Remember the time you first saw Rob Schneider on Saturday Night Live doing his "Talking to the Rich-man" sketch? You know, the one where the guy takes a name and plays with it endlessly: i.e. The Rich-minator, Rich-meister, Rich-tola. Many of you probably laughed when you first saw it. And remember the first time you saw Damon Wayan's "Homie the Clown" routine on In Living Color? I recall peeing in my pants when I first saw Homie bop a guy upside the head, then followed by his trademark line: "Homie don't play Dat!" Now that we're in the present, when was the last time you saw either of these characters on TV? Simply, the guys just aren't as funny anymore. After the umpteenth time, the Rich-man wasn't just annoying the latest host, he started getting under our skin too. And after seeing Homie bop 'The Man' over and over, the only thing that was getting played was Homie himself. With those two comedy bits in mind, that's pretty much how I felt while playing GT Interactive's new release of Duke Nukem: Zero Hour.
Duke Nukem may have entered the gaming scene as kiddy shareware fodder for the PC, but somewhere along the way, he evolved into a technologically advanced first-person shooter (FPS) with a politically incorrect bad-boy attitude that brought him recognition. Since then, developers have tried unsuccessfully to plug his mug into more lucrative, mainstream console systems, some of which came in the form of third-person auctioneers. Zero Hour is the latest of these attempts, now for the Nintendo 64. On paper, that sounds like a good idea (keeping Duke's image fresh along recent console trends), but in execution, things get uglier than Norm MacDonald's Weekend Updates.
All of the problems stem from one thing: sticking with the exact same elements that were perceived to have made Duke a success. And all the while, failing to really evolve the franchise to the next level. Rather than utilizing Duke's characteristics to platform a new genre, the developers have basically tried to fit the original FPS into a third-person perspective mold, which is not unlike trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Those expecting Tomb Raider's expansive exploration, Super Mario 64's playfulness, or Soul Reaver's abilities will be supremely disappointed. Zero Hour makes no effort to truly take advantage of its new perspective. Stages are laid out in the typical 'find the key' or 'hit the switch' fashion, which is more akin to FPSs. Duke's capabilities are also archaic, not allowing you to lock onto enemies, hang on ledges, or acrobatic jumps of any sort. The lack of new maneuvers makes negotiating obstacles more frustrating than trying to figure out Pat's gender. So while the mildly impressive graphics may superficially resemble a third-person game, they serve only an illusory purpose, exposed by the gameplay.
Beyond the gameplay, just about everything else remains equally stale. Voice samples of Duke's rip-off action movie one-liners sound EXACTLY as they did in previous installments, leaving me to wonder if they even bothered to remix some new ones or are they simply regurgitating the same old lines. The game is still filled with what John Carmack accurately labeled (with quite a bit of disdain, I might add) "one-shot gags," dealing mostly with porno, sex, urination, and minimally witty, pop-culture jabs. And without a solid game revolving around the gags, it all feels too shallow. What used to pass for chuckles and laughs now only evokes groans and disbelief.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to fear. Whether it's sketch comedy or a videogame, there's a fear that if the creators mess with the original formula, it won't generate the same big laughs or excitement it once did. Consequently, we end up with comedians rehashing the same material over and over. And likewise, developers continue to dress up the same old gameplay in different clothes. There's a failure to realize that part of the "formula" for success is originality and innovation. Zero Hour lacks that understanding completely and with such a name, Duke may not only be out of time, but out of steam as well.