Peter Jackson’s King Kong is the 500 lb. Gorilla of this year’s holiday movie season (heh, bet you haven’t heard that one yet…), and having seen the movie it’s easy to see why. With the movie, Jackson has given us a thrilling cinematic experience on par with the heydays of Spielberg and Lucas, and while the game of the film doesn’t quite reach the same heights, it still stands high in a sea of mediocre movie license based titles.
Alternating between a first-person survival game and third-person ‘gorilla-kicks-ass’ game, Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie throws the standard movie game formula out the window, presenting a very streamlined and cinematic experience that complements the film nicely. Kong should be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks the Xbox is old news now that the 360 is out. This game is just plain beautiful and oozes atmosphere, and a side-by-side comparison with the 360 version illustrates how close to next-gen the first Xbox is actually capable of in the right hands. The absence of any kind of heads-up display (not even a reticle for your gun!) gives you an unencumbered view of the fabulous vistas of Skull Island, giving the game a very immersive and cinematic quality.
As good as the environments are, the animations are positively stellar. Creature animations are smooth and believable, and the first time I took Kong swinging through the jungle made me positively giddy. The V-Rexes in particular are extremely menacing, and a nice blur effect accompanies their deafening roar if you happen to be a little too close. Human animations are a bit puppet-like, however, and considering how much of the game centers around the human player character it would have been nice to not have such a noticeable drop-off in quality. There is some clipping on occasion, as well, and it mostly occurs with the human characters.
A typical pitfall in most movie games is the voice acting. The lead character in the game sounding nothing like the actor who played him or her on the big screen can really take you out of the moment. King Kong does not have this problem in the slightest. Every character from the movie is voiced by the actor from the movie: Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts, etc. are all instantly recognizable.
The music sounds sufficiently enough like the movie’s that it wasn’t possible to discern a difference if any, and when 20’s-style jungle drums are playing while you’re controlling a giant gorilla on your screen, you can’t help but crack a smile. Of particular note is the music that comes up when you get injured or die, a haunting chorus that accompanies a slo-mo effect and is strangely very evocative of The Lord of The Rings soundtrack. Kong has a very simplistic control set that is often elegant in execution. The FPS controls utilize a two-trigger method that ended up being much more intuitive than I had originally thought. The left trigger lifts up your spear or gun, holding it at the ready, and when you use your right trigger to fire, the left has to stay pulled. Hitting B results in your character, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), stating aloud how much ammo he has left for his gun, as opposed to persistently displaying that onscreen.
On the other hand, the third-person Kong controls could have used a little more depth. More often than not I found myself button mashing during battles, and with more than one or two combos to choose from this portion of the game could have been a lot more compelling. Pressing Y makes Kong beat his chest and assert his alpha male status, and if you do it enough times, the screen goes all monochromatic and you can tear through enemies like butter. Of course, pressing a button to make King Kong do his one true signature move is just plain fun in and of itself. Peter Jackson’s King Kong soars to heights usually not achieved in a movie-based game, but ultimately, the source material served more to hold it back than lift it up. While Mr. Jackson was able to stretch the story into a whopping three hours, the attempt to stretch it even into a six to eight hour game (in other words, short for a game) resulted in quite a few repetitive levels. Mind you, what is there is good, but if the game were able to go a little more in its own direction (especially on the Kong levels) it would be a lot more enjoyable.
It certainly is fun while it lasts, though. Repetitiveness aside, the Jack Driscoll levels are quite fun, and play out like a survival horror game for the most part. As you and the others comb Skull Island in the pursuit of Anne Darrow you encounter just about every kind of inhabitant along the way, and the levels primarily rely on outsmarting or evading the prehistoric creatures that you stumble upon. Where it gets repetitive are the puzzle levels- burn the brush, find the lever, light the fire… Nearly every puzzle level relies on the same handful of contrivances.
The Kong levels are great fun as well, but they only comprise about 1/4-1/3 of the game. Taking the third person view isn’t nearly as immersive as walking in the shoes of Jack, but watching the big gorilla move is just stunning. Duking it out with a V-raptor, pounding on it again and again until Kong grabs its jaws and delivers the fatal blow is worth the price of admission alone. Kong’s puzzle levels usually involve Anne doing the dirty work while you make sure she gets where she needs to go in one piece, beating down any creature that comes her way. While the game is short and undeniably repetitive in some areas, Michel Ancel and the Montpellier studio snuck in a reason to give the game at least one more go: an alternate ending where Kong lives! The only letdown is that it ends with Kong going back to Skull Island (what?!? I was hoping for more levels!). Naturally, speculation has arisen about a potential sequel to the game, one which would not be held back by the constraints of the source material.