Reviewed: December 1, 2005
Released: November 22, 2005
Michel Ancel is one of the most masterful, yet most under-appreciated game developers in the industry. The creator of Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil – the Frenchman has made some of the best games to ever grace any game system. The industry calls him the “French Miyamoto” – a direct comparison to Nintendo’s own creative genius.
Sadly, Ancel’s tales of the limbless Rayman and the adventures of the beautiful Jade of Beyond Good and Evil, have all tanked in the states despite receiving critical acclaim from reviewers and developers alike.
So along comes Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies – now directing his own version of King Kong. Mr. Jackson is a bit unhappy with EA due to differences of opinion regarding EA’s Ring series of games and is fishing for a new developer. Who would be next in line? Why Ubisoft of course. And who at Ubisoft would have the credibility to carry such an important project? Ancel.
So Ancel and his Ubisoft Montpellier studio teamed up with Ubisoft’s Montreal studio – of Splinter Cell fame – and Mr. Jackson, to produce, Peter Jackson's King Kong, a top-notch movie-to-game conversion. And boy is it good.
With King Kong, Ancel and crew have attempted to fully immerse the gamers into the role of Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), screenwriter for the movie being filmed on Skull Island by director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and starring the beautiful actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Inclement weather maroons the crew on the shores of Skull Island, where they discover hoards of gigantic bloodthirsty insects and other creatures, forcing them to race to a safe spot and attempt to flag one down their pal in a rescue plane.
In their quest to find safe ground, things go terribly wrong as they discover that the island’s fauna is not limited simply to oversized insects – this island also includes a tribe of voodoo natives, a slew of Cretaceous period dinosaurs, and one hulking ape – known as King Kong.
Early on in the game, the crew is taken captive by the natives. The men awake to find themselves lashed to poles, presumably left to feed the dinos. In the distance, they see Ann strung up as an offering to the great Kong. Kong immediately falls in love with the blond belle and becomes well… a wee bit possessive, should we say. The men eventually escape from their binds, and take on the mission of saving their friend from the doting captor.
Much like The Getaway series of games, Ancel’s team tries to fully immerse the gamer into this role by omitting any onscreen display or information that might hint that the gamer is anything but the actual Jack Driscoll – what this means is that there are no health bars, no weapons information, no ammunition count, no nothing. All you get is a screen, a pair of hands, and some truly kick-ass graphics (thanks to the Splinter Cell creators).
Most of the game plays out in the first person perspective of Mr. Driscoll, who uses a variety of period-appropriate weaponry (pistols, sniper rifles, Tommy guns) and found objects (bones, spears) in his search for his beloved Ann. The weapons use a very nice (and inoffensive) auto-aim that allows for rapid targeting without requiring absolute precision – which is especially helpful with spears and other thrown items.
While the game doesn’t feature any onscreen HUD, Driscoll will continuously update you on the status of his weapons cache with vocal cues – i.e. “Only two bullets left, I’d better look for more…” or “Four magazines – I have plenty for now.” Still, it always seems like you are running out of ammunition and are constantly looking for refill boxes that have been dropped from the circling rescue plane.
Health is liberally controlled; damage is accumulated during combat, but quickly refreshes back to full strength with just a few moments of rest. What this means is that if health becomes low, gamers can always back off for a moment and revive fully before heading back into the scuffle. Since the difficulty level is relatively low, there are not many times you really need to utilize this, but should something actually kill you, the game will quickly continue from the nearest of the abundantly placed checkpoints. Seldom is there a large section of required replay.
Most of the game squares Jack up against roving bands of raptors, flocks of pterodactyls, even swarms of attacking natives. The gameplay all follows a very linear path along corridor-structured environments, although there are certain periods that throw our hero on rails. In a day and age of free-roam gaming, the linear structure of King Kong does quickly begin to feel a bit overly claustrophobic – especially coming from the same fella who gave us Beyond Good and Evil, and leaving us wondering if this is what Monsieur Ancel does when he needs to get a few quick Francs. Still, this linear structure is necessary to keep the game on track with the events of the movie, and it is done very well – so we will forgive our French friend.
The game plan follows the tried and true run and gun formula, with a lot – and I mean a lot – of annoying “find the key” objectives to progress to the next areas. This time, the “switches” are handles to work the crank poles that open the massive wooden doors that separate areas of the island. Those damn handles must be keyed uniquely, because although you can pick up just about every stick and bone you come across only the unique handle will work.
Most times, these handles are left out in the open or off in some corner – but a few require some clever puzzle solving to uncover. The puzzle solving elements really are quite unique – often requiring the use of the island’s less hazardous fauna to bait guarding raptors or insects away from hidden handles, or requiring Jack to burn off acres of thorny foliage to uncover hidden handles.
And then there’s that whole Kong thing. Yes, Ancel and crew allow the gamer to get behind the helms of the mighty Kong for a few brief, but very exciting segments of gameplay. So how good is it? Oh, it’s definitely good – but not necessarily great.
The biggest problem with the Kong segments is that the controls seem a bit delayed, and coupled with the lumbering movement of the big ape, it gives a certain and sudden detached feeling to the game. Most of the Kong chase scenes take part in a pseudo-rails structure where our simian friend is cruising along a predetermined path requiring timed jumps to reach vine-covered cross-canyon walls or conveniently-placed swinging poles. It looks absolutely stunning, but feels absolutely fake.
Much different are the awesome arena-style battle scenes, where the controls begin to feel a bit more in-time, and the awesome power of the Kong can be fully appreciated. This is especially the case when the gamer calls on Kong’s full fury with rapid presses of the triangle button. Our hairy friend begins to hurriedly thump on his massive chest and suddenly unleashes a powerful cry – in a very impressive visual display, the screen changes hue as the edges blur, and the massive beast takes to squashing the enemies with single blows of his massive pipes. I dare you do find a gamer who does not say “cool” each and every time the Kong kicks into a fury.
Overall, the game starts off a bit slow and awkward – then after an hour or so, the pieces all begin to come together and suddenly you are completely entranced in the gameplay. And then it is all over…done. Yes, the game takes a total of about six or seven hours to finish. That is not bad if you consider that is what – twice the length of the standard Peter Jackson movie – but not that great compared to your standard game.
And especially not when a game has little-or-no replay value. I mean, other than to get a good second look at the amazing visuals, or to get a second chance at ripping some sissy T-Rex’s mandible from his face – well, there’s no real reason to revisit Skill Island a second time. And that is a real shame for a game this well made.
Easily the best-looking game the PS2 has ever seen, King Kong is truly a showcase of what Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell team can eke out of the aging system. If you thought Sam Fisher looked great in Chaos Theory – imagine that very same graphical quality, but not in some darkly-lit hallway or library, but rather in a sprawling jungle full of polygonal foliage, towering trees and beautifully rendered backgrounds. You get all of this, with little-to-no popup and at a rock solid framerate – who could ask for more?
King Kong features filtering to give the game a pseudo-aged look, that morphs from near black and white to an almost-sepia tint when Kong goes into a rage. The game features unique blurring and tracer effects when Kong really gets ticked, or when T-Rex lets loose with one of his room-shacking roars – the effect does a great job in relaying the sense of disorientation that would result from having a fifty-foot tall lizard screaming in your face.
The facial mapping is simply impeccable, especially Jack Black – who looks photorealistic and smooth, without a lot of the seams and edges common to other games. Let’s just say that King Kong must be seen to be believed – this is one beautiful game.
King Kong features some of the best sound design of any game in the industry. Sure, the game features positively awesome voice acting from the aforementioned Mr. Black, but the game has much more than that.
From the incredible movie-quality music to the absolutely immersing ambient background sounds and noises – gamers will really feel like they are square in the middle of the Skull Island jungle, although the lack of surround sound is a real bummer.
Some of the audio highlights would have to include the thunderous sounds of the brontosaurus stampede as Jack dashes from safe spot to safe spot between the hulking feet of the behemoths. Also as impressive are the roars and screeches to T-Rex and his raptor buddies, and the chest-beating furies of Kong.
It is difficult to accurately place a value score on King Kong. Generally a movie-based game sporting only six or seven hours of gameplay and little-to-no reason to replay would get a very low score on value.
However, when you have a game like King Kong – one that pushes the PS2 right to the max, resulting in stunning near-Xbox quality visuals, awesome gameplay and some of the most user-friendly controls in the industry – the package as a whole quickly becomes invaluable to game collectors looking to forever showcase the awesome potential of the PS2.
Regardless, King Kong is a game that simply must be played by all, regardless of whether you will ultimately want to keep it or not. Given the half-dozen hours of gameplay, a rental will suffice for most gamers.
By far the best-looking, best working, first person shooter to ever grace the PS2, Peter Jackson's King Kong’s immersing gameplay is second only to the classic Red Faction. This game bleeds excitement, energy and fun and is only hampered by its relatively short length and wonky pseudo-rails Kong segments, too-linear structure and often irritating key-fetch quests.
Still, the hands-down most impressive visual offering the PS2 has ever seen. Then again, what would you expect from the love child of the Michael Ancel and Sam Fisher?