James Cameron's Avatar: The Game Review
There’s little doubt the movie will make a big splash, but what about the game? Ubisoft decided to take the initiative and release the game several weeks before the feature film, in the hopes that those who are blown away by the previews will opt for an early peek via video interaction. However, despite offering a pretty overall graphical presentation and giving the player some thrills along the way, this is a fairly standard third-person action/adventure title that isn’t without its fair share of flaws. Furthermore, if you only go through it once, you’ll be done in about five hours time, which doesn’t make the full price tag all that appealing. Of course, if you enjoy it enough, you can go through playing as the other side (you have the choice of fighting for the humans or Na’vi) and that will effectively double your play time, but…well, it’s unlikely you’ll have the requisite motivation. It’s just not an involving enough experience and Ubisoft can’t quite cover up the shortcomings with an attractive and alluring atmosphere.
First of all, this game is 3D, provided you have a 3D-enabled TV, of course. But I don’t have one and I seriously doubt many readers do so I don’t feel too bad about being unable to review these advanced visuals. As it stands, though, the graphics are the highlight of Avatar: The Game: the surrounding flora and fauna are typically a joy to behold; the detailing is excellent (despite a certain blandness found in the faces of human characters), the special effects are well rendered, and in general, you’ll often wish to stop and gaze about at your alien environment. There are really no major graphical glitches and as you continue forward, new animals and fresh sights will represent one of the few reasons you may have to complete the quest. There’s some jerkiness involved – and we’ll talk more about that in a minute – and as I just alluded to, they could’ve worked harder on overall character design. Those lackluster humans tend to clash with the vibrant backdrops, although they did a better job with the Na’vi.
The sound receives a definite boost from great voice acting and decent sound effects, but falls well short in terms of the soundtrack. It just doesn’t play a large enough role in the experience and unfortunately, much of my time playing was oddly quiet; even intense encounters apparently didn’t warrant a significant musical rise. The sound effects also tend to drop out occasionally and there’s a minor balance issue concerning weapon fire versus animal grunts and cries. But at least we get the good voiceovers, which are essential due to the amount of dialogue in the game. They also help to enhance the authenticity of the game and make it feel more like we’re playing a movie. I just wish they wouldn’t have ignored the music quite so much and the effects aren’t as in-your-face as you might expect them to be. All this being said, the sound isn’t really a detriment; it’s more of a bonus, and that’s not a bad thing.
Describing the game really depends on whether you wish to play through as human or Na’vi. Through the first hour, you will run around with the human character you chose, and you will also experiment a bit with your Avatar – a blue-skinned, 9-foot-tall version of yourself, apparently – so you’ll be able to sample the differences early on. When the moment of truth comes, you will make the decision that will dictate the remainder of the game; if you choose to stick with the RDA (human side), your adventure will feel like a fairly straightforward third-person shooter, complete with multiple vehicles with which to experiment. If you go the other route, the vehicles disappear because the Na’vi are more primitive, and battles are more up-close-and-personal. To compensate for the lack of technical ability, the Na’vi are much faster and stronger than humans, so rushing them with your blades or other melee weapons equipped is often advised. You can shoot, too, of course, but it’s more fun to rush. That, and there’s some light platforming involved with the Na’vi, too.
The other difference is that because you’re on the native soil of the Na’vi, the world will respond depending on who you are: as a human, even the plants can be dangerous, and just about every creature will freak out at your existence. But as a Na’vi, the plant life won’t be secretly trying to attack you and so long as you let the wildlife be, you won’t be harassed by them, either. Of course, certain freakish brutes will attack you regardless of who you are, which is why you should always stay on the alert. Overall, the idea is solid: you progress, gaining experience by taking down enemies and completing quests and this experience unlocks new skills and weapons. Abilities can be mapped out to the face buttons on the controller; you simply press and hold the R2 button to access them when in the field. Abilities range from healing to temporary boosts in ability. For instance, you can create temporary bursts of speed or strength, or take advantage of repelling skills that will knock charging enemies back. This system works relatively well.
The only problem with the game centers on the mechanics, and that’s a serious issue. The camera doesn’t always cooperate and in my opinion, it got a little annoying to always have the character on the left side of the screen (as opposed to the center) when running about. The camera got worse when controlling the Na’vi, too, just because the added speed would cause the camera to go absolutely bonkers at times. It doesn’t help that some of the enemies tend to blend in with your overgrown jungle environment so you’re often struggling just to locate the target. There’s no lock-on although there did appear to be something of an auto-aim once you’ve got a target in your sights, and with the drastic dodge applied to the L1 button, you can easily lose track of the action. Furthermore, while there are extra things to do outside the main quests, none of it was very rewarding and worse, it seemed rather pointless. I also had a big problem with the weapon selection; some just seemed downright useless for the majority of the game.
The gameplay just isn’t smooth enough or engaging enough. That’s the biggest problem. You can’t avoid the flaws as they directly impact the gameplay, although you’ll probably notice the camera and fluidity issue more if you choose to play as the Na’vi. Heading online is always an option but there are very few players on the servers and on top of which, the clash between humans and Na’vi is nowhere near as exciting or diverse as you might believe. It almost seems as if the differences between the two races are more distinct in the single-player campaign than when facing each other online, and that may point out other flaws in regards to creating the opposing sides. It looks pretty good and the voice acting and concepts are solid, but it’s the mechanics that fail us in the long run. This isn’t to say the game is bad or the controls are cripplingly awful; the situation really isn’t that dire. It’s just not as accomplished or polished as it needed to be.
In the end, Avatar: The Game isn’t anywhere near as good as the movie is hopefully going to be and for the most part, it ain’t worth a full $60. Sure, you can double your play time by going through with both races but it’s just not worth it. The controls aren’t tight enough – especially in regards to the vehicles – the camera is rarely on-point, the music isn’t prominent enough, the AI is iffy, and the overall fun factor dips frequently. On the other hand, there are plenty of pluses and I don’t like to frown on good ideas, even if they didn’t quite execute said ideas to the best of their ability. I guess it might be worth the price of admission if you end up really adoring the film, but with so many amazing titles available, I just can’t recommend it.
12/15/2009 Ben Dutka