Based on award-winning director Peter Jackson's big-budget remake of the landmark 1933 Cooper and Schoedsack film, this video game version of King Kong is designed to convey the action and excitement the massive monster inspires, as well as the poignancy and emotion of the melancholy "beauty and the beast" storyline. Gameplay comes in two styles: In control of the ambitious hero Jack Driscoll, players fight for their own survival from a first-person perspective, while in the empowering role of the mighty Kong himself, players have a third-person perspective that allows them to take in their surroundings, and take better control the massive ape in battle. Developed in conjunction with Jackson and his production company, the game also features scenes and locations not seen in the film.
Where the games based on Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings have trod fairly traditional grounds, the one based on his rendering of King Kong does anything but. Peter Jackson's King Kong takes some pretty bold steps to distance itself from the multitude of by-the-numbers movie licensed-games, and it succeeds on many accounts.
Primarily, the game delivers a seamless, engrossing game experience, relatively unfettered by contrivances like in-game cutscenes and intrusive interface elements. A whole lot of effort was put into making the world seem vibrant and alive, and this has similarly paid off: from the AI characters that accompany you throughout your Skull Island trek, to the flesh-hungry beasts that assail you all the way, the presence of every character in the game contributes to its excellent atmosphere.
The game's flaws, though, are unfortunately just as easy to point out. The game's third-person elements -- which cast you as King Kong himself -- feel underdeveloped compared to the rest of the game. While they're still enjoyable during the relatively short spurts in which they surface, it's clear why there wasn't more of an emphasis on them: they simply aren't as fleshed out as the rest of the game.
We'll refrain from giving away any details about the story in our review. In any case, enter: Skull Island. Uncharted, and thought only to exist in myth. Ambitious movie director Carl Denham (played by Jack Black in Jackson's film) is dead set on shooting his next feature there, and thus embarks on a dangerous voyage with his crew aboard the freighter Venture. Among others he brings along screenwriter Jack Driscoll and budding starlet Ann Darrow. You play a good majority of King Kong as the compassionate, level-headed Driscoll and as you'd expect, the group eventually not only finds Skull Island, but finds itself marooned thereon.
If nothing else, it's a great setup for some genuinely riveting first-person action. The sequences in which you're playing as Jack are, at their best, richly immersive, and at times, genuinely terrifying. See, Skull Island is a place that's been somehow frozen in time, and the fauna is generally of the enormous, man-eating variety. Factor in the relative scarcity of modern weaponry, and you start to see the sort of urgency that the game creates.
Roughly half the time, you'll have access to firearms of some kind: shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles, even Thompson submachine guns, all thoughtfully airdropped via seaplane by the Venture's crew. But the other half of the time you're going to have to make do with what the environs provide. Spears, in other words, either crude wood-and-chipped-stone instruments strewn about by the island's native inhabitants, or even cruder ones fashioned by you out of bone piles that seem to permeate the island.
Make no mistake: there's little more satisfying in the game than spearing a raptor in the eye with a sharpened bone, but there comes a point (a couple, actually) when the scarcity of ammo gives rise to some truly frustrating game sequences. Case in point: a sequence in which you have to fight your way through several waves of prehistoric alligators armed with half a clip of pistol ammo, and if you're lucky, a few scraps of bone. Needless to say, you're going to have to get creative during sequences like that, and not in any truly satisfying way.
Luckily, you'll have some friends at your side during the most hectic of occasions. Your AI companions are generally smart enough to keep themselves out of harm's way, improvise weapons when the need arises, and perhaps most importantly, interact amongst each other for its own sake. Denham will bust out his camera, and start shooting footage when your group arrives at an interesting locale, whereas young Jimmy will try his best not too whimper too loudly. In short, by carrying on as such whether or not you're around, the AI characters truly accentuate what's best about the game -- the way it carries on its narrative without relying on cutscenes. Few games do it, and King Kong does it well.
In terms of practicality, however, you'll find your companions are sometimes lacking. One of their base functions is their ability to pass you their weapons. If you're dry on ammo, just talk to your friend, and he'll pass you his gun. Most of the time, anyway. In the aforementioned alligator scene, my friend Hayes refused to relinquish his (nearly fully-loaded) rifle just when I needed it most. Not that I blame him, really.
Of course, the whole first-person action part of the game is only half the story. King Kong actually lets you play as the titular force of nature. Think of these sequences as a series of big payoffs scattered throughout the game: after struggling against the increasingly brutal natural world as a puny human, all of a sudden you get to stomp around as an enormous ape. Literally "all of a sudden" -- the first Kong sequence thrusts you in his role with little to no heads-up. You're just a big ape all of a sudden, and it's your job to gambol around Skull Island, beating the living crap out of dinosaurs.
These sequences are satisfying, despite the controls being a little bit shoddy. Think of the Kong sequences as being little bits of Prince of Persia peppering what is otherwise a pretty traditional FPS. Yes, you can do all sorts of fancy acrobatics as Kong, who despite his size is a lithe primate. There's no other way to slice it, it's definitely a lot of fun to step into Kong's shoes to dislocate the jaw of the very T-Rex (or "V-Rex," as it were) that was harassing you just seconds ago as Jack.
But that doesn't undo the sloppy mechanics. When you're fighting, it's all generally good -- you can flail at enemies, or grab them, and there's even a chest-beating button, whose steady repetition works you into a rage that increases the intensity of your attacks. It's just everything else that's kind of screwy. Kong is big, sure, but he's sadly unresponsive as a result. It's hard to position yourself to walls that you have to scale, and it's especially annoying to line up certain jumps, particularly those involving you rotating around some kind of pinnacle. Moreover, you get the feeling that everything is "on rails." There are some cool moments in which you feel that you're being propelled through a visually exciting environment, after which you realize the events would have transpired identically had you made half the button inputs you did. Finally, there seems to be some kind of interplay between Ann and Kong that wasn't fully fleshed out. In the ideal world, you would switch between the two to complete puzzles. In Kong, you merely release Ann, she burns a couple of bushes, you climb a wall, and you both go on your way.
Sadly, the first-person sequences aren't much stronger when it comes to puzzles. Unequivocally, they all involve finding a lever to plunk into post to open a door. And nine times out of 10, finding the lever involves finding a fire with which to burn the thorny brambles that are obscuring it. At best, solving them is a no-brainer. At worst, well, let's just say that Kong's designers seem to have gone out of their way to hide a fire source where you're least likely to look.
This aside, though, there are certain things that make the first-person Kong experience magical. In the sections in which it was made a focus, the atmosphere is amazing. The AI characters enact a scene, while all this wild stuff goes on in the background. The whole "eco-system" element was really well done, too: everything on the island eats everything else, so if you're careful about what you kill, the ensuing carcass might just save your hide from the swarm of predators just around the corner. It's very fun to take advantage of. The interface -- or lack thereof -- was extremely well executed. When you pick up a weapon, Jack will vocalize how much ammo he has remaining, and ditto when you reload. Though you'd think something like this would start to get obtrusive, but it actually doesn't. Again, good stuff.
The PC version of the game comes with a couple of bits of bonus content, packaged separately on two extra discs. One is a 15 minute featurette entitled "The Making of the Game." In it, both Peter Jackson and members of Kong's dev team elucidate on various aspects of the game's development. Cool enough. Meanwhile, the second bonus disk includes some nice-looking concept art from the film, as well as a dynamic screen saver featuring some neat slides, and the movie's theme looping in the background. The bonus content is nothing to write home about really, but some cool extras that future fans of the film will certainly appreciate.
In the end, King Kong comes off as an uneven experience, but one with plenty of invigorating moments that make the whole thing feel worth it. You're ultimately left with the feeling that it was a bit rushed, however, which makes you wonder what the game would have been like had it the proper time to germinate. I won't hesitate to say, however, that during its best moments, it's certainly one of the most exciting and engrossing games I've played in a long time. It's just unfortunate that the apparent cut corners take the wind out of its sails sometimes. That said, it's certainly worth experiencing, though if you're concerned about length, know that Kong is fairly short.
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