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Joystiq Review: Peter Jackson's King Kong (Xbox 360)

After disappointment with EA’s video game adaptations of his The Lord of the Rings films, director Peter Jackson sought famed game designer Michel Ancel (and his team at Ubisoft’s Montpellier studios) to help him create a game for his latest movie, an adaptation of King Kong.

With (the verbosely titled) Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, the two of them have created the rarest of things: an exceptional movie-based game. The finished product is unusually polished; the graphics, voicework, story, and gameplay have all been scripted into an elegant, if notably short, product.

Monkey Ape Business
King Kong puts you in the first-person perspective of Jack Driscoll as you traverse Skull Island. Your weapons are limited to a single gun at a time, or bones and spears you’ll find littered throughout the island. There is no on-screen display telling you how many bullets you have left or what level your health is at. With the press of a button Jack will call out his ammo count, and if hit your screen will flash red until you recuperate. The simplicity of this system eliminates any interference between you and the game.

The game is divided into short chapters, each one a small exercise: finding Ann, saving Hayes, or defeating a T-Rex. While these stages are linear - don’t expect to wander off the track and investigate Skull Island - they are thrilling. There is a palpable tension propelling you; with a massive T-Rex just behind you or an enormous chasm beneath you, the game excels at pushing you through it.

The few scenes where you play as Kong himself - er, yourself - are as different from Jack's scenes as Kong is from Jack. Playing as Jack, patience and wit help you survive. As Kong, you run, climb and swing with no chance of falling to your death. It too is straightforward and scripted, but manages to capture the size and strength of the massive ape. Playing as Kong during the final scenes in New York City offers a unique point of view both similar to the movie, but perhaps even surpassing it. The initial realization that you are controlling Kong, shackled on screen, is frightening. Breaking free from his bondage and rampaging across midtown Manhattan is thrilling, though fatalistic: you already know what happens, it is inevitable. Being on rails in this stage lends a certain poignancy to Kong's fate.

Perfect Dark Kong?
The games graphics are, for the most part, exceptional. The art direction of the entire game is superb, and is equally owed to both Ubisoft’s expertise and Jackson’s vision. The scale and detail of the environments, their inhabitants, and the lack of interface obstruction, creates a uniquely immersive experience. Curiously, the admission that the Xbox 360 port was tested solely on high definition monitors, resulting in an image that is often too dark on standard definition televisions, wasn't apparent to this gamer. If anything, many scenes were too dark on both high definition and standard definition screens, with no distinction between the two.

The game has also accrued a reputation for being especially loose with its gamerscore points. You can gather every single achievement the game offers, netting you a cool 1000 points, by doing nothing more than beating it straight through. Even more curious was the revelation there is indeed a second unlockable ending, attainable after completing the game once, and then again while scoring over a certain number of points; a bona fide achievement goal if ever there was one. Despite this obvious attraction, it's hard to recommend the Xbox 360 variant when, at $60, it offers little extra in exchange for that premium price. The title's online scoreboards are outside of the Xbox 360 Live service, and the graphics, while a notable improvement, lend little to the gameplay above and beyond their surface appeal.

Despite being linear and, at six to eight hours, exceedingly short, King Kong never feels simplified. It was designed, in part, for novice gamers, eager to play a polished, cinematic game without cumbersome controls and punishing difficulty. But gaming veterans will also find an elegant and thoughtfully designed game, owing as much to classic survival horror titles as it does to the movie it's based on.

Overall Rating: 8.5 out of 10

At $60, Kong is a very highly recommended rental, if for no other reason than to rack up all of those gamerscore points. But if you're interested in owning one of the best movie based games out there, either pick up a cheaper current-gen version, or wait for that price to come down.

(Update 1: Score has been amended to reflect Joystiq's grading scale using increments of 0.5)

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