Avatar: The Game
Movie tie-in game. The very words evoke images of disappointment, glitches, and anger. Every once in a while, gamers get a solid movie tie-in; “King Kong” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” spring to mind. “James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game” had some mighty big hype to live up to. The developers, Ubisoft have been working on it for over two years and James Cameron was also involved in the design process. Two years should be more than enough time to deliver a solid game, right? Well, one would think that’s the case, but like the feature film “Avatar” itself, “Avatar: The Game” just fails to live up to the hype due to a few glaring problems.
Rather than retell the story of the movie (which honestly is nothing to write home about), “Avatar: The Game” stands as a prequel. You inhabit the role of Able Ryder, an RDA mercenary brought into “drive” an Avatar, a 10-foot tall Na’vi mixed with human DNA. The game gives you a good taste of what playing as a human soldier has to offer, although, just as you take your Avatar for a test spin, you’re quickly being forced to choose sides: RDA or Na’vi. This choice determines which storyline you’ll follow, although if you choose Na’vi, be prepared for some incredibly frustration, as the pre-choice gameplay doesn’t give you much idea how the Na’vi weapons differ from those of the RDA.
As you progress through the game, it becomes glaringly obvious that there wasn’t much effort put into the storyline. At the core, both storylines are very same in theme, and to be quite honest, I found the finale of the Na’vi campaign to be very lackluster. So with paper-thin writing to push you forward, the game’s success lies squarely on the shoulders of the gameplay and this is where the player sees a noticeable difference in the campaign.
”Avatar: The Game” plays like a third-person shooter throughout both campaigns, with the noticeable exception of the weapons you use. If you choose the RDA path, you’ll have access to a wide range of weapons, including pistols, rifles, shotguns, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers. The game also adds combat perks that recharge over time, with the more powerful perks taking longer in between uses. Such abilities include a boost in speed, increased damage, cloaking (although it deactivates the minute you fire a weapon), and an aerial tactical strike are among your options. Both the weapons (armor is included too) and ability system grow in power through a pseudo-RPG mechanic. The more experience you get, the more powerful weapons you’ll unlock and the stronger your abilities will become.
This sounds nice, but you’ll quickly find some of the weapon classes, namely the flamethrower and assault rifle are useless, and the “leveling up” just gives you a new gun in the category you’re using with increased stats. There’s no selection to choose from and you could easily play through the game without entering the items menu. The experience you gain comes from completing main story missions as well as side missions. However, the amount you gain from simply completing the story mode is so much greater compared to that of side missions, there’s no reason to complete side missions, save for getting the achievement points tacked to each area in the game.
However, when you are actually playing the game, the RDA campaign is quite a competent and fun third person shooter. I found no glaring problems with the aiming mechanics and was gunning down Na’vi in no time flat. To spice things up, the developers have added various vehicles along the way to aid you in both travel and combat. The most common vehicle you’ll come across is the dune buggy, although the Scorpion gunship and the AMP suit (i.e. mech suit) make appearances more towards the end of the campaign. The AMP suit is quite fun to take out for a spin, but the Scorpion suffers from clunky flight controls and is unable to target objects on the ground.
The RDA campaign (as does the Na’vi campaign) lasts around 4-5 hours, but quickly becomes very repetitive. The main story arc centers around Ryder collecting crystals and for at least 75% of the campaign, you’re exploring the area you’re dropped into with the lone goal of finding the three crystals and moving onto the next area. The game does try to add a greater variety of objectives when it comes to the climactic battle, but it’s too little too late.
On the Na’vi side of things, gameplay is identical to that of the RDA, with the exception of weapons. The Na’vi rely on melee combat and until you’ve earned enough experience to level up your weapons, you will die and die often. The melee controls slapped onto the core third-person shooter mechanics just don’t work. They are far from fluid and I found myself using the fighting staff almost the entire campaign, solely because it’s wide range makes up for the lack of precision. The abilities mechanic really gets a workout here and without it the Na’vi are hopeless against the RDA.
The Na’vi campaign feels far less repetitive than the RDA, despite you end up looking for crystals just the same. The catch on this side is you often have to help some fellow warriors raid an RDA outpost before the location of the crystal is safe to explore. It’s still essentially a game based on item collection, but the paintjob was enough to make it a little more enjoyable.
The Na’vi get Direhorses and Thanators to ride on occasion, but the main “vehicle” on their side are the Banshees. Ubisoft drops the ball here, as the control of these flying beasts is twice as clunky as that of the Scorpion. What should have been a very fun, immersive experience, becomes an exercise in tedium and frustration; when the controls do work, you’re doing little more than flying from point a to point b, as there is no in-flight combat mechanism.
For those who blast through the campaigns, there is a RISK-like side game that is good for a few achievement points, but not much effort was put into making it an engaging experience. If you play it early on in the campaign, you can help your character do more damage, increase their maximum health, or earn some extra experience. It’s almost impossible to progress very far in the mini game though until the end, as your progress in the campaign gives you credits to use in the minigame.
There’s a multiplayer mode that should give players a reason to want and purchase the game, but to be honest, it’s garbage. There’s a selection of game modes, with each being playable on only two maps each. So basically, the map you play capture the flag on will never be used for king of the hill, or deathmatch, and vice-versa. The multiplayer mode really shows the flaws in the control scheme and the maps themselves end up being too large, especially when it can be tough to find a full room of players. I tried my best to get into this online portion, but it only made me see how loosely held together this game is.
Graphics and Sound
”Avatar: The Game” doesn’t sport the astonishing graphics it’s big screen counterpart possess, but it’s no slouch either. The jungles of Pandora are quite beautifully designed. I found the rendering and of the foliage to be magnificent and the water effects are nothing to scoff at either. After having seen the feature film, going back to the game does give me a feeling of being on Pandora, despite the different environments being fairly linear, a testament to their immersive quality. Character models are impressive, but not up to the levels of “Assassins Creed 2” or “Batman: Arkham Asylum.” The frame rate unfortunately takes a hit when the action on-screen gets intense, but is the only real black mark on the visuals.
I was unable to test out the game’s 3D capabilities as I don’t own the shutter glasses needed to get the effect working, so I cant comment on that aspect of the game.
The sound design of the game is nothing remarkable. There are some nice uses of surround effects that give you a feeling of claustrophobia in the jungle, both as an RDA soldier hearing arrows whiz by your head from the bush and as a Na’vi trying to pinpoint assault rifle fire. Voice acting is enjoyable but very sparse, especially on the Na’vi side. The RDA campaign secures Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Lang as their movie counterparts, although all three are essentially extended cameos. The original characters designed for the game get the job done with ease, but again, aren’t given much depth to work with. The game’s score definitely reminds me of something I’d here in an epic sci-fi film, but isn’t very dynamic and more or less exists out of necessity.
”Avatar: The Game” isn’t one of those rare fantastic tie-ins, but is by no means as haphazard as “Enter the Matrix” or as detached as “Lost: Via Domus.” It’s ultimately an average game due to a fairly solid, cookie cutter campaign and impressive audio/visual presentation. Had the developers wisely used their two years to iron out the bugs and add more depth to the gameplay, rather than throw together a disappointing multiplayer mode, I’d probably recommend this as a purchase, especially for “Avatar” fans. $60 is far too steep a price to pay for the experience; you’re going to get all you need to out of a rental fairly easily and that’s the best way “Avatar: The Game” should be experienced. Rent It.