"[Bombshell] didn't get bad press because of her lack of clothes," says Frederik Schreiber. "It got bad press because it was really bad."
2014 was a rough year for Schreiber, the CEO of 3D Realms. After being sued by game developer Gearbox over an ill-fated Duke Nukem project, the company rushed an announcement of its new IP, Bombshell. In the three-and-a-half-minute trailer, the camera lingers over a bionic woman before she hops on a motorcycle and fires her weapon at the viewer. It looks cheap, forced, and lascivious.
"Let's be honest," says one of Schreiber's 3D Realms colleagues. "It was Duke [Nukem] replaced with [the character] Bombshell." That's quite literally what the company had done. The heroine, a former explosives expert named Shelley Harrison, was to play a supporting role in the original Duke Nuke game; when the lawsuit stymied development, the team cut Duke and bumped Bombshell into the lead role.
But a week after the disastrous trailer, 3D Realms started over from scratch. With the help of Scott Miller, an original founder of 3D Realms, the team composed a new universe and backstory around Bombshell, something that they hope will support an expansive intellectual property.
In this universe, Harrison was a teenage bomb savant, who lost her arm and beloved squad in the mysteriously dubbed "Washington Incident" back in the 1990s. In present day, with the help of the bionic appendage named Knuckles — an advanced technological weapon based on the dangerous research of her longtime nemesis — Harrison must save the galaxy.
2014 was a rough year for 3D Realms
3D Realm's Duke Nukem project may be on legal hiatus, but the influence remains. An introductory skirmish involves aliens, intergalactic portals, heavy weaponry, and cheeky 1990s dialogue. The game is played from the third person, but has an aiming reticule that jets across the screen, calling to mind the shooting popularized by early shooters like Duke Nukem 3D.
Bombshell has all the trappings of a throwback action game with a few bits of roleplaying stitched on. The character can dash, punch, and find safety in an translucent orb. Her weapon can be upgraded through branching options that feature over 40 different abilities. New moves unlock throughout the adventure, allowing Bombshell to reach additional corners of each stage. And Knuckles, the arm, can detach, providing support or helping open new pathways.
"It got bad press because it was really bad."
Like Duke Nukem games, eventually the game leaves Earth for bigger, gorier, and gooier pursuits. The first boss battle is a Lovecraftian creature, a giant centipede replete with tentacles, eyeballs, and teeth. And also like Duke Nukem, the weapons have names that you'd find scribbled on the wall of a public bathroom, like the Motherfakker — its bullets ricochet.
Despite what Schreiber says, the most immediately obvious change though to Bombshell between 2014 and 2015 is the character's wardrobe. Here's a screencap of the trailer, as the shot lingers on Bombshell's exposed legs and torso. This isn't cropped; it's the entirety of the shot.
And below is art for the new version of Bombshell, who wears baggy camo pants and body armor. The updated heroine is in her mid-30s, and intentional or not, her flat voice over has the cool indifference of someone who wishes their parents weren't planning their birthday party at this age.
3D Realms, Schreiber explains, is the publisher of the game, but it's being developed by Interceptor, the studio that recently made the reboot of Rise of the Triad, another classic by the original 3D Realms, then called Apogee. Today, Apogee is split into two different companies: 3D Realms has been sold to Interceptor, and Gearbox, best known for Borderlands, claims ownership of Duke Nukem. There's plenty of identity anxiety going on.
It's clear Interceptor wanted to make a Duke Nukem game, but perhaps the best thing about Bombshell is that Duke Nukem isn't in it. The most interesting thing about Bombshell may just be Bombshell.