Under conditions of security that would shame the average prison, one of the undoubted highlights of our recent sojourn to E3 was the chance to sit down in front of a ten-minute presentation of King Kong, undoubtedly Ubisoft's big Christmas blockbuster for the year. Based on the Peter Jackson-directed remake of the 1933 classic, we got to hear a few words from the man himself, explaining how the videogame gave him the opportunity to use creatures that didn't make the cut and the like before we got to enjoy one of the more impressive demos of the show.
Kicking off in the oppressive jungle environs of Skull Island, one of the things that immediately hits you - apart from the immensely detailed lushness of the environments - is the palpable sense of fear that transmits through the dense atmosphere. Seen in first person through the eyes of lead character Jack Driscoll, the screen is entirely free of status icons and associated screen clutter and the effect is stunning. Even though the 20-foot screen obviously had a hand in enhancing the level of cinematic immersion, it's an impressively grand attempt at replicating the look and feel of 'playing the movie'. We could have been forgiven for thinking we were watching some impressively stitched together footage from key points of the game, but throughout it was - in fact - a live playable demo.
At the start of the presentation, Driscoll's a hair's breadth away from certain doom. Tied up on the edge of a cliff with a pit of fire beneath him, things aren't looking good. But spare a thought for the poor screaming woman tied to a slowly lowering wooden contraption above you: out of the frying pan and into... the gargantuan ape hand of King Kong, the roaring, chest-beating beast appears and takes a shine to this slender female, ripping her free from her shackles before stomping off into the jungle.
At this point Driscoll also gets untied - although in this case by two colonial-era public school-educated explorers rushing in to the rescue. With flaming spears being hurled from the nearby village, it seems no one's that impressed with their presence, and we witness this hapless party giving chase down a steep jungle path before being eventually set upon by the twin menace of a giant millipede and what appears to be a Velociraptor.
With only the spears stuck in the ground for a weapon you're forced into chucking these sharpened sticks as accurately as you can to fend them off (while your acquaintance pulls out 1930s-era camera equipment to film these amazing sights). With a well-placed throw, each plunges into the bodies of your enemies with sickening precision, giving you just enough time to yank another one out of the ground and hurl another one before you're floored. If you do happen to take any damage, the screen communicates the feeling of pain and disorientation with various glorious bloody distortion effects, warped audio and the like.
Once you've finally finished them off and your buddy's speedily packed up his tripod you're then tasked with pumping an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex with lead from your newly acquired Tommy Gun while your cohorts busy themselves trying to operate a mechanism to open up the nearby gate. In a pant-soiling sequence reminiscent of the legendary Tomb Raider I and II encounters, Driscoll has to do his damndest to keep the slavering jaws away long enough for them to get the mechanism open. Needless to say, the guy controlling the demo did just that and we were on our way to another exciting section. With Mr. Rex seemingly unconcerned about having hot shards of lead blasted into his leathery face, he (we're assuming it's male; we're not Dino experts here, admittedly) gives chase down the river while our meek and mild humans attempt to ride the violently gushing rapids.
With jaws snapping mere inches away, things are not looking too pretty. But they take a turn for the worse when a soaring Pterodactyl decides it's time for lunch and swoops down - only to fare somewhat worse than the T-Rex when greeted with Pistol fire. With an unexpected free lunch for Rexie you're off the hook for a few seconds, only to discover that it's Dinosaur city - and you're the Mayor. Another T-Rex encounter later, the demo shows off how to fend off their advances by lighting ablaze a patch of dry grass with a flaming torch. And with another dinomenace seen off, Mr Kong arrives just in time to give these irritants what for.
In what amounts to a spectacular turn of events, the game's perspective switches to third-person and grants you control over the avenging ape and turning into the most compelling looking beat-'em-up sequence we've ever witnessed. Looking for all the world like a next-gen Primal Rage, it's Kong Vs. Rex in one hell of a brutal face-off that made us actually wince at the violence of it all. With all manner of slams, bites, punches, kicks and god knows what else, it's a blur of devastatingly brutal combat. But that's just a hint of what's to come.
While all this mayhem has been going on, Kong's prize nubile female flesh runs for her life - slap bang into a pack of really hungry T-Rexes. With Kong acutely aware of the situation you're then thrust into a sequence of platform histrionics that remind you of what Nintendo could have done with a certain Simian franchise if it wasn't obsessed with being so kid friendly and cuddly all the time. Swinging vine-to-vine and leaping from cliff wall to wall has never looked like this in a videogame, and it's something to really look forward to for all the right reasons.
Having caught up with these relentless sods, the demo climaxes with more frenzied T-Rex encounters, with the rage-filled Kong performing possibly the most cringeworthy finishing move ever as he prizes the T-Rex's jaws wide enough to split his head wide open. Yeee-ouch.
With the demo session over with, we're left to look forward to what is undeniably one of the most interesting movie tie-ins we've seen. Kudos definitely goes to Ubi for not just making an interesting looking game, but for really capturing the essence of the feeling of being in a jungle surrounded by danger. The first-person sections look varied, credible and inspiring, while the King Kong combat/platforming looks like being better than anyone could have possibly hoped for. Although admittedly we did get to see the action in its best possible light (on the Xbox), it'll be interesting to see whether the PS2 and Cube versions do the action justice. After a noisy, relentless E3, this was just the kind of game we needed to see to remind us why we spend a week of our lives every year in LA.
Ubisoft is releasing King Kong on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC, DS, and PSP in time for Christmas 2005. Expect a hands-on report on the game in the coming months.