In the world of movie-licensed videogames there are usually two types: the shockingly poor cash-in and the mediocre, but playable game that's fun for most age groups. Sure, you get an exception from time to time (although GoldenEye is the only game that comes to mind), but you never expect a game based on a blockbuster movie to be a potential game of the year. However, very few movie tie-ins are headed by Michel Ancel, the man behind Rayman and the undeservedly poor-selling Beyond Good and Evil.
Just in case you aren't familiar with the movie's story, I won't go into too many details, but suffice to say that a movie crew head over to Skull Island to film a new movie, but find more than they had bargained for. The crew is split up after a rather rocky rowboat trip and the creatures they find on the island aren't your usual zoo animals. Seeing as this is the officially licensed videogame of the movie you'll see Jack Black as director Carl Denham, Naomi Watts as leading lady Ann Darrow and Adrien Brody as playwright Jack Driscol, plus other characters making appearances throughout. It's Jack Driscol who you take control of during most of the game, but Kong gets in on the action from time to time.
During the jack sections King Kong plays like an FPS, but there's no HUD and little in the way of gun ammo. All the information you need is conveyed through the visuals and sound. If you take a hit the screen will turn red momentarily, and if you're near death, everything will slow down and the screen will turn totally blood red in colour. Jack will tell you how much ammo he's carrying each time he reloads and there's not even a need for an aiming reticule; aiming vaguely at a beast will hit it, and while that would be scoffed at in other games, it works great here. Of course, if you must have a target on the screen, the option is there to do so.
Right from the off you're faced with an attack from giant crab-like creatures, and they're the least of your worries, with raptors, t-rexes, giant millipedes, giant bats and more, all fancying some human meat. Because of the ammo shortages (with new ammo made available sparingly by dropped crates) you'll often have to use spears (which you can throw or poke and are either wooden sticks or bones from animal carcases) and use the jungle itself as a weapon.
The natives (which you'll see from time to time) don't have any modern amenities, but they do have fire, and you'll use this a lot. The jungle is filled with sections of dense briars (a shrub with hard, woody roots) that simply can't be crossed, but poke it with a flaming spear and it'll burn to the ground and open a way forward. You can also use fire to take down animals - hitting them in a section of briars and then setting the surrounding area alight will take down all but the biggest of monsters. Some pseudo puzzles also revolve around finding sticks to work gate levers, but these rarely require more thought that finding the closest fire-well.
The AI of the beasts works well too, with an aggressiveness that means everything will eat everything, if given the chance. Down a giant bat and the surrounding animals will swarm around it, all eager for a bite. Not only does this look great, but it gives you a chance to scamper to safety. Actually figuring out where to go or what to do isn't usually a problem as you can follow Carl or another character for large portions of the game, but even when alone, the levels pretty much guide you from area to area. In fact, bar one or two sections, the game is pretty simple, offering more of an experience than a challenge.
When you're not playing as Jack you take control of Kong himself, and while these sections are undeniably fun, they lack finesse - perhaps apt as you're a giant gorilla, but awkward all the same. Kong can climb up vine-covered walls and swing from tree branch to tree branch, but these sections require little to no effort, and are simply a matter of pressing a button at the right time. When you have two feet on the ground and are battling things, it becomes a little better, but even then you simply batter things or pick them up and throw them. Finishing moves and a Berserk mode provide some satisfying demonstrations of strength, but given how well the Jack Driscol sections control, Kong feels a little cumbersome.
During the game you'll be constantly wowed by what you see. While the current-gen versions look great, the 360 version isn't just a high resolution port. Geometry doesn't appear to have been changed much (if at all) but texture work, lighting and effects are leagues ahead of what your PlayStation 2 or Xbox can do. During some scenes, when rain is falling, rocks are glistening, fog is slowly moving, tall grass is swaying and a giant T-rex is chasing you, you truly feel like you're playing a next-gen game. Could it have been better? Certainly - seams can be seen in textures from time to time and the frame rate takes a hit when too much is happening on screen, but it still looks mighty good. Some character models also tend to look a little too current-gen, but overall King Kong on the Xbox 360 is a huge improvement over the other versions.
If the game looks good, it sounds phenomenal. All the voice work is carried out by the actors from the movie and the animal sound effects and musical score are about the best ever heard in a videogame. There's simply very little to fault. When you're exploring there's plenty of jungle life to be heard, but when things kick off the quality of sound is incredible. The music ups its tempo when the mood requires it, beasts can be heard roaring in the distance, grass rustles as small animals run through it and Kong himself lets out an almighty roar that would put even the most high-end of audio equipment to work.
Sadly, it's all over far too quickly. Even when playing through at a modest pace you'll struggle to get more than seven hours worth of play time and things aren't made any better by a rather abrupt and poor ending. What happens is obvious, but it could have been so much more. After completing it you unlock a few bonuses, but they're not anything to get too excited over. You're left liking what you played, but not really being blown away. The jungle itself and the animals that inhabit it are great, and the Jack Driscol sections are always tense and entertaining, but Kong sections are overly simplistic, and the whole game lacks the ambition to be anything more than a quick interactive guide through Skull Island.
There's no denying that as far as movie licensed games go, King Kong is at the top of the tree, but as for being a truly great game in its own right, it falls a little short. It's entertaining, technically impressive and often immersive, but it's woefully short, often repetitive and not quite all it could have been. It's a bit like a rollercoaster: great while it lasts, but it's over in an instant and it'll soon be forgotten when something else comes along. Enjoy it for what it is - just don't expect a game of blockbuster proportions.