As everybody knows, movie-games have a rather sordid and uninspiring history, usually churned out by the marketing men in order to grab extra profit from an easy license, with little regard for actual gaming quality. After all, why bother to craft a good game when kids will buy it regardless, simply to fulfil their franchise desires?
The Dream Team
The rather awkwardly monikered Peter Jacksonís King Kong The Official Game of the Movie first showed signs of promise when it was announced that Jackson was to be directly involved, having been disappointed with EAís handling of the Lord of the Rings franchise. Excitement levels rose as Jackson chose Ubisoft as his studio of choice, raising to orbital heights of anticipation when it was revealed that Michel Ancel was leading the project.
Ancel, of course, was the visionary genius behind the criminally underrated and underplayed Beyond Good & Evil. Taking a fairly simple puzzle adventure format, Ancel infused BG&E with a captivating story, brilliant characters and Ė most importantly Ė oodles of charm. Nevertheless, Kong, a charming monkey though he may be, would require a vastly different approach.
Itís a jungle out there
Avoiding the obvious route of a third-person, hackíníslash, Skull Island wildlife extermination campaign, Ancelís team instead have opted for a hybrid game that mixes both third-person acrobatic combat with first-person shooter elements. Being able to play as both Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody in the movie) and Kong himself was a risky move Ė surely the human levels would only get in the way of the main attraction?
This isnít your standard run-and-gun shooter, though. For a start, your guns are often almost entirely useless, only capable of slowing down the gigantic predators. As such, the game shifts more towards the horror/survival genre, with emphasis on keeping your wits about you and using the environment to avoid the grisly jaws of death.
Being used to the usual heroic antics of Half Life 2, Halo et al, it comes as a bit of a shock to find yourself so vulnerable. Being chased by a giant V-Rex (essentially your standard Tyrannosaurus, but with more of an attitude problem) and knowing that you absolutely, positively cannot kill it, no matter what, leads to an interesting gaming dynamic not often seen in the FPS genre.
Enhancing the immersion yet further is the absence of an interface. There are no ammo or health bars to break the reality Ė instead, Jack shouts out how many bullets he has left, becoming increasingly frantic as his supplies dwindle. Become injured and your vision will blur and become disoriented. Verisimilitude is the order of the day.
Letís be honest: youíve come for the monkey, right? If you buy a game called King Kong, chances are your main interest lies in charging about Skull Island while pulling off dinosaur heads with your furry mitts.
The Kong levels are surprisingly sparse, barely taking up a third of the game in total. They do, however, tend to be memorable, as you struggle to protect Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) from numerous toothy dangers. Gameplay is similar to Prince of Persiaís third-person fighting, with Kong whacking V-rexes, throwing raptors off cliffs, jumping from wall to wall and even grabbing the occasional tree trunk to wield as a giant club. The animation is superb, as is the sound, with some innovative camera angles raising the tension considerably.
Unfortunately, the Prince of Persia comparison doesnít work in Kongís favour. Thereís a paltry range of moves to choose from and you will likely have mastered all the options by the end of the first fight. Kong may not be quite as lithe and highly trained as the Prince, but thatís still no excuse Ė especially as thereís little else to do in the Kong levels.
The lack of variety soon results in mindless button-bashing, with matters becoming worse once you inevitably reach New York, where the camerawork often leaves you staring helplessly at a wall while Kong gets shot somewhere off-screen.
The game surprisingly makes a few improvements over the movie, picking up story strands that Jackson seemed to forget. The Skull Island natives, for example, stalk you throughout the game rather than disappearing impotently. The game isnít afraid to distance itself from the movie structure, focusing instead on crafting a memorable gaming experience.
Unfortunately, the game does rely on knowledge of the movie a little too much. The opening sees you being lowered into the seas surrounding Skull Island itself, completely skipping the opening hour of the movie and missing crucial character-building scenes, both in New York and aboard the ship, that would have provided time to become more acquainted with the crew before being thrust into peril. More importantly, the relationship between Ann and Kong is never fully explored nor explained.
There are structural oddities towards the climax, too, with the first-person levels disappearing entirely. What happened to the brilliant car chase sequence from the movie, as Jack tries to pursue his giant love rival? Instead, the first-person sequences fizzle out back on Skull Island, leaving only a couple of half-finished Kong levels that quite simply donít work.
Production values are superb, of course, with the full movie cast providing some excellent voice work, backed up by well-written dialogue. Visuals are beautiful and hugely atmospheric, despite being rather crippled by console technology. One canít help but wonder what Ancelís team would have achieved had they been able to truly harness PC or next-gen console power.
The overall experience doesnít hang together as well as it should, especially considering Ancelís sterling work on Beyond Good & Evil. The monkey levels are disappointing, but the human levels are undeniably exciting struggles for survival, wrapped up in an innovative interface and great production design.
Verdict: Flawed and very old-tech, but thereís no denying the thrill of running for your life with a giant dinosaur chomping at your heels. If you want third-person combat, buy Prince of Persia 3. If you want an atmospheric and unique survival/FPS hybrid, then Kong may well be the King. 83%
Review by Simon 'Tarn' Jones © 2006