With what may be the most unnecessarily long title ever, Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie lumbered onto shelves just ahead of the eagerly anticipated holiday blockbuster. I've no idea why the game needed such a superfluous title—it's not like there are ten other King Kong games vying for attention on gamestore shelves. So, instead, I can only assume the title is yet another concession to Peter Jackson's rapidly growing ego (which is growing almost as fast as his waistline was until he dropped all that extra girth while making this movie)— the same ego that says a movie about a giant ape in love with a human female should be at least three hours long.
Of course, one of the most interesting (and I use that term with sarcasm) things about the Kong game is that it's barely longer than the film that inspired it. Weighing in at roughly five hours, King Kong doesn't exactly offer a lot of gameplay for the money. When the game is barely longer than a film, this isn't a good thing.
This isn't to say everything about King Kong is bad, though—because it's not. Instead, the game is just wonderfully average most of the time, which given the history of games based on films should actually be enough to earn this title praise. The only problem is that expectations were raised for this title thanks to the presence of legendary game developer Michel Ancel. Ancel, who's made games like the Rayman titles and the criminally underrated Beyond Good and Evil brought a certain amount of expectation along with him when he took over this project—and unfortunately, only some of those expectations are actually realized in the finished product.
At its core, King Kong is an on-rails first person shooter (FPS). Players control Adrien Brody's character Jack from the film—who is not only a screenwriter, but an ace shot, demolitions expert, and more. Most of the game is spent wandering around Skull Island either flying solo or escorting several of the film's cast members in an attempt to make it back to the main ship (such as Jack Black, Naomi Watts, etc.). Skull Island is a large jungle which players can look at but never really explore because the game insists on shepherding them along a very set path. To break up the monotony, the game forces players to occasionally solve a "puzzle" to advance—which invariably involves burning down some brambles or finding a wooden stake to use as a crank to open a blocked door. These two mechanics are pretty cool the first few times they come into play—but after doing them dozens of time (in a five hour game, no less), the charm soon wears off.
The FPS gameplay mechanics are solid if a bit basic. Jack can wield a variety of weapons (which are conveniently dropped from a plane that flies overhead from time to time) but can't dual-wield. The weapon variety is pretty basic—there's a pistol, a rifle, a machine gun, a shotgun…and that's about it. The game doesn't feature an "uber weapon" like the BFG from Doom so players will have to make due with this generic assortment of guns. Ammo is scarce on the island (and made even scarcer by the fact that the game doesn't feature an aiming reticle—meaning gamers will fire off lots of shots that hit nothing as they try to line up their target), making conservation important. Even the best shooters will eventually click on an empty chamber though—and then it's time to start throwing spears. While there's definitely an adrenaline rush in battling three pterodactyls with nothing other than a sharpened stick, the game over-relies on this mechanic as well—making the excitement soon give way to a bored feeling of inevitability. This boredom is only enhanced by the fact that Skull Island seems to possess only four different kinds of indigenous wildlife—so players will be killing the same crap over and over again.
The action does spike at points, most notably when Jack is forced to elude one of the island's Tyrannosaurus Rexes. There are several great set-pieces involving the T-Rex (which can't be stopped even with a gun), and it's in these moments that the game actually rises above average. Having two of these behemoths chasing me while I ride a raft down the river is a harrowing experience.
The game's biggest selling point is the ability to play as Kong himself—and like most everything else in the game, it's a pretty cool idea even if the execution doesn't work nearly as well as it should. Running through the jungle as Kong is exhilarating—until the player realizes it's just as on-rails as the on foot portions of the game are for Jack. Players are never allowed to deviate from the path or explore the area around them—the game simply forces them from point A to point B throughout. And while Jack gets a never ending series of brambles to burn and doors to open, Kong gets to lift giant pillars blocking his path (by tapping a button repeatedly) and bust through gates. Again, this is cool the first few times it happens—but the game never adds anything to it.
The heart of the Kong experience is the combat—controlling this beast in battle should be a thing of joy, but since Kong controls like a tank with a shot steering system, the end result is one that's more frustrating than fun, particularly when facing multiple foes. For some reason, this gigantic ape is incapable of jumping and whenever he's given a command it seems there's a delay between the button press and Kong actually performing the maneuver. Kong does possess a few "finishing moves" for when he's finally won a battle, but like everything else in the game, once you've seen it a few times, it's not that impressive anymore.
While the gameplay might be a hit-and-miss affair, the same cannot be said of the game's visual and audio design. Skull Island is beautifully recreated on the Xbox version of the game sporting a nearly pastel color palette that belies the inherent danger lurking around each and every corner. Although the game's final sequence (in New York City, naturally) is a total letdown (both in terms of gameplay and visuals), the rest of the game looks like a series of storyboard drawings come to life. The game's audio is no less impressive, complete with a 5.1 surround sound component that makes Kong's roars shake the windows. Couple that with some solid ambient sound work and voice acting done by the actual cast of the film, and the game's a winner in terms of sound and sight.
Unfortunately, games are supposed to be played and not simply looked at or listened to. King Kong is short and still manages to be a flawed and redundant gaming experience. This isn't a bad game—just one that manages to underachieve in a lot of ways. In a crowded holiday gaming season where countless good games will go unplayed, most gamers can safely skip this one and wait until it hits the bargain bin.