Movie license game done almost right
Time for another little game review, this time it is Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie turn. Short summary, its a good game. It is not great and it is not another The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (i.e. awesome), but what the game does it does quite well. At the beginning of the game you arrive in the role as Jack on Skull island, things go a bit awry and you are left on the island to do some exploration. In terms of controls the game goes quite a minimalistic route, you basically have only two buttons to worry about, with the left trigger you hold up your gun up and aim, while with the right trigger you shoot if your gun is up. If you don't hold the left trigger you don't shoot but instead punch or grab things. Having to raise the gun before being able to shoot is a nice mix that gives the game a little realism that is missing in most other FPS. You also have the ability to focus on your NPCs with the A button, either to exchange weapons with them or to say a few words, it is a nice touch, even so I would have prefered it when the game would automatically focus on the NPC (ala Ico) instead of leaving the targeting to yourself, this would have helped in a few situations where the NPC get lost.
The major gameplay consists for most part of survival, i.e. you travel trough the jungle and have to fight against the animals that you find there. The fighting doesn't always happen with guns, but also a lot with spears. And you don't always have to fight them, sometimes it is enough to distract them by throwing something eatable near them that will keep them busy while you walk by. At times the animals will also fight against each other, which while nothing new (Doom1 had that already), it is nice to see a world that also acts on its own instead of only acting against the play. In addition to this you also have the ability to burn down bushes, which either kills the animals near by or frees a past you have to walk. Search for leavers and fire is used for puzzles in some situations.
Beside the survival part that plays more or less like a normal FPS, the game also features a third person part in which you play King Kong himself. These parts play similar to a classical beat'em up combined with a bit of swinging and climbing. While the control isn't perfect, it works quite well, considering that Kongs anatomie and walk cycle is quite a bit different then the normal human one. The ability to grab or let go Ann is used for some smaller puzzles.
The difficulty level is quite nice. I single hit will bring you into a 'red state' (for lack of a better name) from which you recover in a few seconds, but if you are hit in the 'red state' you die. This makes you quite vulnurable, but also forces you to be careful, which is a good thing. Tons of reset points gurantee that even with these two-hit-kills you never have a problem with frustration.
What the game fails to do is providing a decent story. That little story that you have is pretty much completly told through in-game dialog, while nicely done, it pretty much doesn't tell you anything about what is happening elsewhere or why you are on that island in the first place. So you just run around through the jungle trying to survive or rescue one of your NPCs which get lost every now and then, but you never really learn anything about what is happening elsewhere. So you only learn about plans to capture Kong right at the moment where it happens. The cutscenes that the game provides aren't really cutscenes in the classical sense, they are more there to bridge the loading time between the levels and don't provide any additional story. You are also left completly in the dark about the motivation of the natives on the island, they are really just canon fooder for Kong.
Another thing that the game fails to provide diversity. The game starts out nice and interesting, but nothing really changes through the course of the game. You start out walking through the jungle and you continue to do so for the rest of the game with the jungle pretty much looking all the same throughout the game.
Linearity is also a problem, with being trapped in a jungle one would expect some exploration, but none of that happens. You are confined to a very small path that you have to walk. You never bump into invisible walls, but the more visible ones can also annoy.
But for most part the game rather well, fighting against animals using spears and fire as weapons is a nice change compared to the standard run&gun FPS stuff. More diversity would have been nice, but even so the game keeps you entertained till. The story is a downer, maybe a less annoying one when you have seen the movie, but still I would have expected a bit more in that direction. A final word about the graphics: While overall nothing special, the game does a few nice things with (faked) volumetric lighting, that you normally don't see on an old Xbox.
Update: I just unlocked everything that there is to unlock in the game. Good news: the alternate ending is fun, Bad News: Web codes suck. Certain extras in the game require that you enter a code you receive from http://www.kingkonggame.com. The game gives you a code that encodes your score and when you enter that code on the webpage you get a different code in return that you enter into the game. The tracking of highscores itself is nice, however the web code is pointless and annoying. It doesn't require any special action on the page, but simply that you get a high enough score, which is the exact same way how everything else in the game is unlocked, just that you need to make a trip to the Internet for those three extras that use web codes. Anyway, the point why this sucks is that the web is fragile. Creating a new account on the webpage is already broken, using an account from ubi.com still works, but certainly not forever. In a few years down the road such connection with the web could really turn out trouble some, leaving a part of the game in a non-functioning state. Sure, it is only a tiny part in this game, two art galleries and an interview to be exact, but I still prefer it much more if games are self contained things that don't require external dependencies. It is not really a big issue here, but in other games things have already gone really bad, namely online servers for games have been switched of (Resident Evil on PS2 I think). And we will certainly see much more of this with all the DRM around.