November 2003. We'd just finished Beyond Good & Evil. The review began: "Hear ye, hear ye! From this day forth, Michel Ancel is no longer 'the creator of Rayman'. From now on, he is 'the genius that brought us Beyond Good & Evil'."
Fast-forward to the present and we've been playing Peter Jackson's King Kong. Games-of-films aren't often that exciting - even if they are films made by lovable visionaries like ol' Pete. But with this, Jackson had the chance to write his own ticket. And, like us, he knew just which genius was close to the top of his game - and why.
Michel Ancel and Peter Jackson is a combination that makes us very, very excited. The fact that Jackson learned of Ancel's work through Beyond Good & Evil makes us feel very, very satisfied. The possibility that King Kong could be a truly great game makes us very, very happy. And it really could, you know. We've played it.
But enough giddy intro.
King Kong is atmospheric. That's a term that's often bandied around excessively, but in this case it's definitely valid. It follows bits of the film quite closely, we're told, but it doesn't rely on the traditional tactic of wrapping glorious bits of film footage in tedious bits of obvious-game. It wants to be an experience unto itself, not just a reminder of what happened in the cinema - and it recognises that it can't do that if you're just waiting for the cinematic pay-off.
So instead it concentrates on putting you in the world, on Skull Island. For the first section of the game you're Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and you experience the whole, immensely alien environment through his eyes. As Ann is lowered by the natives onto the sacrificial block from which Kong will grab her, you're tied up nearby, watching her descent. With the movement stick, you can only struggle within the ropes failing to break free, but by turning your head you can see the awesome sight of the wooden fort that protects Skull Island's weaker inhabitants from its strongest - a fearsome, Tolkien-esque fortification of spikes and fire.
They chant. You struggle. And then a mist picks up, rolling out of the jungle ahead toward Ann. There's a thumping sound, and a silhouette, and then he's there. And he's enormous. And he takes Ann.
It's a sequence that could have been lifted from the film, but it wasn't - and it wasn't just blasted through either. It gave you a believably minute level of control, and it built itself up slowly but surely. When Karl (Jack Black's character) comes darting out from the foot of the fortification, he doesn't pause to deliver his lines, he doesn't maintain eye contact; he's staring into the distance. He's transfixed. And you're not forced to look at him. It's worth emphasising that. Then he moves out of sight behind you to cut your ropes. Then you follow him as he talks about how extraordinary it was. The voice acting is real and Karl looks mostly as he should do, but the real reason it feels right is that you've experienced it - and as you scamper along behind him over narrow stony walkways, dodging arrows as they rain down, still completely unarmed and pursuing a giant ape, you feel totally helpless.
The island feels like a real environment, not just a game level - one of things that helps it stand out most from other film licenses. By this stage it already feels imposing. Karl follows Kong, and clearly isn't all that bothered about Ann. He sets up his camera and starts rolling. Instinctively, we move ahead to follow Kong. "Jack get out of the way, you're in the shot!" Karl yells in mounting desperation. As you try and follow, working at a gate, he sees something moving. And you're attacked - not by Kong, but by raptors.
What are you meant to do? You have no health bar, no ammo bar, no guns - none of the traditional crutches of a first-person action game. As they rip into you, you don't know how badly hurt you are. All you can do is grab a nearby spear and try and direct it back at your foe. At first you miss. There's no crosshair. Then you realise its trick - Jack's holding up his left hand to hurl the spear, and the index finger marks its trajectory; throw to that line, and it'll probably find its mark wherever Jack's pointing. It's simple, it's clinical, and it keeps you on Skull Island.
These are just a couple of low-end examples of how it works. Rather like last year's Chronicles of Riddick on Xbox, everything seems to be directed to uphold the integrity of the story. Not the film. To this game, there is no film. That it follows it is something we had to pick up from the marketing presentation.
It's not a question of chucking spears forever. Like Beyond Good & Evil itself to some extent, it adjusts and changes what it's doing. You soon realise that bones serve just as well as discarded spears. One particular walkway is plagued by winged creatures that refuse to let you cross, and although you could conceivably fight them off, a bit of foraging nearby unearths some fly-like creatures; these can be speared on whatever comes to hand, and when hurled the creatures will follow the scent. You do find guns of course, but these rarely hold up for long - there's a plane circling the island dropping ammo boxes for you (you see it now and then, swooping past you through valleys), but it's not enough to keep you permanently stocked.
And you find certain enemies will fall in the face of none of this. The T-Rex, for example.
A T-Rex is quite large. It can feel bullets and spears, but it seems to be more pissed off about them than wounded. At one point, that's a good thing; following a pursuit, Karl and another of your party are struggling to open a gate, and the T-Rex is closing. So you chuck a spear. And then spend the next few minutes racing around a small, enclosed area, ducking behind rocks and other obstructions as this enormous, monstrous thing lurches after you. This isn't a third-person game, so you can't just swivel the camera to keep it in view. You have to keep glancing round, and on a control system that uses two analogue sticks that's easier said than done. In a sense, the turning circle adds to the suspense. Amusing, but true.
If you die, the game gives you another go. If you die again, it might adjust the difficulty level accordingly. If you're making easy progress, it ratchets it up. We can't emphasise this enough: other film-games just jump up and down going "I'm real! I'm authentic! Take my concept art in your eyes!" From what we've seen, King Kong doesn't jump up and down unless it thinks it'll keep your head on Skull Island.
And beyond - we haven't seen the New York sections yet, but we can hardly wait to.
One thing we have seen, however, is what happens when you stop playing as Jack Driscoll and take on the role of King Kong.
By now established in your mind as a huge creature, his battles are titanic, yet his movements are agile and don't fall into the occasional developmental trap of deciding that big must mean lumbering. Even Psychonauts made that mistake at one point - and we love Psychonauts so much that we bribed Tim Schafer to scrawl innuendo all over our PC copy (true story). Our Kong experience kicked off with a fight with two T-Rexes, who are trying to get their grubby teeth around Ann.
Right now, it's not always fluid - and we doubt it'd trouble Virtua Fighter or Tekken 5 in terms of depth of fighting concept - but it is a vicious, brutal experience. Kong roars, thumps, pounds, rips and eventually kills the dinos by ripping their jaws apart. All the while they fight, the previously ornate jungle clearing around them suffers accordingly, huge lakes of water splashing up like puddles, dirt showering the surrounding area. As Kong stomps off to pursue Ann, he's nibbled at by raptors; the very same raptors that gave Jack such a problem. Kong doesn't even have to kill them, although you can pick them up, hurl them and even bite their heads off.
We had much more time to acclimatise ourselves with Jack than Kong, but they're very distinct, despite the shared environment. Jack stumbles through Skull Island soaking it up on a small scale; the player dwarfed by everything, most notably as a herd of Brontosauruses stampede past him. Kong can cover vast distances at a canter, and these elements also inject an element of platforming. Kong doesn't just leap the odd gorge, he swings from branches like the Prince of Persia, leaping to a mesh of creepers on the face of a cliff and then to the next ledge, navigating the environment in an ape-like fashion.
Jackson, Ancel and their teams are collaborating on something that feels important. We've played it for around an hour, and each section offered something new; some directorial flourish or shift in mechanics; some new horror drawn from the film and, in a nice touch, from the ranks of creatures created by Jackson's WETA company but not used in the film; and the sense of being there is paramount.
Film-based games like King Kong always walk a difficult tightrope, pelted by expectation and prone to stumbling into the abyss of disbelief. But as cautious as we are about stamping seals of approval on things ahead of release, thanks the strength of its design it is tempting to say there hasn't been a film-based game like King Kong before. We shall see.
King Kong is due out on PS2, Xbox, Cube, PC and Xbox 360, with handheld versions due on PSP, DS and GBA. The Xbox 360 version will be a launch title in late November.