Translating a big-budget film to video game form is no exact science, and over the years we've seen one developer after another fail to fully capture the essence of a particular movie in the licensed game of the same name. In other words, a lot of movie games suck. So when Ubisoft recently plopped us down in a dark room with the final version of King Kong on the Xbox 360, we understandably went in with a little skepticism as to the effectiveness of the translation from the yet-unreleased film remake. The game's pedigree is strong enough, what with the involvement of famed Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil creator Michel Ancel--but has the team been able to re-create the excitement of a big-screen action movie in playable form?
After frantically shooting and running our way through the roller coaster that is the game's first couple of hours, the short answer seems to be a resounding yes. King Kong is played almost entirely from the first-person perspective of Jack Driscoll, the screenwriter who accompanies obsessively ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham and leading-lady-in-distress Ann Darrow to the mysterious and uncharted Skull Island. This place is home to dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters, a group of crazed natives, and one famously enormous primate, and in that first two hours we came up against all of them--in many cases, a little closer than we would have liked.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of King Kong's design is that it attempts to immerse you fully in the action by dispensing with all of the contrived video-gamey conventions that you're used to. It's a first-person shooter, but you don't always see your hand clutching a gun at the bottom of the screen--you have to hold the left shoulder button to raise and aim your weapon. There's no heads-up display whatsoever--Jack verbalizes his remaining ammo, and you'll know you're injured and close to death when the screen goes an angry red and you start to become dizzy. You certainly won't find any kind of power-ups--all of your armament is handed to you by other characters or is dropped by a supply plane from overhead. These elements are subtle on their own, but the cumulative effect is that the game has done a great job so far of drawing us into the dangers of Skull Island without constantly reminding us that we're playing a game.
The game also smoothly introduces you to some natural-feeling methods of interacting with the environment. You'll find spears and even sharp dinosaur bones that you can hurl at smaller enemies, which can come in handy when ammo is scarce. Again, these aren't given to you as power-ups; instead you'll discover them as part of the background. The spears can even be set alight, and you can use these to burn underbrush to torch some foes and clear the way ahead. You can even find bait in the form of small grubs in some places that you can use to lure predators away from your path. From what we've seen, these elements have helped to make the game feel more like an adventure game than just a simple shooter.
King Kong is basically a nonstop thrill ride. It uses the Half-Life-style technique of never taking you out of your character's perspective, and within minutes you'll be subjected to one tense encounter with Skull Island's monstrous inhabitants after another. You'll sometimes pick your way through the jungle all by your lonesome, but at least as far into the game as we've played, more often you'll be accompanied by one or more of the characters you've come to the island with, such as Carl, Ann, or Hayes, a tough-as-nails aide who will often fight alongside you. It's fortunate that you have their help, because many of the situations you find yourself in will require more than one able body if you're going to get out alive.
Many of the action sequences that we've seen so far have been incredibly tense and thrilling. In one, we rendezvoused with another group of survivors we'd been separated from on the island, and just as we came into a clearing and saw them standing on an elevated wooden bridge, a massive tyrannosaur came crashing out of the brush and demolished the bridge before our eyes. We had to then distract the rex with our tommy gun while Carl and Hayes hurriedly tried to open a gate that would allow us to escape. We gunned down a couple of pterodactyl-like creatures, which the rex immediately turned into snacks, but in the last few seconds all we could do was shoot at the brute directly, making it chase us through some scattered ruins while the gate was finally opened.
In another tense action sequence, Carl was snatched by a massive flying beast. We had to pick our way across precarious rock ledges and unstable bridges while fighting off smaller creatures so we could reach the monster's nest and save Carl before he became lunch. The game has an excellent sense of scale--these monsters are truly enormous, and they, along with the game's engrossing surroundings, have done a great job so far of making us feel like a tiny and largely defenseless human in the midst of these forgotten, primeval beasts.
Even sequences in which we weren't in immediate danger have been nearly breathtaking so far. At one point, we came into a canyon cut through with a river, with blinding sunlight streaming down and reflecting off the water. From the mist at the end of the canyon emerged a herd of brontosauruses stomping toward us, and we ended up climbing through a series of paths along the cliff face while the great beasts stampeded below. This certainly seems like a game that will beg for a really big television and a really loud home theater system.
And then there's King Kong himself. Though you'll play as Jack for purportedly around 70 percent of the game, at crucial moments in the action you'll switch to a third-person perspective and control Kong through a relatively brief, high-flying action level. The action in these interludes seemed pretty simplistic to us, as the game does a lot of the guesswork for you while you make Kong swing from branches, climb straight up cliffs, and smash right through the parts of the environment that are in his way. But this automatic assistance in your jumping, climbing, and so forth also helps give the action a fluidity that it would probably lack if you were in real danger of missing the next branch and plummeting to your death. This is King Kong we're talking about, after all. The melee combat is also quite satisfying--you can hammer on a rage button to make Kong rapidly beat his chest until he lets out a terrifying roar and the screen goes yellow, which seems to give you some extra power to beat on the other prehistoric monsters on the island.
King Kong has been developed primarily for the PlayStation 2, but you wouldn't know it by playing the Xbox 360 version. The team apparently devised technology to automatically interpolate extra detail in the game's environments based on the source art from the current-gen consoles, and this seems to have done an excellent job of adding more geometric detail to the jungles and ruins of Skull Island. The ambient special effects have also been great at establishing mood so far, from the high contrast sunlight and moonlight streaming through the fog, to the specular highlights that give the island's rocks a really convincing wet look in the rain. The sound and production values seem high across the board--from the roars of Kong and the dinos, to Jack Black's characteristically nasal line delivery, everything seems to be consistent with the trailer footage we've seen of the movie so far.
Our biggest concern about King Kong is how long the game might be--though we didn't make it off Skull Island in the time we got to play, it seemed from the progression of the storyline that we were moving inexorably toward the film's climax in New York City. But then, the action has been so densely packed thus far that even if the adventure ends up being short, we're hoping it'll be a satisfying one. Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie (sheesh) will hit retail next week, a few weeks in advance of the movie, and we'll have a full review for you soon.