Getting into this preview was similar to the rigmarole you have to go through in an international airport, but much more intimidating. Before we got into the closed-doors-demo of James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, we were asked to hand over all bags, phones, and any other electrical devices. Two burly security guards in men-in-black suits let us in one at a time with vaguely threatening glares. It was one step away from getting frisked. However, once inside, we were handed a pair of high-tech 3D glasses and told to sit in front of a 103 inch television screen, I breathed a sigh of relief. it was all in the name of entertainment, after all.
We'd apparently just missed an appearance by the film's producer John Landau who was occasionally dropping by to introduce the game, so we settled for a video intro instead. Landau explained that Avatar was James Cameron's 'Magnum Opus', and they had to create a game that was equally huge in scope. Words were thrown around a lot like 'ground-breaking', 'redemption,' 'revolution' and 'love'. This is a big, big, important, important, groundbreaking film etc. Landau explained a bit about the story on the video, but not a lot; Avatar is an 'epic adventure film' about an exotic alien race living called the Navi, who live on the tropical planet of Pandora, and must defend their planet against invading humans.
The game itself is set just as the human mining team (the baddies), known as the 'Resources Development Administration', begin their occupation of Pandora. You choose to play as a member of the RDA or a member of the 10 feet-tall warriors the Navi. Choose to play as human, and you get better weapons and armour; choose to play as Navi, and you can manipulate your environment to your advantage. In the demo, the Ubisoft guy played as a member of the RDA, in a lush jungle setting which is apparently just one of sixteen unique environments in the game.
The demo begins with you controlling an RDA space-ship, and your mission is to clear a path in order for the big gunship behind you to land. The jungle is beautifully rendered and distinctively alien, an odd mixture of the Congo, the rainforest and the New Zealand bush (there were ferns aplenty). The 3D glasses do make everything pop, stretching the depth of field to a degree that wouldn't be possible in 2D, but it certainly isn't on par with a 3D film, where you find yourself stretching out to touch the screen. This is because James Cameron's: Avatar is still a videogame, with videogame graphics of this generation, money-soaking notwithstanding.
The spaceship lands. This is a third-person game, so there's an odd juxtaposition between the realistic 3D and the little sprite we see on the screen. Regardless, the environment is the star here, and the planet Pandora may be beautiful to look at, but its dense, colourful layers hide the threats within. As our wee man makes his way through the bush, what looks to be a piece of decorative fauna suddenly unfurls itself, revealing its true nature as an alien plant thingy, ready to attack. Further down the track we meet a cross between a bull and a triceratops, again evolved to blend in with its environment. The planet is full of these decorative creatures, and as a Navi you can communicate with them and use them to your advantage, but as an American, well, you're screwed.
To build up your character then, there seems to be a loose RPG style levelling system at play here, where experience points known as 'SP' (skill points) can unlock over 30 advanced skills and weaponry. As the demo progressed we saw an example of a dash skill, a repulse skill, and a stealth skill which literally turns your character invisible. You also have the ability to scan anything of interest and put it into your 'Pandorapidia' to be referred to at any time.
To be honest, the combat we saw was all a little familiar, and although the Ubisoft rep really wanted us to get excited about what we were seeing, it all looked like standard run and gun over-the-shoulder stuff to me. The breathtaking parts of the demo came from the sudden changes in environment - as nightfall approached, the jungle was plunged into phosphorus light, where the living, breathing parts of it lit up in bioluminescence. We saw floating islands and 900 foot trees, and it was made clear that there would always be an environment above you and below you, making Pandora one of the most impressive 3D environments I've seen in a videogame. This is the stuff straight from James Cameron's imagination.
At certain points during Avatar, depending on your conscience, you can switch allegiances between the Navi and the RDA. If you choose to switch from a human to a member of the Navi, you become the Navi equivalent of your human character. Not much footage was shown of Navi gameplay, but we were told that Navis could connect to creatures in Pandora through a neural connection located behind their ponytails known as a 'cube' - a sort of alien-to-alien USB port. Using his 'cube', we saw a Navi climb on top of a gigantic orange winged creature and soar into the air.
We were told during the demo that high-tech 3D glasses and a massive TV was not necessary to play Avatar; that it would still look good in 2D on a rather more modest screen. I found this interesting - if it weren't for the 3D and the size of the TV, I would have been less impressed by what I saw. This game may look beautiful, but the average-looking gameplay concerned me. Hopefully Ubisoft will develop this, because spectacle is never enough, regardless of what James Cameron's hype machine wants you to think.
The Good: Beautiful environments.
The Bad: Average looking gameplay.
The Ugly: Videogame graphics + 3D glasses + a 103 inch screen = headache.