Reviews

James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game

ReviewJames Cameron’s Avatar: The Game looks very good. In fact, it’s one of the best looking games to be released in 2009. Unfortunately, that’s probably the best thing I can say about the game. Being a movie-licensed game, my expectations from it weren’t too high to begin with. However, with its promising promos and with Ubisoft claiming the game being in development for a long time, there was a slight chance of it pulling off another Riddick. But after having played through it, I can safely say that it’s a typical mediocre video game tie-in to a movie that’s been making waves and wowing audiences worldwide.

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The game takes place on the planet Pandora (what’s it with alien planets being called Pandora lately?), which by now many of you would be familiar with. The lush rainforests and floating mountains are recreated faithfully in the game using a modified version of the Dunia engine used earlier in Far Cry 2. While it doesn’t look as good as the movie itself, it’s still one of the prettiest game worlds you’ll ever see. There’s a great attention to detail and the planet’s flora and fauna looks as good as you’d expect. You’ll run into many of the creatures (both friendly and hostile) that are featured in the movie along with some new ones like various carnivorous plants.

One of the (few) high points of the game is that the single player campaign is actually split into two separate stories. The story of the game is unrelated to the movie but still follows the basic premise of the conflict between the humans and the native aliens of Pandora. You’ll start the game as a regular grunt working for the RDA – the corporation that’s been searching for an element called “unobtanium” (yeah, good luck finding it with a name like that) on Pandora. The game then introduces you to the “avatar” program that the humans have been using to “pilot” artificially engineered alien bodies in order to gain the trust of the indigenous blue-skinned tribal-like humanoids called the Na’vi. However, it never makes it clear in the beginning as to why that’s being done. It simply puts you in the middle of a conflict and you’re never really sure why it’s happening.

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While it’s not a true sandbox game, the levels are quite large. The game follows a loosely linear format, meaning mission objectives are usually scattered over a large environment, giving you a limited amount of freedom to explore. There is also a faux-RPG mechanic at play. You gain XP for each kill and mission objective, which unlocks new abilities and gear for your character. It feels a bit useless as your character doesn’t really seem to get all that powerful as you progress. After a few basic missions as the human grunt, you’ll be given control of your Na’vi avatar and a few other generic missions later comes a choice where you can either side with the RDA or the Na’vi. It’s pretty obvious that the humans are up to no good and the aliens are actually the good guys here. The rest of the game plays out based on which race you choose to align with.

As the human soldier, the game plays like any other third-person shooter. You’ll get access to various machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and special weapons like grenade launchers and flamethrowers. The combat revolves mostly around running and gunning and there is a fair bit of trial and error involved. The hostile creatures and Na’vi warriors that you’ll face are very fast and it becomes difficult to take them down when you get overwhelmed. To aid in this, there are some support powers that you can use to give yourself speed bursts, healing and other special abilities and attacks. However, none of these feel as useful as just staying on your toes and filling enemies with lead. You can also use some of the RDA vehicles like buggies, boats, gunships and armoured mechs featured in the movie. But the driving and flying controls are frustrating, making it a pain to pilot vehicles especially when missions force you to use them. I must say, however, that piloting a mech and mowing down enemies or flying through the misty floating mountains in the RDA gunship is actually quite fun.

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Playing as the Na’vi is a little more interesting. Since the Na’vi rely mostly on close quarters combat, the game plays more like a hack-n-slash title. You can also switch to the bow and arrow for some long range kills, but you’ll still mostly be fighting with your spear and daggers. The Na’vi are also far more agile and can run much faster compared to the humans. The creatures are also less hostile towards the Na’vi and you can also ride a few of them like the six legged direhorses and the flying pterodactyl-like Ikran, who are almost as frustrating to fly as the RDA gunships. Like the humans, the Na’vi also get special abilities and powers which are upgraded when you get enough XP. The mission objectives are mostly similar, but playing as the Na’vi is definitely more fun than the generic run and gun tactics of the RDA soldier.

While the missions and gameplay is mostly generic and lacklustre for the most part, perhaps the biggest culprit is the story and its execution. The narrative is extremely disjointed and most of the time you’ll have no idea why you are doing certain things. The dialog and voice acting is serviceable with actors from the movie like Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez lending voices to their characters. But even that doesn’t help to elevate the game’s nonsensical storyline. It was probably not a good idea to let the game developers come up with their own version of the story that’s told in the movie. The Na’vi seem pretty out of character in the game compared to their movie counterparts and even though the world looks pretty convincing, it still feels disjointed from the movie version.

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The game does however boast some pretty good production values. The interface is slick and the game has one of the best minimalist user interfaces I’ve seen in a game. As a bonus, the game also features an in-game encyclopedia, dubbed as Pandorapedia, where you can learn more about the various creatures, plants, weapons, etc that are featured in the game and the movie. Entries are constantly added to the Pandorapedia as you encounter and analyse new creatures and equipment. This is definitely a nice addition which fans of the movie will appreciate. There is also a special “Conquest” mini game that you can access via the fast travel stations that you’ll keep finding throughout the game. The game allows you to capture various territories in a turn-based pseudo-strategy game. Playing the Conquest game provides you bonuses in the main campaign. But overall, it feels like a fun extra feature instead of something that is fully integrated into the campaign mode.

Avatar also features a multiplayer component with standard game types such as Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. All of these modes allow you to either play as Na’vi or RDA. As expected, both factions play quite differently but the RDA definitely seem overpowered thanks to their superior ranged weapons and the ability to pilot mechs. I was not able to spend much time on the multiplayer component due to the lack of available games to join, but judging from what I was able to play, it seems unbalanced and generic. It’s definitely not something you’d want to pick up the game for. It’s worth mentioning that the game also supports stereoscopic 3D, so if you have the hardware for it you can actually enjoy the game’s visuals the way they should be.

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As I mentioned before, the visuals are probably Avatar’s biggest strength and it’s almost worth recommending the game for that alone. You may also get some enjoyment out of it if you loved the movie as it’s actually a lot of fun to revisit familiar locations and encounter the various creatures from the movie. Playing as the Na’vi can be fairly entertaining as well. However, I must warn you that once the initial novelty of the visuals and the thrill of exploring Pandora wears off, you are left with a generic action game with a lacklustre story that quickly grows old.

Conclusion

James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game may not be a total train-wreck as most other movie-licensed games, but it’s not great either. The visuals are very impressive and there is a fair amount of replay value thanks to the branching storylines. But it’s very difficult to recommend it over other big titles that have been out recently. If you’ve become a fan of James Cameron’s vision of Pandora after watching the movie, it’s worth a shot, but you would still be better off picking something else up instead.

(+) Lush visuals that faithfully recreate the alien world of Pandora
(+) Different storylines for the RDA and the Na’vi
(+) Decent production values

(-) Bad writing and disappointing story
(-) Awful vehicle handling
(-) Gameplay gets old quickly, not much variety in the missions
(-) Unbalanced multiplayer


How we score games

Title: James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game
Developer/Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Action
Rating: 12+
Platforms: PS3 (Rs 2,499), Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499), PSP (Rs 1,499), PC (Rs 699)
Reviewed on: PC

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