Peter Jackson’s King Kong
It’s not so much a choice as an unwritten rule that hardcore gamers inherently dislike games-of-movies. Consider it something like a self-defence mechanism, and most of the time this serves us well as the games generally turn out rubbish and so we haven’t expended any time or energy anticipating it. But occasionally – just occasionally – a game comes along and breaks the rules, being both faithful to the movie and entertaining, aside from that franchise.
King Kong (actually, it’s called Peter Jackson’s King Kong The Official Game of the Movie. We could abbreviate it to PJKKTOGOTM if you’d prefer?!) is one of those games that goes against the grain by actually being quite good. Sort of. About three quarters of the game is great; tense, dramatic and surprisingly fresh in the crowded first-person market. However, the other fourth of the game is awful; it’s like an oversized, hairy Prince of Persia wannabe albeit with poor controls, dreadful platforming and dire, repetitive combat.
You begin the game with a short montage from the movie, which very briefly explains that moviemaker Carl Denham (played by Jack Black in both the game and the movie) is taking the ship Venture to find the fabled Skull Island so he can film a movie in its raw, untainted location. Those going with him include the film’s star Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts in the game & movie) and scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (portrayed by Adrian Brody, and the protagonist for most of the game). Things begin as Jack, Carl, Anne and others are departing the Venture, spread over several boats in stormy seas, intent on scouting the island for the best filming locations. You step into the shoes of Jack as they part from the ship, and things go wrong very quickly when they are separated from their companions in the fierce storm and their boat is run ashore and destroyed.
Our stranded team quickly discover that Skull Island is a very hostile, uninviting place. Within moments they have to fend off attacks from all kinds of oversized creatures, including the likes of crabs, centipedes and huge, leathery bats-things. But our party is stranded and they are not well-equipped, and so have to fight with whatever comes to hand, be it discarded spears, sharp bone remnants or firearms from the Venture that handily lay scattered around. This lends it a slower, more measured pace than most first-person games (even though you’ll generally be wielding firearms, it feels a bit misleading pigeonholing this as a ‘shooter’), and the fact you never usually have much ammunition or many powerful weapons to hand keeps the tension high and the action carefully orchestrated.
As Jack, you are generally accompanied by anything between one and three [independent] allies, and much of the focus concerns fighting off groups of predators in various areas you travel through on your way back to the Venture (and safety). Combat is quite different to other first-person games available – you don’t tend to be overly dependant on firearms, and you will have to find spears and fire to combat foes; leading enemies into traps, tricking them into eating small prey and encouraging them to fight each other, rather than you. You must also protect your allies, and whilst they can be moderately useful they do have an annoying tendency to get themselves injured or even killed, the latter of which requires a restart.
Graphically, King Kong puts in a strong effort. Character models look excellent – particularly the oft-featured likes of Anne or Carl, who look very close to their real-life counterparts. The dinosaurs and various monsters look great – although some animations are a little jerky – and the environments generally look really good, even though they succumb to the old pitfall of repetition from time to time. There are also some lovely special effects, like fire and particularly stunning lighting.
The game is without any kind of HUD (heads-up display), so there are no gauges or indicators as to your ammunition and health. Instead, Ubisoft have taken the subtle although ultimately slightly unhelpful route of giving you visual and audio clues to such things. It’s a good idea really – the lack of any sort of screen clutter does make things a bit more involving and dramatic, in much the same way as it worked in Ico (even though it was a bit more appropriate in Sony’s cult classic). The issue here is a lack of immediate feedback. Jack has the increasingly popular recovery system of regenerating health (lost an arm to the jaws of a 40-foot dinosaur? Just hide in a cave for ten seconds and you’ll be fine!), but it can be hard to measure how much health he has. Your health is identified by visual and audio clues, such as if you take damage the outer edge of the screen blurs, and if your health is critical your vision turns subtly crimson and your hearing dulls, replete with a heartbeat sound. All very intense and involving, but not always entirely useful.
The game is extremely linear and scripted, and as a result there is almost no opportunity for non-mandatory exploration. Jack can’t jump, climb or fall except where designated, and this does make for occasionally annoying level design (I never realised two-foot bushes could make such impassable obstacles). However, this does help keep the action tightly focused and the adventure carefully paced, and although it all feels a little too structured (particularly when re-playing), the game rarely lulls because of this careful direction and is consistently exciting.
The thing is, despite all the game’s strengths, it becomes very easy to forget them all when you start playing the frankly awful Kong levels. Ubi obviously wanted to empower the player; to put the raw might of this gargantuan simian in the hands of the gamer, who up until now have been on the back foot the whole time as the comparatively underpowered Jack. Something clearly went wrong though; as these levels are a dismal failure, and their inclusion drags down what would otherwise be a fast-moving, entertaining and atmospheric first-person adventure.
Imagine playing Tekken Force Mode with a lumbering, bloody great hairy ape instead of Paul, Jin, or whichever character you’d normally favour. As Kong, you travel through enclosed areas fighting a mixture of small and large dinosaurs, plus some irritating flying foes. You get a grand total of about three moves (replete with unresponsive controls) and the ability to climb walls, pillars or jump between outcrops where specified, as well as a sub-Prince of Persia wall-running ability. These sections suffer from almost total ineptitude; the controls and responsiveness are delayed, the camera is plain broken and the combat is extremely simplistic, repetitive and frustrating. Admittedly, it can be appealing facing off against a pair of monstrous dinosaurs, but when these sections are so generally badly-made enjoyment is a precious commodity which is sadly absent.
One thing the game definitely has in it’s favour is an utterly superb atmosphere. Skull Island is a truly foreboding place, and you will feel tension and anxiety at the oppressive, enclosed environments and numerous, powerful enemies. The minimalistic approach is taken with regard to the soundtrack (and frequently the absence thereof), with a dramatic orchestral score kicking in when Jack is attacked or heavily injured, or sometimes to heighten the tension before an impending set-piece. Sound effects are all suitably excellent for a production of this level, with sounds and the actors lifted straight from the movie. It is a shame, however, that it houses such a useless script. Aside from Anne’s unremitting screaming, the simplest of objectives are voiced and repeated several times over and there’s far too much repetition of the name ‘Jack’ (rough example: [you, as Jack, are crossing a shaky wooden bridge. Hayes, one of your companions is talking to you] ”Jack, be careful,” [the bridge falls] ”Jack!” [they run to the ledge and look down] ”Jack, are you okay, Jack?”, etc. It really is this bad in places). It’s clearly been tailored to be – for want of a better term – idiot-proof, but the repetition is tiresome and quickly becomes irritating. This relatively minor quibble aside, it is an excellent sounding game – particularly the sounds of Kong himself and the dinosaur enemies.
The game is organised into roughly forty five bite-sized chapters, each generally lasting anything from five to ten minutes, and due to this it has a profound pick up and play feel which is lacking from a lot of first-person titles. The problem with this overwhelming brevity of the levels is that the game can be completed in just one evening’s play, clocking in somewhere in the region of six hours. Clearly it has been developed to be as accessible as possible to the mass-market, but at the same time alienates the hardcore among us to a certain degree with the incessant hand-holding and lack of lifespan. Still, there is plenty of opportunity for replaying, with the option to go back to any chapter once finished, and there are the mandatory three difficulty levels to play over. It also features a collection of special features like interviews, film clips and artwork galleries which are unlocked by re-playing levels and achieving high scores.
Despite being an oh-so-easy-to-dislike game of movie, King Kong is a strong effort, and although it never reaches the pinnacle of the sub-genre alongside the likes of the legendary Goldeneye or The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, it can proudly sit on the next tier beneath them. Although the Kong sections and the overall conciseness bring things down a little, it is still a fantastically entertaining game, and well worth a look if you are a fan of the movie or of first-person adventures. Did I mention how rubbish those Kong sections are?!