The first-person action adventure/third-person gorilla beat-'em-up combo genre has been born in Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. As the long-winded title suggests, this is the game based on the upcoming retelling of the 1933 film by the Academy Award-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. King Kong feels more like a stand-alone product than a handy cash-in for the license, however. This game blends the aforementioned first-person action sequences with its third-person (or should it be third-gorilla?) components remarkably well, as you traverse the perils of Skull Island as both screenwriter Jack Driscoll and the 800-pound gorilla himself, King Kong. It also helps that both components, on their own standing, can be a great deal of fun when the game is at its best--which, fortunately, is the majority of the time. Unfortunately, even the majority of the time isn't very long in the case of King Kong, a game that won't take you more than a single afternoon to beat. But that afternoon will be well spent.
Skull Island: Home of beautiful people, lush beaches, and friendly animal life.
The story of King Kong opens with filmmaker Carl Denham (voiced by the always-entertaining Jack Black) in a fit of desperation. A film studio is about to can his next project, so it's going to take something drastic to get things back on track. Along with his screenwriter, Jack (played by the soft-spoken Adrien Brody), and struggling actress Ann Darrow (played wonderfully by Naomi Watts), Carl procures a ship to take him and his misfit film crew to the mysterious Skull Island, a supposedly abandoned home of a lost civilization. Why exactly he goes to all this trouble just to film a movie isn't really explained in the game. In fact, most of the early story exposition is told briefly via the first half of the movie trailer you've likely seen in theaters already. Obviously it would seem that there is more to all this, but you won't get to find out about it until you go see the movie in a few weeks. By the same token, because the movie isn't out yet, we can't tell you how much of the story King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie might spoil for you. If you're the type that absolutely wants to be surprised, you might want to wait a few weeks before grabbing this game.
The game itself picks up right as the ship reaches the gloomy island. You open your eyes to see the world through the perspective of Jack, just as he's being lowered in a rowboat, along with Denham, Ann, and a pair of sailors, to set forth for the shore. It's stormy waters, and sure enough, things go awry when large chunks of rock begin plummeting into the sea, right near your boat. You wake up on the beach, with the almost angelic Ann standing over you. You're marooned, confused, and wondering what those horrible, beastly shrieks are that are coming from further within the island. All this happens before you even pick up a weapon, and you'll honestly spend the first 10 minutes or so of the game just looking around, taking in the scenery and gaining your bearings.
In fact, you'll probably do a lot of sight-seeing in King Kong, partially due to the great atmosphere (which we'll get to later), and also because there isn't anything on the screen to distract you from the enemies and scenery in front of you. There's no heads-up display of any kind. You gauge how much health you have via a screen effect that flashes the screen red when you're injured. When in such a state, you need to get away from the action briefly to heal up. If you take another major blow while things are still flashing, you'll die. Ammo is kept track of via verbal cues from Jack. Every time you reload, he says out loud if he's got enough ammo, or if he's starting to run dry. It's a great system, really. You won't ever feel like you're missing a HUD, since these subtle methods of information really keep you in the loop.
You can only hold one gun at a time, though you can pocket weapons in favor of pointier instruments of death, like discarded bones of fallen creatures and spears that have been left lying about. You will need to toss said weapon before you can pull your gun again, however (which does make sense, given the limited carrying ability of Jack). The game goes out of its way to make its ammo pickups seem completely sensible, too. The captain of the ship flies around the island in a seaplane, dropping crates full of guns for you to pick up here and there, while he looks for a decent place to land. Spears and bones are left in areas that seem to make perfect sense for the scenery. And apart from bones, ammo isn't unlimited. If you find a cache of three spears, then that's all you get to use (though you can reuse spears over and over again if you need to). You also only get a certain amount of ammo per gun, and once you're dry, you'll need to improvise. It's great though, because the game always seems to leave enough other weapons around to give you just enough to beat off whatever threats are coming your way. If you're cautious and jump between spears and guns on a measured basis, you'll never feel like you're hopelessly outgunned.
Somehow King Kong manages to make a dark, gloomy, depressing island into a beautiful thing to look at.
Whether you're chucking spears, pumping shotguns, or letting loose barrages of bullets with a Tommy gun, the combat during Jack's sections of King Kong are always satisfying. The weapons all pack a good punch, and it's surprisingly easy to hit your targets. There's no targeting reticle turned on by default, but you don't need one. So long as you're aiming in the direction of an enemy, you're likely to hit it. It's not that the game is completely holding your hand, it's just making it so it doesn't have to clutter the interface with a precise reticle, and that's a great touch.
It also helps that the monsters you'll encounter on Skull Island are unbelievably ferocious. Everything that lives on this island is like a bigger, significantly mutated version of an animal that was highly dangerous and unpleasantly tempered to begin with. Angry dinosaurs, 10-foot-long millipedes, hordes of giant scorpions, and bats that look more like massive gargoyles are just some of the horrific beasts that inhabit this hellacious place, and they don't much care for the fact that you're on their turf. They're smart, too. They'll attack in packs and force you into hiding spots and cover positions. And boy, do they like to bite. Some enemies can't even be killed by puny humans, like the packs of Tyrannosaurus rexes that periodically pop up. The best you can do when they show up is hope to distract them long enough with gunfire and spears to find a way the hell out of there. It's tense, gripping stuff when you're running around like a madman, desperately shooting at a T-Rex that's angrily growling at deafening volume, and it shows that this game has more to it than just mindless shooting.
The game definitely has its puzzle elements as well. Often times you'll be challenged to seek out missing handles to insert into large wooden posts (for the purposes of rotation, to open a large door), or set ablaze a patch of briars to clear your path. OK, so maybe the term "challenge" is a bit generous. Very few of the things you're tasked with take an awful lot of thought on your part, mainly because the levels are laid out in such a linear fashion that it's tough to get lost. It's also because your artificial intelligence-controlled compatriots are mostly smart enough to know where they're going, so save for the few bits where you're on your own, all you really need to do is just follow them. It's cool stuff, despite its relative simplicity. You definitely get a primal feel out of spearing nearby grubs to distract a pack of raptors, and of realizing that fire is your greatest resource.