Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5463)
Written on  :  Jun 24, 2006
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars4.71 Stars

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Michel Ancel's King Kong

The Good

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a mesh of two game types: the first-person shooter and the third-person platformer. The FPS levels star Jack Driscoll, a playwright whose investment in the game’s events grows as he falls in love with lead actress Ann Darrow. The third person levels star Kong. Kong is also in love with Ann, and his climbing, jumping and brawling levels often find him saving her from primeval dangers.

A quick montage, culled from the film, explains why director Carl Denham is filming a movie on Skull Island. The game opens with the Venture dropping anchor off Skull Island and lowering rowboats loaded with crewmen and Denham’s film crew. As the boats head toward Skull Island, the player learns the camera controls—looking around frantically as the boats are rocked by waves, careen towards ominously carved rocks, and are done in by crumbling rock formations.

Jack and company recover from the battering at sea only to find giant crabs and centipedes waiting for them on land—the thrill ride continues. King Kong is a thrill ride, with only a few areas giving the player a chance to explore and enjoy the Michel Ancel trademarked beauty of Skull Island. For all its dark caves, rocky outcroppings, dense jungles, vermin-ridden swamps, and ruined cities, Skull Island is a wonder to behold. Even before considering the fauna.

Skull Island is populated with life (perhaps more than it could possibly sustain) and understanding how the food chain works is a major aspect of the game. The monsters of Skull Island, insects, dinosaurs, flying beasts, and more, use food as their motivation. Some puzzles spring off from this concept: like luring creatures away with food, but it is also important in terms of survival. Jack’s portions of King Kong largely focused on protecting his party, opening pathways, and defending locations.

King Kong has a HUDless display. When Jack or Kong become injured the background music changes, they slow down, and their vision begins to fade. Pressing a button reloads Jack’s weapon or has Jack give a report on the amount of ammunition he has left. Ammunition is scarce on Skull Island. Ammo and guns are dropped from a biplane, but Jack ends up relying on makeshift spears for good chunks of the game. Luckily spears can be set on fire to boost their effectiveness and this also leads to a series of interesting puzzles where Jack must use fire to clear a path or dissuade dinosaurs.

Jack and Kong’s stories are told concurrently. Some levels will have Kong fleeing with Ann and others will have Jack searching for her. The change between gameplay modes is often refreshing. As a human, there’s little Jack can do against a V-rex (spears are rumored to slow them down). As Kong, the player can grapple with them and break their jaws or backs. Jack can flee from the natives’ spears, but Kong can destroy their villages.

While Jack’s levels are often fierce struggles for survival, Kong is comfortable near the top of the food chain. It is possible for Kong to die, especially as overwhelming hordes of winged creatures tear into him, but he also can fly into a rage, moving faster and doing more damage. The Kong levels, especially the New York ones, reminded me of nothing so much as the Hulk. Fortunately, the bulk of the gameplay is focused on Jack. Jack’s levels have more variation, more scope, and further the story. Kong’s levels are refreshing breaks from being a puny human.

The Bad

If King Kong has any trouble spots, they stem from pushing the limits of a legacy system and from losing Jack in the New York levels. The graphics in Kong are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but my PS2 struggled to keep up during frenzied action scenes and creatures were often locked into a room, preventing them from pursuing me.

King Kong has always had a schism between Skull Island and New York that runs deeper than the one between Oz and Kansas. The New York levels lose the Venture crew, who we’ve grown accustomed to during the bulk of the game and Jack disappears (save for a bonus level leading to an alternate ending). This is surprising, since Jack plays a big role in the movie's New York scenes. By focusing solely on Kong, New York levels become very short, very objective oriented, and—frankly, anticlimactic for the majority who are aware of the ending.

King Kong has been criticized for being a short game, which is never a criticism of a bad game. The main story takes about six hours, but the game’s length is extended by replaying earlier levels to improve your score and unlock bonus content. Unfortunately some of the bonus content involves an annoying requirement (ala Beyond Good & Evil) to visit Ubisoft’s King Kong web site and enter in an Internet code to get another code to enter into the game.

None of these quibbles prevents King Kong from being an astonishing game.

The Bottom Line

Games based on movies have three obstacles to overcome. First, they are often tied-in to a release date and suffer from flaws that may have been ironed out during a longer testing process. Second, their source material dictates their content—this knife cuts both ways, either the game acts as a spoiler or is too watered down (occasionally the game wanders so far from the source material you wonder why anyone bothered). Finally, there is usually no intended audience beyond the completists who want to experience the entire franchise, see Fantastic 4 (MobyScore 1.2 ) for details.

Peter Jackson's King Kong deftly avoids all three of these pitfalls, resulting in a game which could easily stand on its own.