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James Cameron's Avatar Review

By Neilie Johnson, 12/31/2009

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Played on:

X360

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.

Overall: 75%

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Comments

1/1/2010 04:02:58 AM
Posted by AwakenedDreamer
Wow, that pretty much sums up my expirence to the T. I played Na'Vi side on my PC. I loved it at first. It is a cool game, but just not worth the 50 USD I paid for it. It has great graphics. I loved the night scene. The whole everything you touch glows. Flying the Ikrans was fun...ish...I wish they were a bit better desiged, and that I could at least fire my bow from them. Poor Na'Vi, the only mount that could attack was the Thantor. Which wasn't that great. I had to get off and fight the thing my self.
The skills did have some interesting effect. I developed a powerful combination of stealth and stunning. But over all the combat was a bit clunky as stated, and repetitive. It didn't help that as soon as I walked five feet away from an area all the humans respawned. I swear I killed more humans than there are Na'Vi on the moon.
There was the nifty flight with the Toruk...in a straight line just about. I think my bigest gripe is that once I beat the game it is over...as odd as it sounds. My thought the whole way through was, when I kick these humans out, I want to go fly my Ikran all over the world! (I take it they got rid of the only one Na'Vi can link to an Ikran?)
So I have to admit, I have not bought a new game in at least three years. (I think Guild wars is at least three years old.) Shows how high of hopes I have for it. I LOVE the movie, but I guess it was a major let down to play the game be like...that's it? Now, if they had made the game more like Oblivion or Morrowind I would easily call it the best game ever.
For what Pandora, the moon, has to offer in the way of environment this was not the best way to present it. I still say with Pandora's rich culture and wildlife, I can't wait for my copy of that book to get to me, something more along the lines of an open RP would better suite it. Maybe let the player choose whom they are, what they are and let them decide what they want to do, as well as how, where and when.
This, took me two days to beat, Fable took a week...and Fable was . Oblivion took me a year to finally "beat" the main quest. To me a good game is something you still want to play a year, two or more down the road.
1/29/2010 12:30:26 AM
Posted by RodY
James Cameron has to be a happy guy. For the longest time, his film Titanic held the box office records for highest grosses worldwide – which has just been knocked down to number two, by Cameron's new film, Avatar. There are only two records it has to beat, and one is possible – highest US grosses, and highest ticket sales. The champion of US grosses is still Titanic, but record ticket sales still belong to Gone with the Wind, with over 200 million. Avatar is still under 90. Obviously, Cameron will never need payday loans again – heck, he never needs to work again, and his kids probably won't need to either.

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