James Cameron's Avatar Review
James Cameron's Avatar has to be one of the most-hyped movies in recent memory, and in spite of good reviews, by now most of us are getting sick of the hubbub surrounding it. The film's overexposure hasn't done much to promote gamer enthusiasm for the inevitable video game tie-in, and that means that like a witch in Salem, the game probably can't get a fair trial. That said, while Avatar works hard to stake its claim as an independent game title, a thin plot and humdrum objectives prevent it from becoming more than just another movie add-on.
The game version of Avatar more or less ignores the plot of the movie and develops its own unique story. In it you play Able Ryder, a signals specialist for the RDA Corporation whose dream is to be stationed on planet Pandora. You start by choosing a character (male or female human of various ethnicities) and are briefed on the way to Pandora by the head of the Avatar program—a somewhat scary 3D version of Sigourney Weaver. The minute you land at the RDA base you're thrown into combat, protecting fellow soldiers from waves of attacking viper wolves. Various other tutorial-ish missions after that teach you how to use your standard issue machine guns, rifles and shotguns as well as how to maneuver an ATV and a hovercraft through the swampy terrain.
The RDA Corp's main motive for settling on Pandora is to mine a rare mineral called Unobtanium; however when you arrive, everyone appears to be preparing for some kind of military action. Charged with discovering the identity of a suspected RDA mole, you visit a nearby RDA encampment as your avatar and soon after (way too soon after) war starts and you're forced to side with RDA Corp or the Na'vi. Here the game experience changes depending on which side you choose. If you choose the RDA, you'll play a somewhat familiar military shooter. If (like I did) you choose the Na'vi you'll get more platform gameplay and get to take a close look at the Na'vi's weird and wonderful world, the center of which is Hometree, a village at the base of a huge spiral tree. There you meet Tsahik Sanume, tribal matriarch, and hunter Tan Jala, who give you advice and guidance regarding your quest to fend off RDA attacks and beat them to a mythical Well of Souls (Indiana Jones, anyone?) which is rumored to grant immeasurable power to whoever controls it.
Throughout the somewhat thin story progression, you embark on a series of mostly unimaginative, linear missions that have you gathering healing plants and destroying military targets. Along the way you cover a lot of ground either on foot or on one of the tame, six-legged Direhorses seen wandering around. You're given a scanner to gather info on local flora and fauna but since that's all the gadget is good for, it's unlikely you'll use it; in fact, you'll probably forget you even have it. Whether exploring or questing, every step of the way you'll be fighting RDA forces. The Na'vi use bows, crossbows, dual blades, clubs, staffs and M30 machine guns, all to fairly good effect. The game does a good job of making it worth your while to use the Na'vi weapons, especially the standard bow, which offers incredible range and accuracy. Arrows for bows can be gathered from local plants, along with cell samples which give you a “recover” function that allows you to revive if you're killed during battle.
Combat is the main thrust of the game and while it's not great, it's not bad either. For one thing, the game does a good job of creating a sense of chaos as you run through the jungle with bullets flying and fires burning. Controller rumble and screen shake is used to good effect here too. Admittedly, melee combat is a little clunky as you try to aim at and hit those teeny little humans (the Na'vi are about 10 feet tall). The worst example of clunky melee is when you're riding a big, six-legged cat creature that's very powerful but can't land a sharp-taloned swipe to save its life. Mounts in Avatar had great potential to make combat more varied and interesting but except for the big cat, they're completely unused. Most disappointing is the banshee, a butterfly/dragon creature that presents opportunities for bombing runs or other fierce airborne attacks but in the end functions only as a fairly cumbersome mode of long distance transportation.
If it feels like mounts got short shrift in the game, then the RPG elements of it really got the shaft. Avatar wants to function like an RPG and makes a shallow attempt at the mechanic by employing the standard XP gain and leveling, as well as skill, weapon and armor upgrades. The skills do offer some fun, ranging from the usual healing ability to skills that allow you to stun groups of enemies, put up a glowing shield or call up whirlwinds to literally blow the RDA away. The thing is, RPG fans are like car enthusiasts; they'll take an automatic if they have to but they really prefer driving stick. Avatar takes a lot of the fun out of its RPG elements by making leveling, skill upgrading and weapon/armor swapping automatic. Very likely this was done to make things easier for the game's broader audience but the decision tends to diminish the game's sense of customization rather than add to it. A side effect of this RPG auto-pilot is that there's little reason to open your extensive in-game journal (unless you're into reading through the text-heavy Pandorapedia). In addition to all upgrading being done for you, there's no other gameplay reason to reference the map or objective listings since onscreen objective markers point the way to every mission and you never have more than one objective at a time.
Overall, Avatar plays fairly shallowly. Even the one idea that could have made both the single and multiplayer games more interesting—the War Room minigame—fails to fully gel. You access this minigame at various Trees of Vision located around the environment; by doing so, you're presented with a planetary map of Pandora and the opportunity to battle for control of it. Using credits gained during the single player campaign, you can buy troops and defenses and then use your forces to attack and dominate enemy-occupied areas. Winning in the War Room gains you single player game XP and benefits like damage, armor or health boost which makes for a nice interdependence between the two modes. It would have been cool if the two were even more related—if say, winning more territories on the War Room map affected the way battles went in the single player game. As it is, the War Room feels mostly like an unnecessary sideline.
While gameplay in Avatar leaves something to be desired, the graphics are good enough to stand comparison with the movie. The dev team deserves real credit for creating an exotic, beautiful game world. Aside from some subtle popping as low res textures turn to high res ones, the environment art is gorgeous, especially the magical Willowglade, which features a veritable rainbow forest filled with glowing crystals. (Coolest of all, there are parts of this area and the game as a whole that bear a vague conceptual resemblance to the Jim Henson movie, The Dark Crystal.) The characters look almost as good as the environments do, although Na'vi movment is a little jerky at times and might have benefited from more catlike grace. If the beauty of the game isn't enough for you as is though, and your TV is equipped with “Stereoscopy”, you can turn the graphics up to eleven by playing the game in 3D.
Unlike the graphics in Avatar, the sound is only so-so. The soundtrack does what it's supposed to, cluing you in to impending combat sequences with pounding drums, etc. The voice acting does its job as well, although Na'vi warrior Beyda'amo sounds too much like Schwarzennegger for my liking. It's not that anything in particular about the sound design stands out as bad; it's just that nothing stands out, period.
Avatar is a game that for all its ambition, fails to actualize. While it deserves some credit for creating a storyline unique from that of the film, that credit is limited due to the game's automatic and largely unimaginative execution. Many of the missions feel like busywork, and seem inappropriate for a world in crisis. And while the combat system isn't bad, the character motivations--including your reasons for choosing a side in the conflict--are pretty thin, making for some abrupt and unbelievable developments. There is some fun to be had in this approximately 8 hour game (16 or more if you play through as both RDA and Na'vi and try out the multiplayer modes) but it just can't compete with the many excellent action games of recent memory. I recommend this one only for fans of the movie—and only after the price is cut in half.