelations from 3D Realms VP Frederik Schreiber, and the subsequent back-and-forth between Schreiber and Gearbox’s CEO Randy Pitchford. Schreiber, with a screenshot of a build directory, discussed that the 2001 version in some detail. It was created using the Unreal Engine, and had to be scrapped after 2002 saw 3D Realms implementing a new renderer that was not compatible with the static lighting used in the game’s build. This was to be the second time the game had to be built from the ground up-- following a similar situation in 1998 with the Quake II engine.
The game itself was going to be darker in tone than the version released by Gearbox. A heavy reliance on rain and lightning effects for atmosphere, combined with a plot involving infected members of the Earth Defense Force (or EDF), would have created a significantly more serious game than the poorly-received and heavily criticized 2011 romp. The game featured elements found in many modern RPGs: open-world exploration with mission objectives relayed via a heads-up display, NPC-delivered side quests, and an inventory system to help with puzzle-solving.
The 2001 version shows little hope of being released into the wild, following an unprofessional Twitter exchange between Schreiber and Pitchford. Licensing the franchise back from Gearbox does not appear to be in the plans for 3D Realms. Should the 2001 version see the light of day, it sounds as though it is more in-line with modern gaming than the 2011 effort. The open world format with side quests echoes the format of the highly successful Bethesda franchises Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Given the less-than-flattering legacy of the Gearbox attempt; a window for a happy ending for 3D Realms does exist.