Carl Denham has a problem. Not only is it a bad time to be a movie director (it's the 1930s - the Great Depression - and nobody has any cash to spare for the flicks), but his latest production has run into disaster. Coming with scriptwriter Jack Driscoll and actress Ann Darrow to the mysterious Skull Island might have seemed like a good idea for a location shoot, but how was he to know he'd find a rain-lashed hell filled with cannibals, dinosaurs, and a giant gorilla with an insatiable crush on his leading lady?
Not that we're complaining. Not when Peter Jackson's latest is a cinematic tour de force. On screen it's a brain-melting explosion of special effects, monkey business and ear-splitting screams (courtesy of Naomi Watts' Ann). And on Xbox 360? Well it's that and more. It's a first-person shooter (you play Jack Driscoll as he and his fellow survivors run and gun their way through Skull Island's deadly jungles). It's a third-person action adventure (become Kong in a series of Prince of Persia-inspired running and leaping bits before pounding prehistoric monstrosities with your meaty fists). It's even a puzzle game (manipulate fire to create new paths and send roaming packs of Velociraptors to dinosaur hell). But most of all it's a stunning, non-stop romp of spectacular gaming setpieces.
Forget the simplistic mechanics (ammo is too scarce to really class it as a proper first-person shooter and the Kong sections are short and basic compared to anything Prince of Persia serves up), and instead lap up the runaway madness of being thrown from a beach assault against giant crabs to fighting between the legs of a Brontosaurus stampede. One minute you're wrestling T-Rexes and oversized Pterodactyls as Kong, the next you're wading through a burning swamp as Jack while giant centipedes attack from all directions. Think of it as a really big movie trailer, one mindblowing setpiece after another with none of the boring talky bits that hold up the action. Okay, so it's as linear as a newspaper story, but you'll hardly care you'll be having that much fun.
We could sit and sing the praises of Kong's bombastic setpieces all day, to be honest. They are, after all, what makes it such a compelling game. But they're not what make Kong really special. There's something far subtler at work here, and it helps catapult Kong from quite cool movie-to-game effort into a truly new take on the first-person shooter/adventure genre.
Take a good look at the screenshots and tell us what you see. A giant ape, right? And a man holding a gun. And a spear. And some dinosaurs. Right, yes, all correct, but it's what you can't see that's important here. Look again and you'll notice that unlike pretty much every other game ever, Kong does away with any kind of onscreen status bar. No energy bar, no ammo count, nothing. You might not even call it a game anymore: it's a joypad-controlled movie.
Which of course sounds pretentious, but think of it this way: you enter a clearing as Jack only to see Ann on the other side cowering in a crumbling ruin. Between you and her is a very angry, hungry T-Rex. "Get his attention!" Ann screams, leading you to squeeze off a few precious rounds of 9mm. Do you have enough ammo to waste like that? You don't know and there's no time to check as Mr Rex is already thundering towards you. Now try and imagine a scene like that with all the standard on screen mission objectives and gaming distractions. It just wouldn't have been as dramatic. By doing away with interface stuff Ubisoft has created the next step in total gaming immersion. With atmosphere this intense, we found playing King Kong as moreish as monkey nuts.