Summary: Alan Dang can't stop talking about the new King Kong game. He describes it as the game that hasn't gotten good reviews because it's too sophisticated for many console gamers, and yet is best experienced on a console, preventing PC gamers from having the full experience. Updated with PC vs Xbox 360 screenshots and comments about the movie as well.
Games based upon movies are rarely any good. I'm not talking about games that are "inspired" from the movies such as the Star Wars titles, but games that try to capture the entire storyline. Most games act as pure marketing fluff, a handful of games are fun, and then there are games that have the potential to redefine gaming. Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is one of those rare games in that third category. Even if you stripped the game of its King Kong license, and removed all the fancy voice acting and simply kept its core gameplay and storyline, it would still be an incredible game. The original Halo has been described as being "30 seconds of fun repeated over and over again." King Kong is 30 seconds of fear and adrenaline repeated over and over again. It's not scary in the sense of a horror film but scary in that you're genuinely afraid of your player dying.
You see, the story behind the development of King Kong starts with EA and Peter Jackson. Although the Lord of the Rings videogames sold well and received respectable reviews, Peter Jackson was less than enthusiastic. Officially, Peter Jackson felt that he wasn't given enough input into the games. Since the LOTR games used music and artwork from the movies, my assumption is that EA wanted to make games that sold well, whereas Peter Jackson wanted to make a game that stood out and could tell an emotional story. So for King Kong, Peter Jackson went to EA's arch-rival Ubisoft and sought out the help of Michel Ancel, of Ubisoft's Montpellier studios. Ancel heads the team behind Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil. The result is stunning and King Kong ends up being of my favorite games of the year.
For my review, I chose the Xbox 360 version of the game. The gameplay is identical between the Xbox 360 and the PC, Xbox, and PS2 versions of the game. However, the PC version that ships at retail is inferior in visual quality to the Xbox 360. There's a special 5+ GB download-only version of the game called the Gamer's Edition (not the Signature Edition) that offers a higher resolution experience than the Xbox 360 version. That said, the Gamer's Edition seems to require an Athlon64 4000+, 2GB of RAM and 7800GTX's or X1800XL's for stable frame rates. Whether those hefty requirements are due to inefficient programming or the sheer detail in the game is something we'll have to explore in a future article. The Xbox 360 game has also been a source of some drama with Ubisoft's Guillemot commenting that the Xbox 360 game was "too dark" when played with a standard definition TV. I played King Kong with a VGA CRT monitor and a Sony Grand Wega XBR LCD RPTV and felt that things were reasonable. Part of the problem involves the more dramatic lighting in the Xbox 360 version compared to the PS2/Xbox which increases the potential for problems. Of course, if Ubisoft had put in a simple calibration tool into their game like Cranky Pants Games (of THQ) did in the latest Evil Dead videogame, there wouldn't be any trouble. Kudos to Cranky Pants Games for thinking ahead and spending the extra day putting in the calibration screen for gamers. Extra kudos for putting that effort into a game that's marketed as a budget title ($20).
As is custom, we're using the VGA2USB from Epiphan for our screenshots. The capture device doesn't handle motion very well, but it's still the most cost effective solution for bringing you analog high-definition screenshots. We've only used UBisoft's press images when we were unable to capture the same image with our equipment.
I’ve taken a few screenshot comparisons between the regular PC version (not the Gamer’s Edition) and the Xbox 360 version. Recall that the Xbox 360 is an analog capture, so it won’t look as sharp as screenshots of the PC version which are done digitally. As you can see, in the case of King Kong, better graphics really do change the entire mood and feel of the game:
SIDEBAR: The game title Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is so over the top that it's silly. Most likely, it's because at some point in time, "King Kong" became part of the public domain which is how Nintendo could do "Donkey Kong."
The game starts off with a video clip from the King Kong movie trailer to set the stage. We learn that Carl Denham (Jack Black) has plans to make next his film on-location at an exotic island. Of course, in classic Hollywood fashion, things go horribly wrong and the games starts off with you in the life boat making your way to shore. With the exception of the very first video clip, the rest of the game is done entirely in real-time with virtually all cutscenes being played through the first person perspective.
Since consoles FPS aren't intended to be precision shooters, King Kong gets away without offering any crosshairs. For weapons such as the pistol or shotgun, you just have to point in the right direction and hope that you hit your target. With each shot, you get some shrapnel or other visual cue to give you a sense of where the bullet is headed. This allows you to very easily make the micro-corrections to your aim. From the text description, it either sounds like it'd either be too tough or too easy, but that's definitely not the case. You still have to aim, but after a few levels of the system, you get the hang of it. Of course, certain weapons such as the sniper rifle allow you to use the scope.
Ubisoft Montpellier had the incredible epiphany that knowing the exact number of bullets you had wasn't that important. Do I really care if I have 50 bullets or 48 bullets? Not really. But the difference between 1 bullets versus 3 bullets is huge. In this game, you can press a button to hear your player give a verbal cue to how much ammo he has left. You might hear yourself saying that you have plenty of ammo left, or 2 magazines left, or even 4 bullets left. The system works very well.
SIDEBAR: What's with first person shooters where you can't jump?
As a result of the uncluttered view, you feel like you're there on Skull Island, and this is enhanced by the rich Dolby 5.1 surround sound mix, on par with the best Hollywood action films, and the careful art design and judicious use of shaders on the Xbox 360. The final element to bringing the game to the next stage is the fact that the gun remains holstered most of the time. You must hold down the left trigger to pull out your gun or ready your spear and use the right trigger to attack. Since you can't run when you have your weapon drawed, you spend a good portion of the game with the weapon holstered, ensuring that your hand doesn't block the view of most of the game.
Speaking of weapons, there aren't many. You can only carry one gun at any given time and they pretty much are the tried-and-true conventions of a pistol, a shotgun, a machine gun, and a rifle. Since the health system doesn't rely on "hit points" you won't have to deal with finding health packs (or equivalent "food"). How can you replenish ammo? Well, it would seem silly to have random boxes of ammo spread out through the jungle. Ubisoft's solution is to have random boxes of ammo spread out through the jungle and then explaining it through the story – these are being dropped by the rescue pilot as you're making your way through the jungle to find a place where he can land.
It turns out that the ammo ends up being extremely scarce and so to maximize the survival experience, the primary weapons you will use are found in the form of spears. These include both man-made spears left by the natives of the island as well as spears that you fashion from the bones left behind from decaying dinosaurs. You can either stab monsters or throw the spear at them.
One of the main strengths of King Kong the game is that things are genuinely tense. As I mentioned earlier, the art and sound play a substantial role. The sense of survival is fully captured everytime you get ambushed by the giant centipedes or are somehow supposed to distract the "V-Rex" while your colleagues work on opening a door. The game has a definite primal feel to it in that while the creatures will eat you whenever they get a chance, they'll also eat each other when they get a chance. You can try to take down every single potential predator or play it in a stealthier fashion where you distract the predators with some food as your run by and hope to make it to the next stage of the room. If you're lucky, you can let natural selection take care of some of the creatures before you go in. In practice, you'll need a good mix of the strategies. King Kong is a game where there are times that you'll choose not kill everything that moves. This isn't due to some artificial limitation or penalty, but the simple realization that sometimes it's just easier to sneak by. Of course, it's always the predators that you don't see that startle you.
SIDEBAR: I have to be careful not to spoil too much of the gameplay for you.
Many first person shooters are built around an underlying "find the key," move to the next level approach. In King Kong, there's definitely elements of this. The puzzles are centered around two basic scenarios: setting brushes that impede your progress on fire or finding a piece of wood that can be used as a crank to open up doors. Within this gameplay mechanic are plenty of variations including waterfalls which quench the fire. It works logically because although the game is linear, you feel like there's progress to be made. Fire can also be used to frighten or kill predators.
Playing as Kong
Although the majority of the time is spent playing as Jack, the screenwriter, in the first person perspective there are a handful of sequences where you get to play as King Kong. While these are always very visually exciting levels since they're played in the third person, the gameplay is simple button mashing. It's not even fun button mashing like an old school arcade game like Rampage or King of the Monsters – it's fairly boring. The novelty quickly wears off after the first time you play as Kong. In its current form, the balance seems just right to me. Enough sequences where you play as Kong to keep the gameplay entertaining and to provide better transitions in the story without it becoming overbearing. Interestingly, most of the bread-and-butter console review sites seem to want more time with Kong. Perhaps this is my bias as a reviewer.
The graphics for King Kong on the Xbox 360 look great as there's judicious use of lighting and shaders. Image quality certainly varies through the game, with some low-resolution textures feeling like they're out of place and as mentioned earlier, the game wasn't validated on calibrated screens. Still, as FiringSquad alum James Yu has shown, there's still a substantial jump from the Xbox to the Xbox 360. The audio is clearly the superstar in this game. With a nice surround sound setup, you are immersed into the game. There is substantial LFE content, and little details like insects in the jungle or the rustling of leaves create a sonic soundstage that is on par with the best of Hollywood films. The orchestral score is also superb, capturing all the mystery and epic nature of the story. Surprisingly, it's an entirely original score – but it's so good, that I wouldn't be surprised if it held its own against James Newton Howard's score for the theatrical release.
It's Fun. If that's not the principle reason for playing a game, there's no point in spending time with the game. King Kong: The Game brings the fun of a first person shooter and melds it with an action-adventure title along the lines of Ico. The gameplay dynamic works very well, and it's a game that keeps your adrenaline flowing.
Limited replay value. While it's possible to try playing the game over and taking a different approach to dealing with the various predators on the island, the game is still designed as a carefully weaved linear game. The surprises aren't the same the second time around.
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