IGN Review of James Cameron's Avatar: The Game
James Cameron has delivered some movies of monstrous proportions. Titanic, Aliens and The Terminator have all come to us courtesy of the Canadian filmmaker. This December sees the release of the long-awaited Avatar, a movie about an alien moon called Pandora and the battle over its riches. Cameron's last movie, Titanic, set all sorts of box office records. That puts the expectations for Avatar at near impossible levels and naturally paves the way for a videogame adaptation. It's a game that I had high hopes for and though it does its best to play to the movie's strengths -- featuring a lush jungle world and 3D visuals – Avatar: The Game ultimately suffers from unpolished and thin gameplay elements.
Avatar: The Game takes place on the same moon as its movie counterpart but rather than retelling Cameron's tale, it offers a prequel story and an introduction to Pandora's past. The reason for all of the commotion? Pandora is the only known place to harvest unobtanium, a mineral worth whatever it takes to get it. Unfortunately, Pandora has a toxic atmosphere and is the home to some hostile locals, including giant carnivorous plants and the Na'vi, an alien race that stands roughly 10 feet tall. The RDA, a military for hire, has countered with Avatars, a genetic hybrid between humans and Na'vi. And so the war begins in earnest.
Very little of this is actually explained directly to the player. Instead, you're thrust into the role of Abel Ryder, a new RDA recruit with an Avatar to control – never you mind what an Avatar is or why they exist. Soon after, you're forced to choose to fight either for the Na'vi as a full-time Avatar or for the RDA. The game wastes no time getting right down to brass tacks, but in doing so glosses over what should have been its chance to lay down the groundwork for any motivation it might have offered the player. Instead, it sets up a series of generic quests and little bits of story about the search for some special rocks that you'll have just about no investment in.
If you decide to fight for the RDA, Avatar: The Game plays as a third-person shooter, offering plenty of guns and war machines to take down the flora and fauna. Fight for the Na'vi and you'll instead wield primitive though effective clubs, staffs and knives. Limited ranged combat is in store for the Na'vi fighter as well through a machine gun and a bow and arrows, but the majority of the action is up close and personal. Though both sides have similar special powers to call upon, this setup makes for two drastically different experiences.
Both branches of the game last between four and six hours – more if you take on all of the side tasks – but each tell their own story and deliver their own style of gaming. Will you play a straight action game with limited platforming as you fight for the natives? Or will you tackle a third-person shooter and lay waste to everything in sight using guns and flamethrowers? Or will you wind up playing both sides to double your game time? It's a nice concept and the two sides of the Avatar: The Game coin are different enough to make each feel distinct. Neither, however, plays well enough to make it a standout.
There's nothing disastrous here, and the RDA shooter side of things performs well enough to be occasionally enjoyable. The quest design, including both the main and side tasks, is about as generic as they come. Go here, collect this, plant these bombs, or kill this and then return to me. It's mindless, you shoot stuff and it explodes. It works, though it could handle a lot better and the enemy AI isn't up to snuff. During one big boss battle at the end, my foe jumped off of a cliff and then ran across a field and hid in a corner. Searching for him wasn't very fun.
Fighting for the Na'vi is a bit worse. The animations are stiff and awkward. The camera, particularly in the melee combat, is unsteady enough to be disorienting and perhaps even nauseating. The controls feel far too loose, a problem that also exists any time you get in a vehicle. The whole ordeal just isn't anything you'd really want to play for that long. The quests are about the same as the RDA, as is the story though told from a different perspective, which doesn't leave a whole lot of room for fun.
Avatar: The Game offers distractions that try their best to cover up these shortcomings, but they too aren't as fully fleshed out as one would hope. There's lots of wrapping paper here, but unfortunately the box is empty. A perfect example is the leveling system. Gain enough XP and you'll move up a level, but the XP doled out is trivial for everything but main quest completion. New levels offer upgraded skills, weapon and armor, but these upgrades are auto-equipped and hardly noticeable. Pick your favorite skills and weapons at the beginning of the game and that's all the management you'll do. It's a leveling and unlocking system that isn't much more than window dressing.
There's also a mini-game inspired by Risk in which experience gained in the main game converts into a currency for buying new units and upgrades in a game for global domination. Controlling areas in that game, in turn, offers experience points and upgrades in the main game. It's a genuinely cool idea and it's one I wish offered more actual reward for tackling.
There's a whole suite of multiplayer modes to tackle once you've finished the main game twice. This game puts players on either the Na'vi or RDA teams in a head-to-head team match. There are your standard capture the flag and deathmatch modes, as well as games of attack and defend and capture and hold. The same gameplay shortcomings that hamper the single player game make this one you probably won't keep playing for long.
The shining star of Avatar: The Game, unsurprisingly, is the world of Pandora. You can learn a bit more about it through the Pandorapedia unlocked by exploring the world. Most of us, though, will simply run through the lush jungle and marvel at the alien world. Floating mountains, carnivorous plants, massive creatures and more pack the screen at all times. It's enough to occasionally cause the visuals to stutter as the game can't keep up with both the action and the packed backdrop. It looks even better in 3D, if you have a screen capable of displaying it. This literally makes the world jump out at you. Bullets will whip by your head. Bits of plants will creep out around you. It's a cool effect and one that fits in perfectly with the movie it is based on. Cameron's world and all of its alien life forms were captured quite well visually.
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