Ever since Atari's E.T. -- a game so ill-conceived that thousands of unsold cartridges were dumped en masse in the desert, creating the crappiest buried treasure of all time -- Hollywood tie-ins have bombed big-time.
Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie aims to finally change that. As its unwieldy title suggests, Kong takes its source material seriously. The result is a cinematic experience that apes the film practically shot for shot -- for better and worse.
Much of that can be credited to Jackson. A videogame junkie himself, Jackson wasn't a hard sell when it came to lending his ample directing talents to the game. His skill at capturing sweeping action is evident when the camera zooms around Kong as he rumbles through the jungle. It's like living in one of the film's deleted scenes.
Movie games typically jump the shark when the first word is spoken. That's when it's revealed that scenery-chewing voice actors have replaced the A-list stars you know and love from the big screen. Not Kong. Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts, and Jack Black all lend original dialogue. Rejoice, fellas: This may be your only chance to hear a rain-soaked Watts scream for your help.
Kong also retains the cinematic experience by eschewing typical videogame clutter, such as points, health meters, and ammo indicators. Instead, the game subtly conveys information through atmosphere. When your health is failing, the music becomes a funeral requiem. If you're low on ammo, Brody's voice announces, "Around five bullets left!"
And you will run out of bullets. A lot. Firearms are scarce. More often than not, you'll be forced to rely on primitive weaponry like spears and sharpened bones to kill skittering centipedes, fierce raptors, and winged horrors. Sometimes, such as when a ferocious T. rex attacks, it's best to just cut and run. The limited firepower and outsized enemies make the danger palpable.
Where the game suffers is in hewing too closely to its source material. While we're spared the movie's interminable 45-minute wait for Kong, the game still focuses far too much on the human characters at the expense of the big ape. Sure, there are moments where you get to play as Kong, but his story is secondary to the shipwrecked adventurers trying to capture him, which might leave you wishing for more monkey.
About 90 percent of the game takes place on Skull Island, so you'll be champing at the bit to reach New York. Yet when Kong finally succumbs to chloroform aromatherapy, the game becomes chained to the movie's plot, to its detriment. As Kong, you'll go through the motions of wrecking Broadway, climbing the Empire State Building, and taking the Nestea plunge, but all told, it only takes half an hour of actual game time.
It's not hard to imagine what might have been, had the game designers given themselves more artistic license. How about a romp through Times Square? Or a massive brawl in Central Park? Instead, the game sticks to the script, making it all feel a tad predetermined. And Kong is a breeze to beat -- you'll spank this monkey in under 10 hours.
Complaints aside, Kong is an 800-pound gorilla of a game, packing all the emotion, storytelling, and sheer terror of the blockbuster. And perhaps most important, it's the first movie-based game in recent memory that doesn't fling poo at its audience.