Sure, the title is ludicrously long. Sure, it?s an adaptation of a movie. However, this is a time to rejoice, for what Peter Jackson?s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie brings to bear is worth celebrating, especially if you?re a fan of first-person games.
The first-person shooter is an excellent genre to transport the player to a visceral realm of experience. It is in fact the current trend in the genre, the ability to immerse us in a world of danger through the eyes and ears of the protagonist, usually a world built around laws that are not far removed from the real one we inhabit. Physics engines like Havok do a good job emulating real-world physics, rendering complex things like the relative speed, spin, and path of objects flung from explosions in games like Half-Life 2. AI routines allow for enemies to work as a team, find cover, and retreat when wounded. Level designers go to great lengths putting in details so precise that when you finally notice it, you just smile to yourself and wonder if they really needed to go so far with detail. This is the trend alright, and the designers are getting better and better, evolving the genre further.
Kong continues on this path of immersive gameplay, a first-person shooter that could have been so typical in many ways, but manages to stand out from the crowd and contribute to the genre in a positive manner. Given that its an adaptation of a movie, and given the dubious history of such adaptations, it must be said that this should be one of the prime examples for all future movie-to-game adaptations to aspire towards. Peter Jackson, the man behind the movie and of course the successful and critically-acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogies had a large part to do with the fact this game turned out so well. Being a gamer himself and a fan of first-person shooters like Halo (which it is said he will be the executive producer of the movie adaptation), Jackson knew what kind of quality he wanted from the game, and went to Ubisoft himself to make this thing happen.
What results is an artistic and skillfully-crafted game and a conscious effort to remove or rework some of the abstractions that have cropped up along the way in the genre. By default, there are no targeting reticules, life bars, or ammo icons. Targeting is achieved intuitively by the position of the gun, or you can look down the sights by holding in the Z button. Available ammo can be gauged by pressing the Y button, which prompts Jack, the protagonist you play as through most of the game (voiced by Adrien Brody), to comment on how much or little is left. There is no life bar or concept of health in the traditional sense that you have “X” amount of life and that “Y” attack from an enemy deals “Z” damage. Instead, certain attacks will send Jack into what can be described as a sort of system shock, denoted by the screen turning shades of red, sound becoming distant, and perception of time slowing down. Further damage in this state results in death; no damage and his state will return to normal. NPC health is addressed in the same way. They will call out for help when being attacked as a particular musical theme begins to swell. Wait too long and they?ll die, ending the game. This is not to say it?s more realistic or less an abstraction than previous or established ways of dealing with health in other FPSs, but it works in context of the game world.
Additionally, you can only have one gun at a time, and carry one spear, which are liberally placed throughout Skull Island and can be used and reused as a projectile or shish kabob. The ammo in the guns do not last long and you will find yourself relying on spears to do most of your talking to the relentless prehistoric foes that call the island home. This isn?t your typicalHalf-Life or Doom or even Halo. Even Lara Croft had some pretty big guns and a decent supply of ammunition against similar opposition!
Finally, in regards to the removal of abstractions and creation of an immersive experience, the game?s story is displayed without cut-scenes and presented in full-on scripted events. You never even get to see what Jack looks like. This is of course taken straight from the school of Half-Life. The difference here is that you actually get to hear Jack talk during the game, though he doesn?t say that much. He interacts with other characters during scripted and other events. You see his arms moving when he swims, or see him kneel down and reach a hand out to an imperiled Ann. He breathes heavily from fatigue and fear when you have fled for your dear life from vicious raptors or a nigh indestructible T-Rex. All of this contributes to the immersion this game aspires to, and it succeeds brilliantly. There?s a true sense of primal fear when you?re fighting off wave after wave of fast-moving raptors with a sharp stick, trying to circle-strafe your way back to a pit of other sharp, pointy sticks to continue your defense.
For those unfamiliar with the King Kong story which is set in the early 1930s, Carl Denham (voiced by Jack Black), a director possessed and enchanted by the possibilities of making a film on a lost island that might exist, sets sail to find it with his writer Jack Driscoll (the character you assume), Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) the leading lady, and various supporting cast members. They indeed find the fabled island and are stranded. Carl, unfazed, engages in some early guerrilla filmmaking (no pun intended), acquiring stock footage and directing Ann from time to time, even as they discover the island is home to primal forces, including the last remaining giant gorilla, Kong. Much like the film the game is based on, Kong doesn?t appear right away.
When he does finally appear, you assume control of Kong in third-person. The main goal during Kong?s segments is to protect Ann from hungry dinosaurs. The dinosaurs aren?t really after her; it?s more that these dinos and Kong are natural enemies. Kong, being the simple Kong he is, sees it as his duty to protect Ann, which gives him extra incentive to rampage. The combat that follows isn?t the easiest to execute or engage in, but it is effective and looks impressive. You really get a sense of Kong?s power and size. Tapping Y repeatedly will send Kong into a rage. The rage effect is displayed and animated uniquely and beautifully. Besides pounding enemies, you can use them or massive tree trunks as melee weapons, throw enemies at each other, and perform finishing moves. When the game finally moves to Manhattan, I?m willing to bet you will be impressed at the sequences that follow as you control Kong through the icy streets, tearing through fleeing police cars and scaling buildings.
As far as Gamecube games go, Kong looks really good in spite of the notorious framerate issues first-person shooters tend to have on this console, this game being no exception. The framerate is fairly inconsistent, going from smooth to slightly choppy. Thankfully, it never dips close to frustratingly low framerates, keeping things aptly manageable. The jungle environments are palpable, teeming with atmosphere thanks in part to visual nuances such as sunlight creeping through the jungle canopies and the bluish tinge that envelops everything. The music is reminiscent of adventure movies. As for the voice-acting, thankfully we have the same people who played the characters in the movie (and even their likeness). It?s been awhile since I?ve played a game with decent or better voice-acting; this is of the better variety.
Eventually, more designers are going to move away from the shooter element as the core mechanic in first-person gameplay I predict. There is more to be discovered and experienced through surrogate eyes without in turn shooting up the place. Kong seems willing to move away from it with its interest in different and broader first-person mechanics and experiences. It?s refreshing knowing that the designers wanted to innovate or make unique and fun what could have otherwise been just fun yet highly derivative. While it is a little short, doesn’t have a whole lot to offer after you beat it, and can be difficult, it’s a great ride the first few times through. Again, if you find yourself playing first-person shooters of all kinds, then this game is for you.