Reviews of game adaptations of blockbuster movies are full of self-righteous bile, forever ruing the fact that game companies evidently see it as an opportunity to make megalithic mountains of cash, as opposed to, you know, actually making a decent game along the way. As promising as the preview showings suggested, we couldn't help but feel that King Kong would suffer the same fate. Michel Ancel or not, there are a million unique ways to screw these things up. We should know: we've seen every single one over the past 25 years.
Well, guess what folks? Here's one that not only lives up to the momentous promise, but pretty much rewrites the rulebook for how movie-based games should be done. Here's a game that's not only startlingly enjoyable from start to finish in its own right, but makes you want to go out and see the movie immediately - surely a first.
Needless to say we haven't seen the film yet, but the premise seems like a nice fit - and a disarmingly simple one at that. Arriving washed-up on the shore of the mysterious Skull Island, it's pretty clear that it's not a place you'd want to go on your holidays.
Accompanied by obsessive film-maker Carl Denham (played by Jack Black in the movie), Ann Darrow and assorted extras, your role is as the fearless Jack Driscoll - a screenwriter by trade when he's not busy murdering hordes of giant crabs, millipedes, bats and assorted dinosaurs(!). Initially without any firearms, this first-person adventure forces you to be a little more resourceful that usual; grabbing discarded sticks and the bones of deceased animals and throwing them like spears at the hungry and relentlessly aggressive predators that stalk the mountainous isle.
Soon enough you gain limited access to pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and Tommy-guns, but in a game where every bullet counts you soon learn to sharpen up on your javelin-throwing skills before you go and loose off a few rounds in anger. With so few means of dealing damage on your omnipresent foe, you can also take advantage of fire by poking a stick into a nearby flaming torch and turning it into a firey spear of death. As well as making for a more powerful weapon, it also enables you to set fire to the dry grass - a potential death-trap for unwary predators, not to mention the many wooden structures that block your pathway into the deadly innards of the fearsome Skull Island.
In another departure from the traditional FPS rule-set, there are no status bars whatsoever, meaning you have to manually check how much ammo's left in your chosen gun (yes, you can only carry one at a time) by tapping the B button, while your health status is also notable by its absence. Instead, the game gives you a host of visual cues when you're in trouble; the screen goes blood-red, your vision blurs, your breathing shallows, and your hearing dulls. It's a marvellously instinctive and immersive way of instilling fear and panic into the spectacle, and forces you to seek cover. A quick breather restores order, allowing you to continue your fight for survival. Sure, it's a little silly and unrealistic to suggest that 'resting' will heal the leg that's just been between the slavering jaws of a T-Rex, but it keeps the game flowing and never less than fun.
Too good to be true?
Freed up of the usual screen furniture, there's a real sense of being part of this foolhardy journey into the unknown. With some wonderful graphical techniques that stretch the Xbox to screaming point at time, slick animation and an admirable art style, the whole game lets you play tourist to some of the most picturesque scenes ever pulled off in a videogame, against some of the most fearsome-looking enemies. It's one of those games that looks too good to be true, but it really is the real deal. It really does look that glorious in action, and there must be at least 30 moments in the game when you can barely believe your eyes. These jaw-dropping sequences we're used to seeing in cut-scenes... but being able to control it all in real-time is something very special indeed. You'll cackle your face off, wide-eyed at the audaciousness of it all. It's pure, unadulterated popcorn gaming for the masses and we love it to death.
Yet all the while, your game brain is reminding you that the actual mechanics at work are very simple indeed - proving, perhaps, that games needn't be fearsomely complex in order to provide a ridiculous level of entertainment to even the most demanding and experienced gamers. For a good chunk of the seven, eight-hour first run-through, all you seem to do is engage in one bite-sized encounter after the other. Generally, these take the form of either a) killing a posse of very large enemies with pointy sticks, b) finding a missing handle in order to open a locked gate, c) defending one of your party from a posse of very large enemies while they scurry off and do something important or d) finding fire in order to burn down something blocking your path.
But when the game starts giving you the opportunity to play as Kong, it's like Spinal Tap dropped by Ubisoft's studios and cranked it up to eleven. Switching the viewpoint into third-person, suddenly you're more than a match for the giants that have been terrorising Jack and co. for hours. The giant bats are no more than irritating insects that you swat away, while the monstrous T-Rex becomes little more than a mildly troubling opponent. Given an entirely new move-set, you can grab, throw, pummel, fly into a rage and eventually grapple these deadly creatures, pulling their jaws open so wide that you snap their lizard features asunder. It's a sickening sight, but oh-so-satisfying. The sheer aggression that plays out on the screen is intensely primal, and with some incredibly subtle and well-judged lighting and audio, you'll be left a trembling wreck at the end of it all. In all probability, when Kong roars his victory cry and the screen fills with his leathery features, you'll want to punch the air in triumph. Most likely you'll just let a mild yelp out and wonder what the hell comes next.
Whether you're playing as Kong or Jack, you'll also be quite astonished at how short some of the sections really are. In some cases you'll zip through a chapter in less than ten minutes, having performed a pretty perfunctory task. Whether it's Ubisoft's desire to make sure the pace and focus is always cranked up to the max we're not sure, but it works. You always want more, and even when you fail, some sensible checkpointing eradicates unnecessary backtracking almost entirely. If you're the sort of gamer who gets annoyed easily, then King Kong is your dream game - it's seemingly been designed to be entertaining from the first minute to the last, without needlessly bashing the player over the head. You'll want to finish it because it's fun; and then you'll play some of the key moments again to try and rack up the best score possible to unlock even more cool extras.
It's easy to glibly describe an impressive-looking game as 'cinematic', but when the approach is this close to delivering the same visceral intensity of a real-life movie, it's hard not to extend huge kudos to those involved. But it's more than just the scenery looking good and the characters looking convincing. Some of the unsung heroes of the King Kong 'experience' are the buddy AI characters. Not only do they look uncannily realistic in terms of their features, but they play a vital role in making you feel like you're part of an ongoing survival effort. The feeling of incessant terror and palpable fear is one thing, but the fact that you can see and hear it in your accomplices is another. Every step of the way they're busy giving you feedback, keeping you up to date with what you're supposed to be doing, and making non-repetitive remarks at what they've just seen or experienced.
You really feel like they're with you all the way, and not only do they provide that crucial narrative spur, they provide able support when the ante is upped, proving to be pretty handy with weapons themselves and bailing you out on the odd occasion. Most of the time, though, you're the one helping them out, and the sense of panic when it's all going wrong is communicated exceptionally well. You pals look scared to death when they're in the gaping maw of a fearsome beast, and hobble off injured, taking care to drag downed friends to safety when needed. Very rarely - if ever - do you see them doing stupid things like running into walls and suchlike. It's a game that's taken extreme care to not shatter the illusion, and as such it's all the more immersive because of it. Just about the only thing it really lacks is full lip-synching and dynamic expressions, but that's about it.
If we wanted to pick holes in what's on offer, it's that (on a few notable occasions) the technology can't quite keep up with the heady ambition on show. As Kong, you'll often be running along walls, swinging from branch to ledge and following very linear, pre-determined paths; that's fine in itself, but the frame-rate does tend to go south at this point. It barely detracts from the enjoyment, though, and we're really only talking about a few moments in among several hours, so it's definitely forgivable on this occasion.
Other niggles? Well, the fighting may feel a tad on the basic side for some tastes; not only does it lack variety and combo opportunities, it can feel sluggish when the frame rate dips. Despite its obvious lack of depth, it's still hugely entertaining to play, so you're likely to overlook such issues too. Also, on the whole, the entire game is perhaps a little too much of an on-rails experience to the point where there's precious little opportunity to do anything differently from the prescribed solution. Sure, you can often throw grubs as bait to lure away the predators and slip past them (as opposed to fighting them), but as far as real 'choice' goes, that's about the only example of where the game allows the player to deviate from the very rigid path. To be fair, though, the linear focus is one of the main reasons its such a relentlessly entertaining game; Ubi having made sure the action is tightly choreographed, leaving nothing to chance, and never leaving the player bored, frustrated or confused. For a game aimed squarely at the masses, you have to admire the fact that it has managed to do all of this and still make it an everyman's kind of game. It might not go down as the most challenging game ever, but honestly, if you can't feel the love for this game, you must be allergic to entertainment.
If we were really pushed, we'd also note the lack of a multiplayer mode, gripe that it's a little too short for some tastes, and maybe whinge that the New York levels are all-too brief. All fair points, but not enough to stop us from recommending it above all other adaptations of movies we've seen since, well, Riddick, actually.
The game that would be king
But by the end of King Kong there's still plenty to go back and see; and there are some standout moments that will probably stay with you forever. As a piece of gaming entertainment it's well worth buying regardless of what you might think of the movie - but assuming it's the action blockbuster it promises to be, it'll serve as the perfect accompaniment, fusing thrilling first-person combat with some of the most explosive hand to hand sequences you can imagine. If only all movie-based games were this entertaining.