We all know the drill. Every time a big blockbuster film comes out it usually drags a video game tie-in along with it. Most of the time these game adaptations come kicking and screaming, like G.I Joe the game, for instance. But occasionally they offer a surprisingly enjoyable interactive experience that expands on the franchise, ie: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So how does Ubisoft cope with James Cameron’s upcoming multi-squillion dollar movie, Avatar?
Firstly, those who know nothing about the movie will be completely confused playing the game. Despite some beautiful opening cinematics, the game makes no attempt to clue players in as to what is actually going on even though the game is a prequel to the movie. From what I gather, humans have exhausted Earth’s natural resources and have taken to space exploration to discover a new environment to re-establish civilisation. The planet they discover, known as Pandora, is a utopia of lush vegetation, alien-like wildlife and is relatively similar to what a primitive Earth could have looked like before evolution’s dirty boots walked all over it. Basically you can expect a lot of “eco-babble” in Avatar.
As the humans begin to settle down and investigate the planet’s surface, they discover that Pandora is already inhabited and thriving with an intelligent species. And these locals aren’t too impressed. Known as the Na’vi, these blue sea-monkey-like aliens possess incredible speed and agility, but more importantly have embraced nature – as opposed to humans who have abused it and instead embraced technology. In order to learn more about the Na’vi, us clever humans have developed a way to harness their DNA and physically transform a human into a Na’vi avatar to infiltrate the alien ranks. After a soldier with the right genetic makeup is chosen to become one with the native inhabitants, he learns all about their mystical ways and tries to find a weakness from within. All is looking pretty sweet for mankind, until of course he ends up falling madly in love with a native and switches sides.
Despite the hype and the ridiculous budget, we’ve seen this movie plenty of times before. Kevin Costner’s "Dances with Wolves" did it. Not to mention the whole "technology versus tree-huggers" thing was done with ewoks some years ago, too. But what you can rely on is in-your-face, seat of your pants kick-ass special effects that fry your brain and slap your aunty silly. Not to mention James Cameron has also poured millions into creating a truly immersive 3D movie experience as well.
But where does this leave us gamers? Avatar the Game presents you with two different games in one. Firstly you get to play as a human, with your big machine guns and fancy vehicles. Then you’ll take your avatar state and play from the Na’vi perspective, throwing rocks and hitting people with big sticks. The gameplay is relatively different, with the Na’vi being able to leap massive distances, run faster and use their native surroundings to their benefit. The humans… well they just blow stuff up and run over small harmless animals. But unfortunately the differences aren’t as emphasised as some might like. The developers have ensured that the gameplay from both sides is balanced and consistent in order to make the multiplayer work. Both sides have to gain experience and both factions level up and upgrade in almost an identical fashion. Even the mission structure is similar. The only difference lies in the combat, with the Na’vi preferring melee combat thanks to their incredible strength and cloaking skills. They can also nip around the jungles with ease and can cause real headaches with the unassisted and clunky targeting controls of the humans. Meanwhile the humans posses devastating firepower with weapons like grenade launchers, shotguns, flamethrowers and nail guns. They can also upgrade their technology to allow healing, create force-fields, temporarily cloak and much more.
The entire game is in third-person, letting players roam the huge, relatively open-ended world of Pandora. The game looks amazing, with a modified Far-Cry 2 engine put to spectacular effect, filling the screen with plentiful alien-esque vegetation. Which is just as well, as players will spend most of their time running through these beautifully rendered jungles due to an unimaginative map design and repetitive mission structure. Although the lush flora and fauna is stunning to look at, most people will probably spend more time looking at their mini-map than at the action in order to know where to go. A lot of the tasks given to you involve running (or driving) from one end of the map to the other just to talk to a new character, before heading off again. Along the way, you’ll encounter vicious animals or the other faction, to engage in combat, before resuming your travels to your next waypoint. Thankfully, the commuting is aided by a wealth of vehicles (for the humans) and Pandorian beasties for the Na’vi to ride. These are a highlight as both factions possess awesome modes of transport ranging from hover-crafts and armoured mech-walkers through to giant cats and winged dragon-like creatures. The large environments are also broken up with the use of teleports scattered around bases to let players skip around quickly.
Just like the movie, the game has taken steps to bring the world of Pandora to life in 3D as well. However, until 3D-capable televisions become affordable, few will be able to see it in its full glory. For those who do though, the 3D mode can be turned on easily from the option menu, complete with settings for various types of television and included 3D technology. I witnessed the game in 3D over in Europe and the results were definitely impressive, but considering the cost of the technology needed to view it, could be ignored.
For all of Avatar the Game’s beauty there are a lot of quirks that stick out like a naked Na’vi sitting in Pigeon Park at lunchtime. The voice acting leaves a bit to be desired and often you’ll hear the same few lines of dialogue from teammates such as “watch your fire,” or “watch where you’re going grunt,” over and over. Often from the same two voice actors. Invisible walls plague certain areas of the maps, with players not being able to walk to an area despite there being no obvious obstruction or just getting stuck completely. The interaction mechanism is clunky too, with the window for pressing the triangle button to inspect or activate an object often being frustratingly difficult to get right.
The multiplayer mode lets people take the battle of Pandora online, with humans against Na’vi in all-on-all and team-based modes. The game allows for sixteen players in one match and the five modes on offer are Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Capture and Hold, King of the Hill and Final Battle. The first two are standard and Capture and Hold is simply taking over an area and defending it for a set amount of time. The mode that did offer something different was Final Battle, where the two teams have to race to destroy designated tactical points to achieve victory. The third-person madness was a nice change from the typical FPS experience but many seasoned gamers will probably find the simplified gameplay mechanics a bit too tame for their liking.
What Avatar the Game does get right is the presentation. The game looks stunning and is packaged with tidy menus and a non-obtrusive, clever GUI. Those playing it will feel like they really are exploring an alien world, with eerie floating landscapes in the horizon and monstrous shrubs that can rip you limb from limb amidst the mutant plant-life. Shooting stuff is fun as a human, and hooning around as an acrobatic Na'vi and clubbing stuff is even more enjoyable. But for all of the game’s eye-candy, it lacks any real substance and originality. Then again, I can’t help but feel this same sentence might just sum up the movie as well.