"It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast." - Jack Denham.
Godzilla. Dracula. Frankenstein. The creepy old guy from Pet Sematary. Growing up, we all develop loves for certain movie monsters. For Peter Jackson, that love is for King Kong. He cites the original 1920s film about a 25-foot ape as his reason for becoming a filmmaker. He loved it so much that he remade it. While I didn't particularly care for it on the big screen, I had high hopes for the video game adaptation. Jackson had a direct hand in its production, personally selecting UbiSoft's Michel Ancel (of Beyond Good and Evil fame) to produce the game, and he seemed like just the sort of geek to pull off a movie video game and do it right.
But after seeing the movie and completing the game, you can imagine my lack of surprise when the movie's problems became the game's problems.
Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game Of The Movie takes the gamer through what I would call a "general overview" of the events of the movie. You begin the game on a raft, fighting the waters on your way to Skull Island. You are Jack Driscoll, voiced by Adrian Brody. I had to check to make sure I was actually hearing Brody's voice... while he sounds normal enough in the movie, his gaming voice-over work takes on a sort of stereotypical "gruff Main Character from every FPS you've ever played" tone. Contrasted with Jack Black, Naomi Watts and the others, who sound exactly like they do in the movie, and the difference can be a bit uncomfortable.
The game is gorgeous, and very immersive. While the facial models are nothing special (particularly while speaking: the expressions and mouth movements regularly became out-of-sync with the audio) the environments and beasts look spectacular. When a T-Rex roars at you, not only does the controller shake: the graphics distort as the hot dinosaur breath surrounds you.
One of the most notable features of the game is the complete lack of any sort of heads-up display. There is no health meter. There are no gauges showing how many bullets you have left, or a radar showing your next objective. As such, the game takes on an almost survival horror feel, as Jack hurtles through the jungle grabbing bones, spears, and any other available weapon to defend himself. This is both a help and a hindrance in many ways. I had no trouble immersing myself in the world, and found myself getting scared/nervous/excited at the appropriate moments. But some of the compensations for the lack of a heads-up display, such as requiring the press of a button in order to hear your character say, "That's okay, plenty of magazines left," or, "Two bullets left in reserve," grew a bit tiresome. There is a definite sense of vulnerability: your character can take a few hits from some of the smaller beasts, but at a certain point the screen goes red, the game slows, and the only sound you hear is what I would call the "Peter Jackson Chorus" of ethereal female voices. This tells you that you are about to die, and if you take one more hit while in this state, you do just that. Still, with no health packs or bandages in the game, your character simply gets better. If you can stave off any attacks while in the "about to die" state, you eventually recover and are back on your way. It's a unique feeling: the first time I can remember playing a game and feeling simultaneously vulnerable and invincible.
The events transpire mainly on Skull Island, as you wade through water, navigate through miles of jungle, kill an assortment of dinosaurs and insects, and find levers so you can advance to the next zone. This last feature, while understandable within the confines of a video game, most certainly appeared nowhere in the movie. It is acceptable to a point, but after my 12th time finding a spear and a fire so that I could burn some bushes to get to a lever, the exercise got a bit tedious. Likewise, the Kong sequences, which were initially very exciting (and stayed that way for much longer than the Driscoll sequences) became old hat well before the end of the game. Grab Ann. Run and jump around. Set Ann down. Pick up a boulder and smash a door. Grab Ann. Run and jump around.
Ultimately, this is not a short game. For the level of variety the game presents (which is to say, very little) it really should have been hours shorter. I found myself killing beast after beast, running through the levels and hoping I would be done soon. It's not that I didn't initially enjoy the experience, but the game had no real sense of progress. As Kong, you might find yourself killing one T-Rex, then some villagers, then three T-Rexes in the next level, then off to some Pterodactyl type creatures, only to return to killing just two T-Rexes in a later level.
As in the movie, New York seems like an afterthought. After 7 hours on Skull Island, a ten-minute run through the streets and a two-minute climb up the Empire State Building (where your only goal before the game ends is to die) do not constitute a satisfactory ending.
The game has an interesting approach to replayability - after you have completed it once, you can replay for "points." Points are rewarded for completing levels and killing beasts, but taken away each time you die and, interestingly, every time you use a weapon. But while shooting a gun costs fifty points, using a spear only costs ten. Gamers who enjoy playing a game until it is 100% complete might find this a fun challenge. These points unlock game modes, including a very cool "Old Movie" mode that casts the game in black and white and a horizontal flip (in case you want to be left-handed and run the maps backwards). They unlock photo galleries and trailers and ultimately an ending where, with the help of Driscoll, King Kong meets a very different fate.
As I mentioned, King Kong is a beautiful game, even on my non-360-style Xbox. The events prior to Skull Island happen in 5 minutes (something I wish Jackson would have taken to heart when cutting the movie). The design is unique, and the gameplay elements (no HUD, playing as both Driscoll and Kong) make for a fun initial experience. The game suffers, however, in its length and repetition: those same things that were new and fresh 4 hours ago suddenly seem like fluff to lengthen the game's play-time. If you are a true fan of the movie (if, for instance, you bought Peter Jackson's Production Diaries because you just had to have every tidbit of information you could get your ape-loving hands on) you will probably like this game quite a bit. Others may find themselves putting the game in to marvel at the graphics, and then quickly wishing it was much, much shorter. It isn't the gameplay or graphics. It's languishing in the gameplay and the graphics that kills the game.
[i]Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game Of The Movie[/i]
Release Date: November 2005 (Xbox/Xbox 360/PS2/Gamecube/PC)