The first-person action adventure/third-person gorilla beat-'em-up combo genre has been born in Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. As the long-winded title suggests, this is the game based on the upcoming retelling of the 1933 film by the Academy Award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. King Kong feels more like a stand-alone product than a handy cash-in for the license, however. This game blends the aforementioned first-person action sequences with its third-person (or should it be third-gorilla?) components remarkably well, as you traverse the perils of Skull Island as both screenwriter Jack Driscoll and the 800-pound gorilla himself, King Kong. It also helps that both components, on their own standing, can be a great deal of fun when the game is at its best--which, fortunately, is the majority of the time. Unfortunately, even the majority of the time isn't very long in the case of King Kong, a game that won't take you more than a single afternoon to beat. But that afternoon will be well spent.
The story of King Kong opens with filmmaker Carl Denham (voiced by the always-entertaining Jack Black) in a fit of desperation. A film studio is about to can his next project, so it's going to take something drastic to get things back on track. Along with his screenwriter, Jack (played by the soft-spoken Adrien Brody), and struggling actress Ann Darrow (played wonderfully by Naomi Watts), Carl procures a ship to take him and his misfit film crew to the mysterious Skull Island, a supposedly abandoned home of a lost civilization. Why exactly he goes to all this trouble just to film a movie isn't really explained in the game. In fact, most of the early story exposition is told briefly via the first half of the movie trailer you've likely seen in theaters already. Obviously it would seem that there is more to all this, but you won't get to find out about it until you go see the movie in a few weeks. By the same token, because the movie isn't out yet, we can't tell you how much of the story King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie might spoil for you. If you're the type that absolutely wants to be surprised, you might want to wait a few weeks before grabbing this game.
The game itself picks up right as the ship reaches the gloomy island. You open your eyes to see the world through the perspective of Jack, just as he's being lowered in a rowboat, along with Denham, Ann, and a pair of sailors, to set forth for the shore. It's stormy waters, and sure enough, things go awry when large chunks of rock begin plummeting into the sea, right near your boat. You wake up on the beach, with the almost angelic Ann standing over you. You're marooned, confused, and wondering what those horrible, beastly shrieks are that are coming from further within the island. All this happens before you even pick up a weapon, and you'll honestly spend the first 10 minutes or so of the game just looking around, taking in the scenery and gaining your bearings.
In fact, you'll probably do a lot of sight-seeing in King Kong, partially due to the great atmosphere (which we'll get to later), and also because there isn't anything on the screen to distract you from the enemies and scenery in front of you. There's no heads-up display of any kind. You gauge how much health you have via a screen effect that flashes the screen red when you're injured. When in such a state, you need to get away from the action briefly to heal up. If you take another major blow while things are still flashing, you'll die. Ammo is kept track of via verbal cues from Jack. Every time you reload, he says out loud if he's got enough ammo, or if he's starting to run dry. It's a great system, really. You won't ever feel like you're missing a HUD, since these subtle methods of information really keep you in the loop.
You can only hold one gun at a time, though you can pocket weapons in favor of pointier instruments of death, like discarded bones of fallen creatures and spears that have been left lying about. You will need to toss said weapon before you can pull your gun again, however (which does make sense, given the limited carrying ability of Jack). The game goes out of its way to make its ammo pickups seem completely sensible, too. The captain of the ship flies around the island in a seaplane, dropping crates full of guns for you to pick up here and there, while he looks for a decent place to land. Spears and bones are left in areas that seem to make perfect sense for the scenery. And apart from bones, ammo isn't unlimited. If you find a cache of three spears, then that's all you get to use (though you can reuse spears over and over again if you need to). You also only get a certain amount of ammo per gun, and once you're dry, you'll need to improvise. It's great though, because the game always seems to leave enough other weapons around to give you just enough to beat off whatever threats are coming your way. If you're cautious and jump between spears and guns on a measured basis, you'll never feel like you're hopelessly outgunned.
Whether you're chucking spears, pumping shotguns, or letting loose barrages of bullets with a Tommy gun, the combat during Jack's sections of King Kong are always satisfying. The weapons all pack a good punch, and it's surprisingly easy to hit your targets. There's no targeting reticle turned on by default, but you don't need one. So long as you're aiming in the direction of an enemy, you're likely to hit it. It's not that the game is completely holding your hand, it's just making it so it doesn't have to clutter the interface with a precise reticle, and that's a great touch.
It also helps that the monsters you'll encounter on Skull Island are unbelievably ferocious. Everything that lives on this island is like a bigger, significantly mutated version of an animal that was highly dangerous and unpleasantly tempered to begin with. Angry dinosaurs, 10-foot-long millipedes, hordes of giant scorpions, and bats that look more like massive gargoyles are just some of the horrific beasts that inhabit this hellacious place, and they don't much care for the fact that you're on their turf. They're smart, too. They'll attack in packs and force you into hiding spots and cover positions. And boy, do they like to bite. Some enemies can't even be killed by puny humans, like the packs of Tyrannosaurus rexes that periodically pop up. The best you can do when they show up is hope to distract them long enough with gunfire and spears to find a way the hell out of there. It's tense, gripping stuff when you're running around like a madman, desperately shooting at a T-Rex that's angrily growling at deafening volume, and it shows that this game has more to it than just mindless shooting.
The game definitely has its puzzle elements as well. Often times you'll be challenged to seek out missing handles to insert into large wooden posts (for the purposes of rotation, to open a large door), or set ablaze a patch of briars to clear your path. OK, so maybe the term "challenge" is a bit generous. Very few of the things you're tasked with take an awful lot of thought on your part, mainly because the levels are laid out in such a linear fashion that it's tough to get lost. It's also because your artificial intelligence-controlled compatriots are mostly smart enough to know where they're going, so save for the few bits where you're on your own, all you really need to do is just follow them. It's cool stuff, despite its relative simplicity. You definitely get a primal feel out of spearing nearby grubs to distract a pack of raptors, and of realizing that fire is your greatest resource.
Oh, and did we mention that you get to play as King Kong? We make so much of the Jack portions of the game because they're really the bulk of what you're playing throughout the adventure. Those sections take up roughly three quarters to four fifths of the action. This is a shame, because for as good as those sections are, playing as Kong kicks ass. During the Kong sections, the camera switches to a more cinematic view, showing Kong in all his gigantic glory. There are basically two things you do when playing Kong: Swing through the jungle and lay waste to ugly monsters. The swinging portions are mostly contextual button presses. Get up to a ledge, press a button, and he'll jump and swing from the rock hanging off the cliff nearby. Then press another button a moment later, and he'll jump to and climb on a patch of vines that covers another cliff. These bits are very clearly laid out, which is good because the swinging chases that Kong is often involved in tend to move very quickly, relying more on reflexive action than any carefully thought out movements. There are also times where you'll have Ann firmly tucked in hand, and you'll get to use her in puzzle sections. By letting her loose on certain platforms, she can toss flaming spears at things that would otherwise block your path.
That's cool and everything, but where the fun's really at is unleashing your gorilla fury on an opposing beast. Be they giant bats, T-Rexes, or swarms of angry natives, Kong has a lot of enemies. Though Kong doesn't have an awful lot of attack variety, he's got what a giant gorilla needs to crack some skulls. You've got basic punches and grabs, a couple of little combo moves, and contextual finishing maneuvers that involve Kong grappling a downed opponent, and you mashing a button as quick as you can to snap a T-Rex's jaw, a bat's neck, or anything of that nature. It's simple, but it looks fantastic when you're pulling these moves off. You really get that sense of pure, animalistic brutality as you're laying waste to these unholy beasts.
Between the Jack and Kong portions of the game, there are a lot of enjoyable things to experience in King Kong; it's just too bad the experience doesn't last longer. At most, this is a six-, maybe seven-hour game the whole way through. Even when played casually, it isn't something that'll take you very long to get through, since every chapter of the story moves at such a brisk pace. It also bears mention that the conclusion to the game isn't the most satisfying thing in the world. Ninety percent of the game takes place on Skull Island, but when Kong is inevitably captured and brought to New York at the very end of the game, you'd expect some kind of fantastic rampage through the city streets. That doesn't really happen. Yes, you get to go on a rampage, but it's a pretty subdued rampage that doesn't take very long. Jack also completely disappears from the storyline the moment you leave Skull Island, which is a touch disconcerting. The ending itself is done the way you would expect King Kong to end, though it ties together with a little too much brevity for the way the rest of the adventure is paced.
King Kong is available for roughly every platform known to mankind. OK, so there's no Commodore 64 version, but not counting handheld versions that have yet to be released, it's out on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, PC, DS, Game Boy Advance, and Xbox 360--and in fact, there are two distinctly different versions of the PC game available. The boxed retail game you can buy in stores looks pretty much like a port of the Xbox game, with a few improved effects and textures here and there. There's also a "gamer's edition" that you can only buy online and download. This version is geared up to look far more comparable to the Xbox 360 version, which includes fantastic lighting, improved level geometry and textures, better fire effects, scarier-looking dinosaurs and beasts, and of course, a better-looking Kong than you'd find on the other console versions.
The problem is that the downloadable version takes up roughly 5.5 gigs of hard drive space (and is certainly no picnic to download), versus the 1.5 gigs on the boxed copy. It also asks for the kind of PC specs that most people would have to sell a kidney on the black market for, including a minimum of a Pentium IV 3.0GHz processor, 2 gigs of RAM, and so forth. What's even crazier is that these minimum specs don't seem terribly ideal for getting the game to run well. We tested this version of the game out on a machine that included an AMD Athlon 64 FX-57 processor, dual Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB cards in SLI configuration, and 2 gigs of RAM, and we were able to get fairly stable performance out of the game even when running in a higher resolution, but the load times were absolutely atrocious between chapter sequences, sometimes taking well over a minute each time. Even dropping the different settings down didn't seem to affect the loads very much. Needless to say, the vast majority of you will probably want to stick with the boxed version of King Kong, even though it doesn't look as impressive, simply because that one takes a much more "one size fits all" kind of attitude. The "gamer's edition" is clearly designed for those with supercomputers only.
Regardless of which version of Kong you play, you'll still get a great sense of atmosphere while playing it. It just captures the aesthetics of this nightmare of an island extremely well. This is a dank, rain-soaked, ugly place to be, and the visuals capture this atmosphere in such a way that you'll be delighted to look at all these dreary details. All the creature designs are excellent, and they move and behave in a very realistic fashion. Unfortunately, when they die they simply disappear (unless another beast happens upon its corpse and begins to devour it). The environments on Skull Island all have this hazy, creepy look to them. You'll see these big mountains and stone structures off in the background, just beneath the thick fog and the various flying monsters that circle around. This is most certainly a dangerous jungle, and you never quite know where and when something nasty might jump out at you. There are some minor details that stick out as less than great, like the gun models, which look a little awkward, and some of the ground textures, which look nasty even on the 360. Also, the New York bit of the game doesn't look nearly as good as anything on Skull Island. When you're playing as Kong, hanging off the Empire State Building, that looks neat. But all the buildings have this overly angular, flat look to them, and there's really not much to populate the streets. Again, you spend far more of your time on Skull Island than you do in New York; it's just annoying that there's this sudden drop in graphical quality the second you get out of the jungle.
The audio in King Kong might just be its best feature. The voice work from the film cast, as well as the remaining actors, is excellent. Jack Black really nails that egotistical, self-absorbed attitude, and Naomi Watts plays the perfect damsel in distress. You don't get much Adrien Brody dialogue, but what's there is fine. The sounds of the beasts are what really drive the point home, however. When Kong starts beating his chest and lets out a roar, you feel it in every part of your body, especially if you have a good surround sound setup. Of course, it helps that the game uses a great blurring visual effect whenever the roars of Kong and other creatures reach peak levels, but the recording quality itself is really amazing. Even when things aren't loud, you get some great background effects. The rumbles of thunderclouds, the sounds of creatures moving through the brush and chirping away off in the distance, the patter of rain against the rocks, and even the heavy breathing sounds of Jack as he runs as fast as he can through the island's perils--this is top-quality effects work. The game features a full orchestral score that seems like it could easily be taken from the film. Whether or not it's original or recycled film score, it's used wonderfully, ramping up and fading out at just the right times.
King Kong easily represents one of the better film-to-game translations released in recent years. This is a tightly delivered adventure with barely a dull moment, and the ability to play as two such wildly different protagonists as Jack Driscoll and King Kong is a real treat. It's just too bad that the two characters' respective sections weren't more evenly balanced, and that the game ends so soon and with a final level that feels tacked on. It's also disappointing that the PC version of the game looks so much like the Xbox version, and that to get it to look more like the 360 version, you have to be running the PC of the gods. But those problems aside, this is a game that immerses fully you in a quality adventure, the likes of which will probably make you want to see Peter Jackson's film all the more. It's the thing that so many licensed games shoot for, and so few achieve. King Kong hits the mark, and hits it fierce.