X05: Peter Jackson's King Kong Hands-On

We get our hands on the Xbox 360 version of King Kong.

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Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie
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AMSTERDAM--We recently, and finally, had a chance to take our first in-depth look at the Xbox 360 version of Peter Jackson's King Kong, which is currently slated as a "launch window" game for the new console. Before getting our hands on a four-level demo, we met with a Ubisoft representative, who talked about some of the techniques used to make the PS2 game (which is the lead platform) suitable for Xbox 360 consumption.

The PS2 version of King Kong, on which all the other versions are based, is being developed by Xavier Poix and his team at Ubisoft's Montpellier studio. The Xbox 360 version, on the other hand, is being crafted in Montreal, which means communication between the respective development teams is difficult at best. Making the Montreal team's life even more difficult is that it isn't able to start work on upgrading any area of the game until it receives something resembling final PS2 assets from the Montpellier team. Since both games are supposed to be released around the same time, it's important that the Xbox 360 team be able to work quickly and efficiently, which is why it spent time developing a "displacement tool" that does some of the work automatically. We're not entirely sure how the displacement tool works, but based on the demonstration, it seems the tool is able to take environments from the PS2 game to create more-detailed geometry using information from the textures. Advanced texturing and bump-mapping techniques (not unlike the "virtual displacement mapping" of Epic's Unreal Engine 3.0) are then used to give relatively flat surfaces the appearances of craggy walls and uneven rocky paths, for example.

What followed was our first look at the Xbox 360 version of King Kong played in real time by a member of the Montreal development team. We got to see areas from four different levels being played, and later we had a chance to play through them for ourselves. The first of these levels, titled "Chased," will appear early in the game, and it will center around what will likely be your first encounter with one of Skull Island's seemingly many Tyrannosaurus rexes.

The level takes place on a stormy night, complete with heavy rain that splashes on the ground and flashes of lightning that illuminate the whole environment in a way that's both dramatic and convincing. Our starting location served as perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the Xbox 360's muscle (which King Kong purportedly uses only a fraction of) that we've seen to date, boasting vegetation that moved convincingly with the wind and ground that looked to be composed of individual stones and rocks--every one of them with a wet weather sheen that reflected the light from both the moon and a nearby fire. After spending a few moments examining the rocks closely and feeling suitably impressed, we progressed through the level and found that there was something far more spectacular waiting for us around the corner.

Accompanied by some of the key characters from the upcoming movie, we made our way to a locale that was just as easy on the eyes as the last one. Here we noticed that three or four other members of our group stood atop some kind of makeshift bridge above us. Their bodies created soft shadows in the beams of moonlight pouring down from the night sky, and it was as we stood and admired the scene that we got our first look at a T-rex from the Xbox 360 era. The late-Cretaceous-period carnivore destroyed the aforementioned bridge during its spectacular entrance and proceeded to make a meal of the plot's nonessential group members, who had stood on the bridge as Carl Denham (who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Black, who plays Carl in the movie) made a hurried and somewhat insane attempt to capture the whole thing on film.

However, it didn't take long for Denham to change his mind, and by the time we decided to make a run for it, he was already halfway to the next area, along with a few other survivors. Since we apparently drew the short straw at some point, our mission in the next area was to distract the T-rex while our colleagues struggled to open a gate. This essentially meant throwing spears and bones we found scattered around the area at the dinosaur so it would chase us instead of our friends. And when the opportunity arose, we would have to bring down giant bats that were flying overhead so the T-rex would take some time out to eat them. This "food chain" system is used frequently in King Kong, and we can report that it's often much more effective than attempting to deal with enemies head-on. We can also report that the T-rexes in King Kong move fast; that the screen-blurring effect caused by their mighty roars looks great; and that standing right in front of one because you've seen Jurassic Park (and believe their vision is based entirely on movement) is something you'll try only once. Our too-close-for-comfort encounter with the T-rex came to an end when our group took shelter in a small cave of sorts. Our pursuer--after a minute or two of looking like it was never going to give up--was distracted by the sound of a woman screaming and ran off to investigate.

The woman in question was, of course, the actress Ann Darrow (played by Naomi Watts in the movie), who needs rescuing from the clutches of Kong and was featured quite prominently in the next level that we played, called "Ann's Escape." Ann had already managed to get away from Kong at the start of the level, but as we talked to her about it across a large chasm, she was attacked by a group of fast-moving dinosaurs that may or may not have been velociraptors. There weren't nearly enough spears and bones lying around on our side of the chasm for us to take the dinosaurs down with, so it was fortunate that we found a supply crate containing a shotgun and some ammo hanging from a nearby tree. Before we tell you how we used the shotgun to shoot the dinosaurs that were attacking Ann--and how we became aware of their ability to leap across the chasm at our faces--we should explain that the supply crates in King Kong aren't nearly as inappropriate as you might think. In fact, the supply crates are dropped in on parachutes by a small plane that can be heard (and occasionally seen) flying overhead. The plane doesn't figure into the upcoming movie, but director Peter Jackson (a gamer and fan of King Kong game director Michel Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil) came up with the idea when Ubisoft needed some way to supply players with weapons and ammunition as they progressed.

So anyway, we used the shotgun to shoot the dinosaurs that were attacking Ann, and, as we were saying, we became aware of their ability to leap across the chasm at our faces and were forced to engage a number of them up close. As we continued to move down both sides of the chasm, Ann also came under attack from a small colony of giant bats, which was harder to deal with because the bats moved more erratically than the dinosaurs and were even quicker to fly across the chasm in our direction. Our ammo was limited, incidentally, so we used bones and spears whenever possible in an attempt to conserve ammo for anything bigger that we might encounter later on. "Bigger" like another T-rex, for example, which is exactly what we found ourselves up against in the third and final level of the demo, titled "Chased by a T-Rex."

In this level, we again attempted to keep Ann alive in a situation where the terrain made it impossible for us to come between Ann and her attacker. The attacker this time around was a T-rex, which we got a very close look at during the start of the level as we passed underneath its legs while floating down a river. Once we found a spot where we could climb back onto dry land, we realized that the T-rex had Ann trapped in some ruins. So, naturally, we needed to distract it so Ann could open a gate that blocked both our escape routes. We didn't get to keep the gun and the ammo from the last level we played (because these levels won't be sequential in the finished game), but there were plenty of spears and bones around for us to throw. Fortunately, it took only one direct hit to get the carnivore's attention.

As the level progressed, we found ourselves moving farther away from Ann, which occasionally made it difficult to get into throwing range of the T-rex when it temporarily gave up on the idea of eating us to run back toward her. We decided at one point to try to keep the T-rex interested in us for as long as possible by continuing to throw stuff at it, even when it was just a few feet in front of us. The T-rex wasn't happy about the situation, apparently, and started to knock down the ruins that we were hiding in by bashing them with his head--essentially making it much harder for us to evade his attacks. Since the dinosaur was chasing us around, it meant Ann was able to get the gate open, at which point we made a run for it. And after scaling a mountain path, we had to lean over the edge to pull Ann up to our position before the T-rex was able to make a lunge for her with its gigantic jaws. The Jack portion of the demo came to an end when we were reunited with the remaining survivors of our party, although we definitely got the feeling that their adventure was far from over.

In the fourth and final level we played, we assumed the role of none other than King Kong, who, we're pleased to report, looks pretty incredible on Microsoft's new hardware. The giant ape's fur and scars are particularly impressive, and he animates exactly as you (or at least we) would expect him to. The level tasked us with keeping Ann safe from a T-rex as she made her own way through the jungle environment. This basically meant pummeling the aforementioned dinosaur until it couldn't take any more punishment, even ending up with a busted jaw courtesy of one of Kong's special attacks.

After defeating the T-rex, we followed Ann through the level, and after a fight with a group of raptors (who look tiny when you're playing as Kong) and passing through two areas in which Kong (who can never fall) was required to swing from trees and run along vine-covered walls, we found that she'd managed to get herself into trouble with two more T-rexes. The fight that ensued was epic to say the least, and before we managed to break the back of one of Ann's pursuers, we noticed the whole screen turning red to warn us that we were dangerously close to death. But the battle went our way in the end after some of the most solid-looking punches and most brutal finishing maneuvers we've ever seen. Kong's levels will make up approximately 25 percent of the finished game and should make for a welcome change of pace as you switch between roles at both ends of Skull Island's food chain.

Although our time with King Kong was all too brief, we found it to be a totally absorbing experience--and not only because we were so impressed by the quality of the Xbox 360's visuals. The game's lack of a heads-up display really helps to heighten the immersion, and the techniques used to give you information that the HUD would usually be responsible for (such as heavy breathing and unsteady vision when you're injured) do their jobs admirably. The same thing could be said for your onscreen hands, which appear only when you're actually using them for something or when they're automatically parting the long grass in front of your face or hoisting your gun up above your head when you're in deep water, for example.

If we were tied to a stake and threatened by a giant monkey that wanted us to say something negative about our experience with the Xbox 360 version of King Kong, we'd grudgingly point out the one or two instances of clipping we noticed (characters passed through the ropes from which crates were suspended), while minor, were even more noticeable than they would be in a current-generation game because of just how realistic everything looks. We might also point out that (as Ubisoft did) the game's difficulty could use some tuning in places. However, we didn't really have a problem with it.

The fact is, the Xbox 360 version of King Kong looks great right now, and we can't wait to bring you more information on the game just as soon as we get our hands on a more-complete version. No definite release date for King Kong has been announced at this time, but Ubisoft has it scheduled for the Xbox 360 launch window, and it aims to get the game in to stores before the movie is released later this year.

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