Monkey see, monkey smash.
It's always a little weird when a game based on a film comes out a good couple of weeks before the source material, but that's exactly the case with the exhaustingly-titled Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. After all, why spoil the film by playing through the game?
Because it's pretty cool, that's why. Mr. Jackson's big screen vision breaks the curse of the movie license by virtue of its great delivery, interesting design and cinematic flair, although some poor gameplay crutches and longevity issues undermine this ape overlord's dominance.
Part of the reason the press has chatted this monkey up is its beloved developer, Michel Ancel of Ubisoft Montpellier. Some may know him as the mind behind the critically-acclaimed but retail-maligned Beyond Good and Evil, while others might just think he has a very French sounding name and be done with it. Either way, his crew has delivered two games in one by telling the famous tale of King Kong through the eyes of scriptwriter-turned-dinokiller Jack Driscoll and the giant simian Kong. You'll play as both heroes over the course of the game, switching off every few levels or so.
Most of the time you're Jack, roaming through Skull Island in what's essentially a first-person shooter as you try to survive and rescue the lovely Ann Darrow, the hottie kidnapped and offered to Kong by the wacky natives. You spend a great deal of time traveling alongside the untrustworthy filmmaker Carl Denham and Hayes, the quite trustworthy first-mate of the ship that brought you there. These two serve as your guides through the levels, provide commentary and occasionally support you in combat.
Where the game really strays from the safe path is in its HUD - or rather, the lack thereof. Handy video game conventions like crosshairs, ammo and health bars are gone, leading to a game that's almost eerily immersive. Wondering how much ammo you have left? Just press a button and Jack will tell you out loud. Get munched on by an enemy and the screen will go red; get munched on some more and reality will blur as you teeter on the brink of death. It can be a bit tricky getting the hang of things at first (the game does allow you to add a reticule or a few info bars if you wish), but eventually you'll wonder why more games don't do away with all that screen clutter.
Peter Jackson's King Kong also removes the burden of things like 'free-roaming terrain' and 'non-linearity' by patting you on the tush and sending you down one linear path. The game is broken down into about 40 smaller bits, the longest lasting perhaps 15 minutes, and each is entirely linear and scripted. It's really like taking a Universal Studios tour through the world of Kong.
But in this case, the attractions are deadly. Skull Island should really be renamed Giant Centipede Island, because you deal with a lot of them. You also have to contend with oversized crabs, ugly bat-things and more dinosaurs than you can shake a stick it.
Which, by the way, is really the crux of the Jack portion of the game. Though you use three or four basic guns along the way, ammo tends to be in short supply. Good thing the island is overrun with spears, which you can us to poke at bad things or, more effectively, hurl at their brains. You can also pick up bones, which are limitless in supply but far weaker than their larger counterparts. The simple mechanic of tossing a spear is smooth and fun, but it also gets repetitive as the world is literally littered with 'em. No matter what level you're playing as Jack, you will be grabbing spears or bones off the ground and throwing them places.
Sometimes you'll even need to light them on fire to progress, although these segments are obviously meant to just be little diversions from the otherwise non-stop action. Certain foliage can be burned, and more often than not, that foliage is blocking a path. So you find some fire, light your spear, burn the bushes and move on. It's cool the first two or three times, but becomes a chore.
As does the game's predilection for making you find keys, which in this case are called 'levers.' You'll fight through a bunch of dinos and reach a gate with two big poles in front of it, and then be instructed by the repetitive Carl Denham to find the two levers needed to jam into the poles, thereby allowing you to rotate them in a circle and open the gate. Again, it's fine at first, but after a dozen times, you'll wonder who the hell built this stupid island and why they put levers behind rows of impassable shrubs. It's a weak gameplay device that pads the game length without offering much fun.
But at times, the game serves up some seriously inspired moments of survival-horror mania. Hurling spears at a massive, gorgeous and thoroughly deadly V-Rex (I guess T-Rex is copywritten?) to keep his attention focused on you gets the adrenaline pumping, particularly as he charges after you, mouth agape. Wandering into a dank underground cave teeming with giant megapedes will give you a fascinating combination of the willies, the heebie-jeebies and the shakes. You're dropped into this world and really do become Jack, surrounded by things that want to eat you, and in this sense, Peter Jackson's King Kong is an effective, scary game.
You will, however, grow weary of the spears, and the game pleasantly breaks up the tedium by letting you play as the giant silverback himself. The Kong levels are far and few between, easily tripled by Jack's levels, but they're pretty cool while they last. You control Kong from a third-person view with set cinematic camera angles - think Resident Evil, but in the jungles starring a 30-foot tall gorilla. Kong doesn't have many moves, really just a three-punch combo, a jump, a charge and the ability to go animal in a chest-pounding rage.
Kong levels are pretty short, mostly making you swing through linear levels while pounding on anything that moves, all while either gingerly carrying or carelessly chasing after Ann. The prime moments come during the outstandingly brutal fights against the V-Rexes, which ultimately lead to broken dinosaur necks.
Unfortunately, there's not much strategy as the ape. You always know exactly where to go, so you lumber that way and smash the punch button until whatever was there stops moving. You'll occasionally have to mash on a button to move a fallen pillar or something, but in essence, it's just Kong Smash.
And when he does, it's awesome. Peter Jackson's King Kong's delivery is superb across every platform. The dinosaur models and animations are incredible, especially those signature V-Rexes, and the mighty ape has never looked better. Lush jungle environments provide eye candy everywhere, be it from bump-mapped rocks or a herd of stampeding brontosaurs (yeah, that part is insane). The differences between the current-gen versions and the Xbox 360 version are much slighter than they should be, really just a matter of Kong detail, although it's safe to say the game looks best on Microsoft's new rig. And though the game fails to provide very good lip-synching, the faces look pretty accurate.
The audio is top notch as well, featuring the voice cast from the film and a terrific original score, plus all manner of shrieks and roars from the various dinosaurs and Kong himself. Environmental ambient audio like scuttling bugs and dripping water help set a creepy tone that never falters.
It's just too bad that tone doesn't last longer. Coming it at around seven or eight hours, Peter Jackson's King Kong really does feel like a roller-coaster ride through the film, but once you get off, there's not much of a reason to ride it again other than to unlock some extra art and whatnot. Considering the film is set to release at a whopping three hours, you're not getting a great deal more entertainment for your buck.
But what's here is good, that's certain. Peter Jackson's King Kong delivers a riveting if flawed run through Skull Island, one that immerses you smack in the middle of a horrific world teeming with life and, of course, love. But even if that's not how you feel about this monkey, you shouldn't be afraid to touch it.