Reviewed: December 14, 2005
Released: November 22, 2005
The average age of a gorilla is approximately 40 years, so the fact that King Kong has been a part of our culture for more than 72 years now is somewhat of a remarkable feat, especially when you consider that the dumb ape has fallen off the Empire State Building in 1993 and 2005 and the Word Trade Towers in 1976.
King Kong is one of those life-changing movies, and much like how the original Star Wars inspired an entire generation to become today’s special effects wizards, King Kong inspired Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker and now we have come full circle. Peter Jackson has made what analysts predict will become the biggest motion picture ever.
It’s a foregone conclusion that movies and video games are merging into one giant entertainment industry. You have moviemakers making games and movie stars performing in them. Just about any movie can be rolled over into a game for a quick buck, and video games are inspiring a new rash of B movies unlike anything we’ve seen since the drive-in days of the 60’s. So when a truly good game inspired by a movie shows up, it’s time for celebration.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is such a game, perhaps one of the finest movie-based games I have ever played, and sadly, for a movie-lover like myself, exponentially better than the movie that inspired it. I chose to hold off on posting my review until I had seen the film, and after seeing the movie I really wish I had held off on playing the game at all until after I had seen the film.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying King Kong is a bad movie, but only that the game is so much better. The film is a 90-minute rollercoaster ride hiding in a 187-minute character piece, whereas the game is non-stop action from title screen to closing credits. In the movie, you don’t even get to Skull Island until 65 minutes into it, whereas the game starts off with a very brief cutscene in NYC followed by your rowboat being lowered from the Venture.
King Kong is being released on all consoles and handheld platforms and even the PC, and to their credit, Ubisoft has divided the project up so each console gets its own design team. Not only does this mean, no crappy ports, it means that each version is totally optimized to make the most out of the system you end up playing it on.
Call me a sucker for pretty graphics and raw horsepower, but I have to say that the Xbox 360 version stands out as the best of the bunch, but even on the lesser consoles, King Kong is an epic adventure that you won’t want to miss. Just go see the movie first.
King Kong is a clever blend of FPS and adventure with a heavy focus on storytelling and total immersion into the experience, even to the exclusion of the atypical HUD that we normally find in these games. From the moment you climb ashore on Skull Island, there is never a moment that you don’t feel like you are playing as Jack Driscoll or the big ape himself, Kong.
Peter Jackson’s retelling of the story loosely follows the premise and events of the 1933 version right down to the historic time period including weapons. There will be no chainguns or rocket launchers in this game; only pistols, rifles and a lot of spears. You might even have to defend yourself with a piece of bone pried from some skeletal remains.
The story goes something like this. Carl Denham is a down and out filmmaker on his way out the door until he gets his hands on a map of a mysterious island. This island is the last undiscovered place on Earth and people will certainly want to see it for the price of an admission ticket. So he moves his current project from Singapore to Skull Island, assuming it even exists.
After hiring the out-of-work vaudeville performer, Ann Darrow to fill in for his original actress, they hire a ship, pack up their cameras and film stock and it’s off to Skull Island. Almost immediately upon setting foot on the island the film crew and sailors are set upon by giant insects and other creatures that only hint at what lies beyond that massive stone wall that blocks their way to the island’s interior. Are they being kept out or is something being kept in?
The game eases you into the action with some minor encounters and you quickly learn how to aim and fire your guns and throw spears with surprising accuracy despite the lack of a targeting sight. The combat is interspersed with some minor puzzles that come in two generic forms; finding the handles (keys) to open doors, and transporting fire from point A to B to burn out patches of thorns blocking your way.
Sadly, the puzzles don’t get ever get more involved than that, even when they start combining the two by hiding the handles in the thorns. You’ll be exploring the island until you come to a giant wood door. Inevitably, one of the two cranks required to open the door will be missing a very special wood handle – it must be special since nothing else will work in it – and you will need to scout the surrounding area for the missing piece of wood.
Fire puzzles are a little more involved and entertaining and require you to light your spears on fire to transport fire from one brazier to another or perhaps ignite a patch of thorns to clear a path or even trap and burn some raptors. I was surprised to see that there were no puzzles that revolved around you using torchlight to get through dark caves or mazes, etc. In fact, if anything, holding a flaming torch in front of you actually hurts your ability to see since the flames occupy a huge part of your field of vision.
Another clever element of the game design you will quickly discover and soon rely on is the realistic AI of the creatures on Skull Island whether they be giant bats, spiders, centipedes, crabs, fish, or even dinosaurs. There is a realistic food chain dynamic in place that allows you to distract some enemies by using others. If a nasty batch of spiders is blocking your path you can spear a few meaty maggots on a piece of bone and toss it toward the spiders, and they will scurry over to consume their meal while you slip by unnoticed.
Larger predators require larger meals and a T-Rex won’t give a maggot or dragonfly a second look, so you might have to offer him a meatier meal; perhaps a tasty giant bat with a nice red wine vinaigrette. Just make sure you have slipped past before their meal is done or you might find yourself on the dessert menu.
That pretty much sums up the Jack Driscoll portions of the game. You basically wander around the island, sometimes alone, sometimes with Carl and some sailors, in search of Ann who has been whisked away to Kong’s mountain penthouse. You’ll explores mountains, valleys, narrow cliff ledges, caves, rivers, jungles, ancient ruins, all the while fighting off an assortment of prehistoric creatures and oversized insects.
Combat is pretty straightforward; aim with the left trigger and right stick and fire with the right trigger. You can melee if the enemy gets in too close by attacking without aiming first. Firearms are few and ammo is scarce despite the frequent ammo drops from the rescue plane that circles overhead for most of the game. Conserve your ammo for when you really need it and make the most of bones and spears or offer your enemy a meal instead of a bullet. There is nothing worse than staring down the throat of a T-Rex and hearing your machinegun go click…click…click…
Much like the movie, King Kong, the game, tells the story from two perspectives. We’ve already covered the human rescue party but what about the big monkey himself? Yes, Kong is fully playable and probably represents some of the best gameplay design in the entire project. Despite the limited controls, Kong can be quite challenging to play, especially when four or five T-Rex’s or a dozen giant leeches gang up on you.
Kong’s main goal throughout the game is to keep Ann out of trouble, and as the only single white female on the island, every predator is out for a taste. You will find yourself in a series of on-rail chases where you are following Ann and fighting off bats and raptors that are also in hot pursuit. The chase sequences are exciting but often too easy. Kong sticks to the appropriate vine-covered walls, and it’s impossible to jump too early or too late when it comes to the swinging puzzles, so the only thing you really have to worry about is keeping Ann and yourself alive.
From time to time you will engage in the sub-boss or big boss fights that can range from one giant bat creature to a half-dozen giant dinosaurs all tearing at your throat. Sometimes, these battles require the careful depositing of Ann somewhere out of the way so you can use both hands for the fight, but be careful, enemies will often spot Ann and you might have to save her in mid-battle.
Kong attacks with a slap and a grab attack. He can also do a dodge move, which is most useful in getting a cheap shot at the enemy. You can grab enemies and throw them or use them as weapons. You can also grab trees, pillars, and rocks and swing or throw them. But my favorite move is climbing any nearby wall and jumping off and doing an elbow slam into the enemy below. You’d swear the motion-captured this from the WWE. It looks awesome and does excellent damage while stunning the enemy.
Kong’s best attack is saved for when he enters rage mode. There is no meter to fill and you can go into a rage as often as you like, provided the enemies will give you enough time to beat your chest for the required 5-8 seconds. Once in rage mode, the screen turns yellow and blurs and you enter a slow-motion sequence where a single slap does extra damage and sends numerous attackers reeling back in showers of blood. Rage mode can make even the hardest battles a bit too easy, but then again, you do have to figure out how to get enough free time to invoke the beast within.
King Kong is divided into numerous chapters, some quite lengthy and others ridiculously small. There was one level that was shorter than the two load screens on either side of it combined. But for the most part the pacing is spot on. It’s only when you finally get back to New York that the game feels rushed.
I was looking forward to creating some real mayhem in the Big Apple but alas, my visit lasted only about 10-15 minutes before I climbed the Empire State Building for my fateful encounter with the circling biplanes. In a game where you are destined to die, I had to wonder what the point was of even swiping at the planes, but I did manage to take out two of them before I took the plunge.
King Kong is big on action and to that end they have stripped away the first hour of the film and much of the end. The big focus on gameplay was on the island with all of the amazing battles between man and beast and beast and beast and in that respect, they succeeded.
King Kong is a work of art, literally. The backgrounds and imagery from the game look more like the reference paintings used during the creation of a game than actual CG. Everything has a soft look about it with muted colors and lots of earth tones that create a very natural and organic feel. Even the guns, when they pop into view, look like an artistic rendering of the gun rather than a CG model.
These soft backgrounds really help make the enemies pop off the screen, especially the T-Rex and other dinosaurs in the game where you can see every single wrinkle and bump-mapped crevice on their leathery skin, and it’s all lit with some incredible real-time lighting effects.
Special effects aren’t overly flashing but service the game well. There is a nice blurring effect during Kong’s rage mode or when a T-Rex is roaring in your face. Fire is nicely done; some of the best I’ve seen actually, and it’s interesting to see how it dynamically spreads through patches of brambles and melts them away. There is also a good heat distortion effect that blurs and ripples the screen.
The only thing I would really have to complain about is the water. In lakes and pools the water has this thin slimy film on the surface that makes it look…well, just weird. And then there are a few river rafting sequences that, while totally exciting, are a bit distracting because the water is just too flat. It’s more of a scrolling texture than moving water with no spray or bubbly surface to make me feel like I am really on some whitewater.
The animation is amazing, obviously mo-capped using the same techniques from the film, and the movements for Kong are breathtaking. He lumbers around with perfect ape-like movement then launches towards a wall and scrambles along the vines before leaping toward a tree branch and swinging gracefully to the ledge beyond. And when he beats his chest and does a victory roar and the camera spirals down his throat, it will send a chill down your spine.
The cutscenes all use the game graphics and there are some insanely intense sequences that intersperse the adventure. These start and stop seamlessly with the gameplay, so well in fact, that I must have watched Kong struggling with his bonds on the stage in NYC for at least 2-3 minutes before I realized I had control over him.
Epic, huge, majestic, wonderful, are all words I could and will use to describe the soundtrack for King Kong. The score complements the gameplay flawlessly creating just the right amount of shock and awe the first time you stumble onto the stampeding Brontosauruses or the right amount of creepiness as you creep through a dark wet cavern full of spiders and giant centipedes. When the combat revs up, so does the music.
Most of the primary cast lends their voices to the video game version of Kong, and Jack Black steals the spotlight with his own style that fits perfectly with the self-absorbed attitude of the character he portrays. The rest of the cast turns in excellent performances including enough screaming from Ann to make me…I mean Kong…want to snap her in half. The voice acting is so good in fact that the game recently took home Video Game Awards for Best Male (Jack Black) and Best Cast performances.
Sound effects are all natural and cover the range of insects, which in this game are as big as your head, roaring water, crumbling rocks, crackling fire, screeches of giant bats, roaring dinosaurs so loud they distort the screen, and thunderous footsteps that will have your sub-woofer screaming for mercy. The Dolby Digital mix surrounds you in all the majestic and terrifying sounds of Skull Island.
King Kong is a rather long game for one rooted in a film script. Seasoned gamers can finish the game in just under eight hours (7:47 for me), and as with any story-based game, there is no real reason to replay it anytime soon other than to experience the epic tale for a second or third time. Admittedly, this will become one of the showcase titles for your Xbox 360, so you will find it getting popped into your system more than you think.
For those that like to unlock every last bit of bonus material there is a hefty bonus section that allows you to unlock artwork, movies, trailers, and possibly even an alternate ending to the game where Kong doesn’t die. To unlock these items you will need to replay the various chapters and earn points.
The clever thing here is that during the initial pass through the game you don’t get any points. You must go back and replay the chapters and often meet some strict criteria. You will always earn points for replaying the chapters but there are also plenty of penalties that will subtract from your score. For instance, dying will deduct points and in some missions using a gun will cost you 5000 points per bullet. Time to master the spear or the food chain.
Xbox 360 gamers will be able to earn 1000 Gamer Points towards their Xbox Live Gamer Card simply for completing the game. There is no extra work involved in getting all these points, which is both refreshing and disappointing in a way.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is by far the best movie-licensed game to ever be made. Not only does it outshine all other movie-inspired titles, it even surpasses the movie that inspired it. It’s a totally immersive experience with the no-HUD interface, amazing sounds, inspiring music, and a visionary artistic style that is totally unique to the genre.
Just a word of warning - if you play the game and then go see the movie you will likely be disappointed in the film. The game covers so much more that the movie doesn’t. Go see the film for the story then play the game for the action.