Ah yes, Duke Nukem, a character bursting at the seams with so much testosterone-fueled badassery that I’m not entirely sure whether or not he was meant to be the the definition of macho masculinity in gaming or if he was meant to spoof it. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I suppose, but there’s no denying that along with Doom and Quake, Duke Nukem was an integral part of the initial wave of major first-person shooters on PC, which in turn, led to that wave of FPSs being ported onto consoles. Eventually, though, even a dinosaur like The Duke had to evolve, and just in time for the new millennium, His Dukeness was getting a new spin and an N64 exclusive title, 1999’s Duke Nukem: Zero Hour, by Eurocom and GT Interactive.
The story, such as it is, is as shallow as you’d expect, aliens have landed on Earth in yet another attempt to enslave humanity, regular puny humans can’t hold them back, and once again, it’s up to Duke Nukem to singlehandedly save the world, blow things up, crack one-liners, kick ass, chew gum, and get the girl(s). Only this time, the aliens have tossed in a backup plan, utilizing time-travel technology to go back to the past and alter the future. Unfortunately for them, anything they can do, Duke can do better, so you’ll be skipping around time, from the present, to the post-apocalyptic future, to the Old West, to Victorian London, and finally, back to a distorted present for one last showdown with the invaders.
The biggest change in this battle, though, is that Zero Hour strays considerably from Duke’s roots, going from the classic FPS format to a third-person affair, with a heavy emphasis on jumping and more focus on tactics like ducking behind cover and circle-strafing. Does this make for a more engrossing experience? Ehhhh, not particularly. The mechanics handle smoothly enough, for the most part, although none of the preset controller configurations feel particularly comfortable. They’re not unworkable, but they’re awkward enough that no matter which one you settle on, it’s going to take a little while to get accustomed to. Even the jumping mechanics are fine, although there are more than a few occasions where it feels like the designers just decided to shoehorn in some precision jumps to remind players “oh, yeah, you can do that now!”, and while there are a few spots where missing a jump will insta-kill you, most of the time, missing a jump will be more of an inconvenience than an end.
Occasionally awkward controls aside, Zero Hour still feels very much in the spirit of earlier Duke Nukem titles; your primary goal is to blast aliens and make it to the end of each stage. There are objectives here, in theory, but they feel less like true diversions and more like the key hunts of its PC predecessors. Along the way, you’ll be on the lookout for secret areas that house powerups and extra weaponry, as well as parts for Duke’s time machine, which isn’t required, but unlocks a secret level if you manage to collect all thirteen pieces, and yes, scantily-clad women are scattered throughout the level like items, because even in the distant future, Duke isn’t big on that whole enlightenment thing. If you manage to find all the women and secret areas in a given stage, you’ll unlock a cheat, usually giving you access to weapons, regardless of whether or not you can normally access them in that stage.
Speaking of your arsenal, it’s not bad, but it gets rather thin towards the end. Y’see, in the present, you have access to your basic blaster pistols, automatic shotguns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, submachine guns, pipebombs, and missile launchers, with the occasional pickup that make your shotgun reload faster or give your missile launcher homing capabilities. As you would expect, when you bounce back to the Old West, you get your hands on period-appropriate weapons like six-shooters and repeating rifles, with sticks of dynamite replacing the present-day pipebombs. The problem, however, is that there are VERY few of these throwback weapons, and your selection is padded with some of the same heaters you were using in the present, conveniently explained away by “temporal disruptions”. It gets even worse in the Victorian era, as basically the only new tools you get are a sawed-off shotgun good for blasting zombies, a Gatling gun which works wonders, and a cool-looking but seemingly useless Volt Cannon. Granted, you’ll never really feel unequipped to deal with your opposition, but it does take a bit of the novelty out of things when you’re squaring off with laser pistols in a saloon gunfight.
Enemy design is also a bit of a disappointment, as well. Regardless of era, your enemies generally break down into one of four categories: lizard grunt with pistols, stronger lizard grunt with automatic weapons, pig with heavy weapon, and pig that throws explosives. On the upside, you can easily identify what you’re up against, but it gets kinda repetitive after a while. There are a handful of other enemy types, like the cyborg lizard that requires heavier weaponry to put down, or the weird floating brain with teeth…thing…that attacks with green ring waves that both damage you and cause your screen to get wonky, which is actually pretty creative.
My biggest complaint with Zero Hour, though, is that it does resort to some cheap tactics to pad the game out and inject some artificial challenge. For example, in the Victorian levels, zombies make up a hefty chunk of the enemies, and while they themselves pose very little threat, when they die, they emit gas that damages you if you walk through it, which, if you’re in a narrow hallway or enclosed area, is exactly as much fun as it sounds when you kill a zombie, have to wait a few seconds to pass, kill another zombie, wait again, lather, rinse, and repeat. Not to mention alien eggs that spontaneously pop and squirt out gas even longer, and if you stumble upon them rounding a corner, you can find half of your health drained away in about two seconds.
Even worse, enemies take a tremendous amount of punishment, even on the easier difficulty level, and while I get that they want to portray enemies as fairly tough, it gets frustrating after a while to have to dump an entire clip of pistol rounds to drop cookie-cutter enemies, and pigs take three or four HEADSHOTS to drop, which is even weirder considering that boss fights feel like layups, by comparison. Also, be prepared for a substantial amount of running in circles and backtracking trying to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go, because this game does not make a strong effort to explain where you’re intended to go, or at least, this was the case in my experience, so don’t forget to account that I might just be bad at this game. A pretty good rule of thumb here is that if you bump into enemies, you’re on the right track.
It goes without saying that it wouldn’t be a Duke Nukem game without an appropriate level of ‘tude, and Zero Hour generally delivers on that front. Duke has a good bit of speech here, and it does come through very clearly. He has a pretty solid collection of one-liners during combat situations, as well as a number of context-specific quips. There’s a bit of recycling after a while, yes, and occasionally, there’ll be a moment that doesn’t quite match up properly, like when Duke promises to “get medieval on your ass”, and he’s talking to a bear trap that he just fell into. The women you rescue spout the expected double entendres when you rescue them (“oh, Duke, I knew you’d…come”), and in a nice touch, they have different accents and lines depending on the time period, so the girls in the Old West have country twangs, and Victorian ladies range between Cockney and posh upper-class.
Sure enough, there are a sprinkling of “witty” jokes scattered throughout the levels, like New York’s Family Jewels jewelry store or the Old West hangout, the Miner ’69er. Cutscenes are handled in-engine, and work just fine for their purpose, but I should point out that, for whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be any background music during stages, which is fine, I suppose, but feels weird considering Duke’s FPS roots.
Duke Nukem: Zero Hour isn’t a bad game, per se, but there just doesn’t seem to be a lot going for it. The concept is fine, Duke going back in time to wreck shop and save the world, but the execution is lacking somewhat. There’s not a lot that separates the past from the present, and the future levels feel like slightly palette-swapped versions of the present. There’s still a big ol’ scoop of the trademark Duke Nukem humor to be found, but that’s not exactly for everybody. It handles competently, assuming you find a control scheme that works for you, but there’s also a lot of running around aimlessly in the process. I myself would consider it to be a perfectly average game, and while I wouldn’t discourage you from giving it a try, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are a hardcore Duke Nukem fan or an N64 completionist. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not something that would change the face of Duke Nukem forever…oh…
Fun idea, decent selection of weapons and items, chock full of the style that makes Duke THE Duke.
Recycled enemy designs, occasionally cheap tactics to pad the game out, be prepared to not make any progress for a while at times.