Review by MSuskie

"It was beauty killed this beast."

I'm going to get one thing out of the way first: The name of this game is King Kong. It's not Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie or even just Peter Jackson's King Kong. I will be calling this game King Kong.

And what a game it is. King Kong, the game, was developed by Ubisoft and crafted from the imaginative mind of Michel Ancel, who also did Beyond Good & Evil a couple of years ago and seems to believe that intense story elements and high production values can mask a game's shallowness and incompetence. Peter Jackson hand-picked Ancel because he (like everyone except for me) loved Beyond. Together, they make a team that would seem like a no-brainer. Jackson, a brilliant filmmaker who won the hearts of millions of fantasy fans for his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, said in an interview that he wanted the game to be a companion to the movie, that the two would work side-by-side with each other. And it worked, I guess – Ancel is capable of making a compelling gaming experience, as he proved in the mediocre-but-still-captivating Beyond and once again proves in King Kong. In the end, I liked King Kong, but as was the case with Beyond, I liked it for the wrong reasons.

And I realize that I'm in the vast minority of gamers when I say this. Everybody seemed to love Beyond (Electronic Gaming Monthly recently put it in their list of the “Top 200 Games of Their Time”), and while the game still has a firm spot in my Xbox collection, I'll never view the game as an all-time classic, simply because while the story was amazing, the gameplay seemed to stale. After playing through King Kong, it's very clear that Ancel's newest adventure exhibits many of the same qualities. On the positive side, it's an extraordinarily compelling game, with presentational and emotional values set high. The game has a focus on providing a largely cinematic experience, with lots of scripted moments and constant widescreen display. The graphics are terrific, as is the sound. It's a technical wonder. On a more negative note, what the game achieves in style, it loses in substance. The game is laughably short (even shorter than Beyond… no joke), to the point that even I completed it in a few days, and I don't even spend that much time a day playing videogames. Gameplay often feels shallow and repetitive, which is frustrating because it shows so much potential and displays plenty of great ideas that should have been given better treatment.

King Kong puts to use what I like to call the “Half-Life Principle” in that when you're in control of the main character, the game never strays from his point of view (the exceptions being the occasional levels in which you control Kong). Upon booting up King Kong, you're treated to a bit of movie footage highlighting the important parts of the classic story, involving a group of moviemakers, headed by psycho film director Carl Denham and backed by screenwriter Jack Driscoll, setting off on a ship to film on the legendary Skull Island. Upon getting there, you're immediately given control of Jack, and the rest of the story unfolds through scripted moments and a few very scattered in-game cutscenes. King Kong is a first-person game, which means that you're almost always viewing the action from Jack's eyes. Many of the game's pivotal moments are set when you have control of Jack, which means that when the Skull Island natives capture you and actress Ann Darrow and offer Ann as a sacrifice to the enormous title ape, you feel like you're actually a part of these events. Ancel sure as hell knows how to immerse you in a simple game.

King Kong takes place almost entirely on Skull Island, and it's quite a beautiful place. The island is covered in thick jungles and ancient ruins, and the game world mirrors that of Metroid Prime or even Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in that whole “crumbling, collapsing, abandoned world” way. Your primary objective is to find Ann and bring her back to safety from the clutches of Kong, and along the way, you'll be escorting various characters from the movie, including Denham, Hayes and Jimmy. All of the characters in the game are voiced by the same actors that played them in the film, which means that Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Naomi Watts all add their likeness to the experience. This being a largely primitive world filled with prehistoric beasts, the characters all have chances to provide valuable insight (saying things like “Oh my God!” and “What was that?”) or lead you along the way (such as “Help me, Jack!” and “Follow me, Jack!”). Black's commentary, though, was hilarious, as no matter how much danger he's in, Denham's only concern is with shooting enough good footage to make a movie. I finally understand the reasoning behind the casting of Black that was never very apparent in the film.

Through the game's thirty-some chapters (don't get too excited – most of them are only ten or so minutes long), you'll usually be faced with many of the same objectives. In most cases, you've got to simply escort any characters tagging along safely to the end of the segment by protecting them against any hazardous wildlife that appears and finding a path through the jungle, which is usually achieved by either burning through thick foliage or searching for a lost lever to open a door. You'll be given weapons, but they're really basic and very limited. Taking a hint from Resident Evil, ammo is fairly scarce and is only to be used in the most dire of situations. In most cases, you'll be forced to throw various spears and sharp bones at enemies, something that feels difficult when you first start but becomes easier as time goes on. Enemies are fairly limited, and usually are just restricted to the insanely annoying bats and scurrying megapedes. You'll occasionally encounter other enemies (dinosaurs, in particular) and will either have to run past them or use what weapons you have to slaughter the beasts for good. And while spears can be tough to use, they're incredibly satisfying when you lay a dead-on hit.

Also, in a nod to The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, the game has no HUD (i.e., heads-up display), which means that there's no health meter, aiming reticule, or ammo counter. When you get attacked by an enemy, the screen turns red and all slow-motion-ish, and, in yet another nod to a popular game, you've got to retreat and rest to become well again. You also can't tell automatically how much ammo your current weapon has – hitting the B button will cause Jack to say something like, “Two magazines on backup!” And aiming? Use your best judgment. This is part of what occasionally makes King Kong challenging, as you have no real way of telling where your ammo is going to land, so you must simply spend time with all of your weapons to get used to them. It can become considerably difficult to, say, wipe a speedy bat out of the sky with a well-placed spear, and doing so leads to some of King Kong's more noteworthy and memorable moments. Not having a HUD was also a wise move in the sense that it creates a more realistic experience. And as a wise EGM editor points out, since you have to hold the left trigger to pull out your gun, most of the time in King Kong, there's nothing on the screen to obstruct your view, making for smooth action.

The design is ultimately what hampers this game, as it often times feels as if Ubisoft crafted a terrific one-hour game and then simply recycled the same ideas over and over. All of the game's major “puzzles” usually involve searching an area for fire, lighting a spear, and using the fire to burn a path through a patch of thorny bushes. The developers did come up with some interesting methods of recycling this basic concept repeatedly (throw a flaming spear from a distance, knock down a flaming urn, manage somehow to get fire through to the other side of a waterfall, etc.), but it just gets old in the sense that you're doing the same thing over and over. The only other time King Kong tries to be creative and intelligent is when you're sent to search an area for a lever to open a door, and as you can guess, this is even worse! Fetch quests are never a good thing, especially when they're constantly in use. Even the enemies, which look interesting at first, all run on incredibly predictable A.I. that turns them into a meaningless spear-throwing exercise. I might also mention that there's no analog adjustment, do you'll have to get used to the game's ultra-tight aiming system.

I mentioned before that King Kong is a short game. That's not the problem. The problem is that I was happy that it was a short game. I would think it would be difficult to create a game that is only five or six hours long but still manages to become boring, repetitive and tedious before its time is over. Eventually, I grew tired of fighting the same enemies over and over again. I grew tired of setting bushes on fire. I grew tired of searching large areas for a small level to open a door. This stuff seemed interesting the first dozen times I did it. What's even more frustrating is that King Kong has flashes of brilliance throughout. Whereas I usually couldn't distinguish one chapter from the next, a couple of the chapters were so amazing that I actually went back and played them again, just for fun. In one mission, I had to run to the end of a canyon to get fire to light a path through a cave. The catch was that the canyon was currently the site of a brontosaurus stampede. So, I had to run down this narrow path trying not to get trampled. In a few other levels, I was being chased by a vicious V-rex. In these situations, I had to hold off the enormous lizard while another character opened a door. Watching a V-rex's enormous jaws snap shut just inches away from my face is the kind of videogame terror that Silent Hill and Resident Evil could never provide.

And then, just when Ancel decides to mix up the action by giving us control of Kong himself, the game takes a turn for the (even) worse. The graphics are certainly amazing, and Ancel's team really nailed the feeling of power and weight when moving the gargantuan ape around the screen. But these sections are linear and shallow, and bogged down but a problematic camera. Swinging around the jungle from tree to tree admittedly feels great and is reminiscent of the platforming sections of the recent console Prince of Persia titles, but these segments are so linear that you never feel completely in control. Once Kong actually starts fighting the vicious critters of Skull Island, the game converts itself into a painful barrage of button-mashing, in which even the biggest, baddest bosses are taken down by repeatedly tapping on the A button. To make things even worse, you have no camera control, so often times you don't have a clear view of what's going on. And one of the Kong levels in particular suffers from unbearable slowdown, so beware. The Kong levels sound like a great idea but are executed in the same fashion the rest of the game is – cinematic and exciting, but sloppy.

Pros

+ It's a decent videogame adaptation of a terrific movie.
+ Production values and cinematic effects work to the game's advantage.
+ Weapon restrictions make for strategy and interesting use of spears.
+ A beautiful game that makes you feel like you're really on Skull Island.
+ A few really amazing, intuitive moments and battles.
+ Kong levels do a good job of simulating control of the enormous creature.
+ Voice actors from the movie include Watts, Brody and Black.
+ It's short – and that becomes a good thing.

Cons

- The game somehow runs out of gas after only a few hours.
- Repetitive puzzles involving fire and levels.
- The same enemies are used over and over.
- Some bugs hamper game progress.
- Kong levels are linear, shallow, and sloppy.

Overall: 6/10

I wanted to like this game. I wanted to love King Kong. I thought the movie was fantastic, and I'd heard nothing but positive things about this videogame adaptation. However, just like Michel Ancel's last effort, King Kong is so heavy on presentation, story and visual status that it becomes the game's ultimate shortcoming, which is, quite simply, that it's too shallow on the inside. I can certainly credit King Kong for being better than most licensed videogame products (despite its amazing stupid full title), but it's frustrating that all of these good ideas were put to use in a game that ultimately feels incomplete, to the point that five or six hours was actually too long. In the end, I'm happy that I got this on sale. I can really only recommend it as a rental, as although some people seem to love it, you can certainly beat it within the period of a rental, and I doubt the point system and bonus alternate ending will drive many people to really delve into this game. It's short, linear, skin deep, and ultimately fails to achieve the status of greatness. King Kong is, in the end, merely decent.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 01/23/06


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