With New Zealand Director Peter Jackson having achieved both technical and artistic merits with his triple-crown adaptation of J. R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
trilogy, the man Elijah Woods once called a "hobbit" has reached the state of the Midas touch. From now on nearly everything he's involved with glows with promise. That he would be so open to work with a game company such as Ubisoft shouldn't come as such a surprise... but it is. What directors other than the Wachowski brothers have worked so closely with a videogame company and given such access to their development team, processes, and assets?
Working with Jackson's brilliant Weta team, Beyond Good and Evil and Rayman creator Michel Ancel and his Montpelier staff have fashioned an organic and beautifully crafted re-creation of the movie in game form, adding and changing the landscape of Skull Island and tweaking the storyline a touch here and there to achieve success in the videogame medium. The linear story and simple gameplay belie the game's subtle but meaningful achievements in level design, presentation, and use of sound -- all of which are outstanding. While it has its share of problems, the simple fact remains: Ancel and crew have created a viscerally striking game that distracts you and surprises your senses with audio intensive events unlike any game before it.
Old Story, New Story
King Kong is an old story first told in movie form in 1933, so if I spoil any plot points you'll have to forgive the fact that the script is 72 years old. Risk-taking director Carl Denham takes an American crew from the relatively safe streets of the US to the uncharted Skull Island, a land that time and evolution have forgotten. Inhabited by giant dinosaur-like creatures -- Jackson calls the T-Rex a "V-Rex" -- and ruled by a giant and wildly powerful gorilla, Skull Island is where the crew crash lands and must explore to escape. Denham (played by the spirited Jack Black), Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), Hayes (Evan Parke), and Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) all play a large part in the movie and game. Primarily a first-person shooter played as Jack (approximately 75% of the game) with the third-person perspective as Kong (the other 25%), you'll hunt dinosaurs, solve physical puzzles based on fire and teamwork, and wrestle with dinosaurs (as Kong) in this surprisingly short six- to seven-hour romp.
Kong follows the movie as you progress through the game through very narrow paths in a very linear fashion. Ancel's narrative generally hits major plot points from the film, but skips a lot while expanding in other areas. The result is a game that's loosely tied together with Indiana Jones-style animated maps, and it works only partially well. It doesn't capture the story with much verve, but Ancel makes up for that by delivering an unbelievably emotionally-packed videogame.
When I first saw King Kong the game before E3, I was excited because it looked to take movie-based games to the next level of production and presentation. But I was worried about its first-person perspective. Ancel isn't known for his first-person shooters, and this particular field is crammed with experienced contenders. Much to my surprise, the first-person component is easily the best part of the game. This is partially due to the level design, control, and AI, but it's equally the result of an outstanding use of sound. The controls are simple yet intelligent, and the sense of vulnerability you feel in the shadow of such giant creatures is successfully executed.
After confronting a handful of mid-level enemies, when you finally confront the "V-Rex," the game's first real knockout moment kicks in. The scenario revolves around you Denham and Hayes getting chased into a grotto blocked by a locked door. You must distract the monster by either spearing a nearby bat or spearing the V-Rex itself. This monster is huge, swift, and can kill you with one bite. The audio kicks up a notch as your breath delivers an undeniable feeling of fear. I seriously have never felt so damn anxious by a videogame in all my life.
Each step it takes causes the ground to shake, and it's so fast that you must round the nearby stone structures with tight efficient turns or you'll be torn to shreds in a second. When it roars, it's like hearing that T-Rex in Jurassic Park for the first time again -- the sound is piercingly loud, primal, and scary. The screen shakes, the controller rumbles, and a blur effect kicks in to portray your state of deep-level fright. But it's the breathing that really does it. Jack's breath races from the state of a slightly fatigued hiker to that of a man about to be skewered by Satan himself.
The first sensation with the V-Rexes is replicated each time they re-appear (they'll even show up in pairs to double the feeling), while other creature confrontations will cause your pulse to rise. You'll face scores of rapid raptors (Venatosaurs), smaller herds of lizard-like carnivores, dozens of river creatures, bats, centipedes (megapedes), scorpions, giant crabs, and more. Nothing beats the V-Rexes, but the level scenarios continue to push the limit by forcing you to protect your crew against seemingly uneven odds. Other memorable moments include the first time I was able to get a raptor and a giant centipede to fight each other (and not me), the dual V-Rex chase down the river, and the first victory over the enemy V-Rexes while playing as Kong. But nothing tops the V-Rex scenarios. These are my favorite.
The game functions primarily as a cooperative first-person shooter with generally well-scripted team AI. In some cases you're alone, working to find your AI crew. In other situations, you'll encounter a variety of escort- and defend-style missions in which you must snipe enemies, manage to keep the ravenous hordes off them, or you'll find yourself on a raft with three others as multiple V-Rexes snap at you down a snaky river.
But it's the buddy AI that's caused us the most concern. Mostly, the AI follows its script and characters like Ann will open doors when prompted. However, we have played and beaten this game on multiple final boxed copies across all the systems and independently discovered scripting errors that either forced us to restart the game from the previous level or to replay from the game's beginning. The bugs don't always seem to appear in the same place, but after doing thorough testing with final boxed copies of the game on all systems, at least three of the IGN editors experienced bugs that were severe enough to have to restart the game. This problem is compounded by the fact that there is only one save slot, so if you happen upon one of these scripting errors after you've saved the game, chances are you'll have to restart the game or try your chances at starting from an earlier chapter.
For the most part, the AI behavior follows a pattern of pure aggressiveness. When they see you they'll instantly come running or flying -- kind of like the physics property that says an object will follow a straight line until altered by another force. You'll have a minimum of ammo and a generous helping of spears, and the island usually works to your benefit with realistic solutions. By killing one animal, you're creating a healthy and meaty distraction. None of the creatures are immune to the scent of freshly killed brethren. Additionally, giant dragonflies, larvae, and small fish can be speared to help distract enemy AI. By using distraction you can get from point A to point B without becoming a dino shiskabob.
Fire also is used intelligently to increase enemy damage and as a key to unlocking levels. Using frequently found bones from carcasses or spears from tribesmen, you can light the tips of these weapons to ignite brush fires or to spear and kill an enemy faster than normal. When used smartly, you can kill enemies hidden in the brush by simply lighting them up, which also helps to conserve ammo.
The controls are remarkably sophisticated yet simple. On the consoles, the right trigger or shoulder button acts to pick up weapons. It's cool to come upon a small mound of bones and instantly know the rib bones make perfect throwing spears. It doesn't make realistic sense, but in the game the logic is perfect. Press the left trigger to aim a spear or gun, and then use the right trigger to release it. By default there is no HUD at all. That means no reticule to aim a spear and no readable ammo count measurement. You can hold one weapon at a time, plus a spear -- but you must rid yourself of the spear to use a gun. This way, there is no inventory to mess with and your experience is sleek and simple.
The lack of a HUD is the next step in videogame immersion and realism. And while games such as Call of Duty 2 and Chronicles of Riddick have dabbled with the idea with mild success, King Kong eliminates it altogether. There is no HUD. When Jack picks up a weapon, you'll hear him cue you with audio such as "Three cartridges on back-up," "It's OK, I have enough," and "Almost dry." When you are injured, breathing speeds up and the screen passes through various shades of darkening red. Eliminating the HUD means the game's controls are more intuitive and simple, but the problems aren't eliminated, just shifted to new areas. If you're attacked by an enemy, the screen turns bright red, creating difficulty seeing the enemy and returning fire.
Created as a kind of reward, players switch from playing as Jack in the first-person perspective to King Kong in the third-person perspective throughout the game. The Kong parts are relatively basic -- they remind me of a super-simplistic wrestling game -- but Ancel and team have imbued the muscle-bound beast with an enormous sense of physical power and strength that's directly conveyed to the player. Kong skates across the landscape with a mixture of convincing real-life movement and clunky animations that make him seem like a loose bull in a China shop. Since the game is so linear and there's basically only one path to follow, you kind of feel like you're on rails in this part of the game. It's satisfying, but simple.
Kong is shown from a mixture of over-the-shoulder third-person perspectives to fixed camera angles, and the angles generally work as well as War of the Monsters -- sometimes well and other times in annoying ways. Kong can pick up and put down Ann, and has a limited attack list: He can punch, grab, jump, and grapple. The limited amount of Kong play just isn't enough: I wish there were more Kong moves and scenarios. And I wish the New York part was longer and more fulfilling. Unfortunately, these last levels as Kong end far too quickly and finish poorly.
Sight For Sore Eyes
Regardless of the system on which you buy King Kong, the game offers indisputably beautiful visuals. King Kong's high level of aesthetic production is widespread; the Montpelier team helped to instill a strong sense of disbelief in the fantasy island. And you'll see it in the organic, well-designed environments, which portray Skull Island like a blanket of rainforest splayed across a rugged mountainous landscape.
The Montpelier team has envisioned and executed an organic set of levels that don't feel like levels, but real paths in real places. The only breaks in the immersion are the guard rails acting as invisible walls, which make the game easier and less frustrating, but also a little less believable, and the lack of paths. Less linear paths and a few more open sections would have really helped. The creature design -- of King Kong, the V-Rex, and the Brontosauruses in particular -- are brilliantly crafted and gorgeously textured. These creatures look damned fine and easily put to shame pretty much any other videogame with dinosaurs in them.
Technically, the game's visuals vary ever-so-slightly depending on the system you buy. The Xbox 360 and the PC stand out as the best looking of the bunch, followed by the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube, respectively. The Xbox 360 version excels with sharp, clean lighting that is distinctly superior to the other systems, and the normal mapped environments, increased geometry, and the water are all exceptional. You can see little things like the sun shining through the bat's webbed wings, a wonderful sense of fluid and mossy water, and gorgeously dense, colorful, and real-looking forestry that simply look better than other versions.
The PS2 version is surprisingly pretty. The texture work is excellent given the system's RAM restrictions. The GameCube version is the least impressive, with lower resolution textures and special effects taking some hits. All versions run at generally smooth framerates with exceptions in the later Kong sections, where we experienced heavy duty slowdown and framerate drop.
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