Review: James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

3 December 2009
9:55 am


Video games based on movies are often a disappointing affair, on par with movies based on video games or movies based on almost every book. The mediums themselves are so disparate with such stark divisions between them that finding a common method of telling the same story often leads to failure– movies are presentations where we're a spectator, watching as things flow past; games are inherently interactive to a necessary degree, and a game that divorced itself from this interactivity would be as absurd as a movie that expected the audience to control where the film goes. The problem is that so often, attempts to bridge the gap between these constructs fall flat, less an emulation and more like a sad copy.

Avatar: The Game, in development by Ubisoft since 2007, attempts to get around this trap by setting itself in the same universe as the upcoming film without being a game version of the movie. They also had the luxury of getting to work hand-in-hand with James Cameron's team as he filmed his grand space opera, giving them an opportunity towards direct input that most film/game adaptations lose out on. For their version, Ubisoft was given carte blanche to craft their experience; the final result is a tie-in that is certainly affiliated with the film without attempting to follow the movie's plot word for word.

However, while I ultimately feel that Avatar is an incredible video game adaptation, on its own legs it is marred by execution issues that fail to make it more compelling than an average-quality game. Controls are extremely frustrating to use, vehicles are about as responsive as I imagine driving a real tank must be, and the shallow/predictable story won't blow anybody away. Avatar is not bad by any means, but it's decidedly average. It's less filet mignon and more burger joint meal; no one's going to walk away offended, but neither is this the sort of thing that you're necessarily going to rave to your friends about once you've had the experience.

Let's get the bad out of the way first, with one caveat. While Avatar has been released on the PS3, Xbox360, Wii (and even the PSP and Nintendo DS), this review's source material is the PC version. I don't know if my complaints with the vehicle controls (for example) are improved on the console, so I'll leave that to someone else to validate.

As the story starts, you're an avatar; shallowly explained, this means that you're a human being with a rare combination of genetics that allows you to link in and transfer your consciousness into the hollow shell of a genetically-bred hybrid, walking around and controlling it as if it was your own body. The atmosphere of Pandora (the alien planet that serves as the game's location) is poisonous to humans– when outside they wear face masks, but the avatars themselves, modeled after the native Na'vi who call Pandora home, need no such protection. The Na'vi are a sentient race of aliens living in peace and harmony with Pandora, considered primitive and tribal to human standards but physically stronger and more capable. The human faction in control of things on Pandora are known as the RDA and serve as a sort of military-industrial organization overseeing both the transferring of avatars from Earth to the planet as well as monitoring Pandora itself. Avatar is really two full campaigns in one game; a short time after the game familiarizes you with controls and various abilities, you learn that things are not all joy and love on Pandora. The Na'vi, frustrated and threatened by human encroachment on their world, have started fighting back, enlisting the help of a mole within RDA to sabotage human activities on their planet. The RDA have escalated the situation ten-fold, destroying entire Na'vi settlements with aerial bombardments as punishment. You're given the choice of aligning yourself with the RDA or the Na'vi and depending on what path you pick, you have an entirely different campaign of content to progress through.

This is where the shallow story starts to manifest: in the short space of time between starting the game and making this serious moral choice, there's not a lot of explanation for why you shouldn't just stay with the RDA. Oh, sure, the game does its best to evangelize from the start with its parallels between the Na'vi and first-world encroachment upon indigenous peoples in, say, Africa– in fact there's a rather creepy necessity for all of the Na'vi voice actors to sound decidedly African all around, further underscoring this intended moral statement permeating the game. At the start it's subconsciously established that humans are the cancer, the greedy ones, invading and messing everything up for the peaceful Na'vi who were there first; this is a lesson I picked up right away, reverberated from a childhood of Captain Planet cartoons, and by the time I was saddled with picking a side I already knew which one I was supposed to go with, even if the game itself hadn't really given me any tangible rationality as to why. Just because! Well, okay then. I could have done without the pseudo-environmentalism moralizing things and would have appreciated something further along towards an actual rationality that determined what I would be doing for the rest of the game, but sadly Avatar didn't seem fit to provide this.

The game is played from a third person over-the-shoulder perspective, identical to the same point of view used in Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example. This is a subjective choice, but I absolutely loathe this perspective. Your targeting reticule is front and center as always, but your character is on the left side of the screen and all movement is directed from that position. This means that it's easy to lead yourself off a cliff (of which Pandora has many) by simple virtue of misjudging where your feet are. I also feel that this perspective leads itself very easily to motion sickness and between that and the annoying camera-bob, I was getting eye strain very quickly. While you're in a vehicle your point of view is from the more-traditional dead center, which only marginally improves things given that the vehicles themselves drive so poorly. Whether you're in the human all-terrain vehicles or the Na'vi Banshees (huge pterodactyl-like flying mounts), they all have pathetically bad maneuverability that make such sequences with them unbelievably frustrating to play. It's so teeth-grinding that many times I sacrificed the vehicles because I realized I could get to the next checkpoint over land– it would take much longer, but that was an okay trade-off as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately vehicles play a large role in Avatar, which doesn't make this any easier. On the PC version, your special abilities are bound by default to the 1 – 4 keys, while you switch weapons by scrolling the mouse; this is counter-intuitive to any other FPS/action game I've ever played and I was continually annoyed by accidentally activating special abilities when I meant to switch between weapons.

The quests themselves are not any more interesting; they're shallow as well, very repetitive and all-around boring. Most of them consist of person A telling you to talk to person B who tells you to talk to A again, who has inexplicably moved to the opposite side of the map for no real reason. There's a sort of fast-travel that opens up as you unlock locations on the map, which helps to some degree, but it's usually a lot of running around for nothing. Every now and then you're tasked with obtaining some plant or killing x number of some enemy, and that's the extent of it for much of the game. On that, Avatar leans towards the short side of stuff; I play through games pretty slowly and even at my turtle pace I was rounding out the end of the Na'vi campaign after only a few hours. There's re-playability in getting to start over and do the opposite side but there's not a whole lot of meat; what extension there is feels artificially inflated by the repetitive quests and responsibilities.

That said, Avatar does bring some interesting things to the table. Built on the Far Cry 2 engine, Pandora is rendered in breathtaking beauty; the landscapes are panoramic and gorgeous and the visual aesthetics will impress even the most curmudgeon video game player. The wealth of interesting alien fauna and wildlife is nothing short of awe-inspiring and if this is a precursor to the beauty we'll see in the movie when it comes out later in December, sign me up.

Visuals aside, one of the things I enjoyed was the experience system. Avatar doesn't really give you levels, but as you accumulate experience you unlock different tiers of items and skills. You don't purchase weapons and armor from an in-game shop, instead mixing and matching what you've unlocked as you level up. On the RDA side you can choose between weapons like flamethrowers, assault rifles and shotguns; the Na'vi have dual-wielding blades, crossbows and massive war axes. You have four weapons equipped at any time (with control over switching out three of them, as one weapon is always locked to the default) and a total of four special abilities– these range from a cloaking field to a self-regeneration or even the ability to call in an air-strike on a certain area; versions of these are available on both the human and Na'vi sides. As you level up you unlock improved versions of weapons, armor and special skills, letting you slot these things in and out on a whim depending on what you need access to. There's no inventory so management of this stuff is easy, though I would have preferred this to be streamlined– there's no quick way to see what you've already got equipped when you're selecting a weapon, in case you want to make sure you haven't doubled up on two dual-blades for example.

The RDA side certainly has the market cornered on weaponry, but there is a beauty to running around using the Na'vi staffs and bows. Each side has its own strengths and weaknesses that change how they approach a combat situation– with the Na'vi, for example, a head-on fight against the human enemies usually means you're quickly cut down by their superior firepower, so it serves you well to sneak up cautiously or pick enemies off from a distance. For lore buffs like myself, Avatar has an unlockable "Pandorapedia" full of background information about everything like native Pandora plant-life to in-game trivia. In this the tie-in to the film certainly excels, as James Cameron hired a team of writers for Ubisoft in order to put the compendium together– though it's a shame that these writers presumably weren't responsible for writing the game's story, as well. The game's soundtrack is very nice, however, filled with sweeping orchestral arrangements that punctuate and improve upon the overall experience.

The game's AI makes use of a feature called "global aggressiveness;" Pandora is inherently a hostile world, with one character early on remarking that he heard of another soldier who lost an arm because it was bitten off by a plant. The fauna and wildlife react to your character, with more hostility being targeted towards humans and less of it to the Na'vi; in time you can use the plantlife to your advantage and it's quite cool watching them chew down the humans as they march across Pandora. As you move over the world you can unlock control points that improve fast-travel and open up a "Conquest" mode for more gameplay choices.

While I have paid a lot of attention to the negatives, I don't think anyone should be dissuaded from checking this out if they were interested, or if further down the road they see the film and want to experience more of Pandora. The game itself is fine; it's average. It's not going to knock anyone's socks off, but it's certainly not the worst thing I've ever played before. Avatar doesn't really bring anything new to the table, but it does execute many of the existing paradigms it employs to a satisfying degree. As far as easy entertainment goes, Avatar delivers. You're probably not going to be moved to tears by its story or its underlying chastising that humans are a pestilence, but for a shooter it's certainly very pretty.

Obligatory Numerical Value: on a scale of one to five, Avatar is an easy three. It's pretty and an example that someone can do a tie-in to a movie without it being bad, but it falls short of being an excellent game by blase writing, bad technical execution and boring gameplay. It's not going to make you miserable if you pick it up, but you might be better off waiting for a sale before buying it unless you're a die hard James Cameron fan.

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