It's unclear what's generally worse: Movies based on video games or video games based on movies. Starting with the abysmal Atari 2600 title, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which almost single-handedly destroyed the fledgling home video game market in 1983, video games based on movies have been inflicted suffering on players for over two decades. The latest in this genre, the haughtily titled Peter Jackson's KING KONG: The Official Game of the Movie, which I'll simply refer to as King Kong from here on out, seeks to break the mold. Does it succeed?
I assume virtually everyone is familiar with the basic plot of King Kong, as the 1933 film classic of the same name was the inspiration for both Peter Jackson's overly-long movie and the Xbox 360 adaptation of that movie. In a nutshell, movie director Carl Denham takes a crew of actors and mercenaries to the mysterious Skull Island, where dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts still roam the earth alongside natives. There, actress Ann Darrow is captured by the natives, who sacrifice her to Kong, a giant ape. Much of the movies and the video game is devoted to Ann's rescue and, consequently, Kong's capture. Once that's happened, it's back to New York, where Kong escapes and, in one of cinema's greatest moments, meets his demise after an epic battle on the top of the Empire State Building.
Peter Jackson's movie and, thus, the video game, expand on the original Merian C. Cooper movie in a number of ways, but the basic plot is the same across all three. For approximately three quarters of King Kong, you play Ann's love interest Jack Driscoll in traditional first person view, and the story and game unfold from his perspective, as you accompany Ann, Carl, and Hayes around Skull Island. For the remaining 25 percent of the game, you play Kong himself, and the game switches into a third person view. During these sequences, you protect and rescue Ann from various creatures that are looking for a snack.
Dinosaur fans will be excited to discover that the Xbox 360 game, like Peter Jackson's movie, is full of prehistoric creatures, large and small, ranging from tiny Velociraptor-like Venatosaurs to enormous Brontosaurs and a Tyrannosaurus Rex derivative called the V-Rex. There are also giant millipedes, flying dinosaurs that look more like horror movie rejects than they resemble Pterosaurs, giant scorpions and crabs, and much more. It's a creature fest of the highest order, all lovingly presented.
The question, of course, is whether the plot of King Kong translates well into a game. For the most part, yes, it does, though I found the game slightly monotonous. As far as movie tie-ins go, however, you can do worse than King Kong, which offers excellent elements for adventure, scares, and exploration.
Graphics and sound
Graphically, King Kong is good but not excellent. Indeed, if you play this title on a standard definition television set, which I'd imagine most will, the game is painfully dark and artificially hard to play as a result. Interestingly, since first writing those words, game maker Ubisoft has admitted that it did not adequately test the Xbox 360 version of King Kong on non-HD sets and that it is too dark. Hopefully, the company will release a software update via Xbox Live soon that fixes the problem.
Darkness aside, the graphics are serviceable at best, and a far cry from the computer-generated HD quality of Peter Jackson's movie. In fact, this is one of the biggest disappointments of the game, given Xbox 360's graphical capabilities.
The sound effects are well designed, especially the moments in which Kong or a V-Rex bellows. In these sequences, the graphics blur and motion slows down to match, creating an amazing effect. The music, taken directly from the movie, is top notch. Also on hand from the movie are virtually all of the actors from that film, reprising their rolls in voice-over. And these guys are no less one-dimensional than they are in the movie version: Carl Denham keeps the film rolling until it's finally destroyed (mercifully earlier in the game than the movie), and Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow can scream with the best of them.
As with the graphics, the game play in Kong is a mixed bag. King Kong is a rail game of the worst tradition, but that's somewhat understandable given the fact that it must so closely parallel the movie on which its based. About three quarters of the game, Kong is a traditional first person shooter, albeit one that's movement limited in the same fashion as Condemned (see my review), and not as free-flowing as, say, Call of Duty 2 (see my review). More specifically, you're not going to be going off on your own adventure in this title: You're path is always laid out clearly, and you always have exactly one way to go. You can crouch but not jump.
When playing as Jack, you have to push through forests and brush, fight all manner of prehistoric and made-up beasts with guns, spears (both flaming and normal), sharp bones, and, if you're really unlucky, your fists. The battle sequences take a bit of getting used to, because your gun isn't available all the time and you have to hit the left trigger to enable it. Then, you can fire with the right trigger, or aim close by pressing on the right thumbstick. Spears and bones are used in a similar fashion, though you can stab with them or throw them, the latter of which is much more effective but leaves you temporarily defenseless.
Curiously, there are boxes of guns and ammo all over Skull Island, but heck, it's a game, not real life I guess. These boxes pop up at obviously opportune times, providing you with some offensive relief. When the ammo runs out, grab and spear and change tactics.
Many of the Jack-related puzzles in the game require you to find stakes you need to open gates (which is monotonous), burn brush to proceed into new areas (in sometimes fairly inventive or convoluted ways), or figure out ways in which to overcome a sequence of monster attacks. There isn't a lot of variety, frankly.
In the other quarter of the game, which is intermingled with the Jack sequences, you play Kong himself. After getting over the excitement of beating on a few enormous V-Rexes, it becomes clear that these portions of the game are the most disappointing of all. When playing as Kong, the game switches to a weird third person view in which you can do nothing to alter the camera angle, which gets tiring. Eventually, you figure out that always putting Kong into a rage state, in which he beats on his chest and howls until things switch into a slow-motion butt-kicking mode, is the way to go. Now, you can grapple with V-Rexes, snapping their jaws, and successfully wrestle with giant sea snakes. There are also extended and pointless sequences in which you swing from strategically placed branch to strategically placed branch, usually in pursuit of a monster that has Ann. There's no real challenge to any of this, really, and I was just happy to move the game along and get back to Jack each time I played as Kong.
Kong is much stingier with Xbox Live Achievements than are most 360 games, but each time you get one, it's worth 100 points (though you get 200 points for finishing the game). There is no multiplayer option in this title, so all the Achievement points are granted through single player mode.
Peter Jackson's King Kong isn't as horrible as the movie by the same name, but like the movie on which it's based, it seems to go on for far too long. My son and I trudged through it together, switching off when needed, but I can't say that we were overjoyed by doing so. First person fans will find the lack of freedom and the Kong sequences frustrating, and users with standard definition TVs (a.k.a. every single non-HD set on the planet) should avoid this title until the darkness issues are fixed with a software patch. Honestly, I can only recommend this game to Kong and dinosaur fanatics, though you'll have to plow through a lot of boring levels to get to the good stuff. Overall, Kong is a decent but not exemplary first effort for the Xbox 360 by Ubisoft.