The Wii often has a rough ride when it comes to multiplatform games. If a developer tries to give Nintendo owners their own version of a PC/PS3/360 game, the result is usually a watered-down replica that suffers in comparison; if on the other hand the studio does something different, it's often hard to escape the feeling that the Wii is somehow missing out - that it's the only kid who wasn't invited to the party, so to speak.
There's no doubt that the latter approach usually works better, but I can't help but feel that Avatar on Wii will live in the shadow of its other-platform cousins. Half the appeal with the forthcoming Avatar film is that it'll have a truckload of new special effects from James Cameron's technical wizards. It's a movie that aims to redefine what we think about 3D vision, and if you pick up the PC, PS3 or Xbox 360 Avatar game, you'll get the option to play it in a similar stereoscopic style (provided you own the right TV or monitor). On the Wii game there's none of this, and as a result it'll have to try that much harder to win public attention.
Still, let's not be too hasty to write the game off. The Wii version of James Cameron's Avatar: The Game will feature an exclusive storyline, focusing entirely on a brand new hero - one of the 12ft tall alien Na'vi hunter. On the other platforms you'll play as a human who has to decide whether he should side with his fellow humans or with the hostile extraterrestrials, but here there's no question about where your loyalties lie. When your village is destroyed, you set out on a personal quest for revenge, following the trail of the human soldier who was responsible.
Avatar on Wii somewhat resembles a sci-fi twist on the Tenchu series. You wouldn't think that a lanky blue alien would be particularly good at stealthy movement, but Mr Na'vi is surprisingly good at sneaking up on people. If you creep up on a human RDA trooper, you'll be able to pull off a stealth kill by hitting the B-trigger - provided that you then match the Wii motions indicated on screen. Yes, it's the return of the QTE execution, but at least the movements make sense, mimicking the hunter's swipes with his staff. In addition to his big stick, the hunter gets a bow that can be used to attack enemies from afar, with aiming naturally controlled via the remote.
In keeping with what appears to be the recent trend for two-player co-op in Wii games, a second player can drop in or out of the action as they see fit. This can actually be quite useful, as one person can distract the enemy with arrows from a distance while the other sneaks about to dish out backstabs (or back-thwacks, seeing as you're carrying a big stick). At the start of the game your hunter might seem a little underpowered, but every time you defeat someone you'll gather XP in the form of blue energy blobs that fly into you, Fable 2-style. These points can then be spent on a skill tree, allowing you to power up your weapons and gain new moves like dash attacks.
This core stealth-based gameplay seems to work rather well. It's certainly less fiddly than the last Tenchu outing, although admittedly it's also less sophisticated, but at least direct combat is a half-viable option when you do get spotted. The Na'vi hunter can hold his own in a fight, but if he's facing too many opponents then it's quite likely that he'll die in a shower of bullets. As a general rule it's best to stick to the shadows and long grass, or else to scale the nearby trees using the game's simple platforming controls (the A button handles anything climbing-related).
To break up the pace, Ubisoft has thrown in a number of alternative gameplay modes. Every so often you'll encounter a hornet's nest, allowing you to temporarily assume control of a massive insect. You can then use this new chum to spy on the movements of nearby troopers, or else you can just launch a kamikaze attack to thin out their numbers. Later in the game you'll also encounter an on-rails section wherein you'll ride a flying beastie, firing off arrows at aerial mines and then duelling with a Dragonfly hovership.
If I'm honest, I found the motion controls on the wasp sections to be irritatingly fiddly, but the on-rails section was far more accommodating - perhaps due to the fact that you have more space in which to move around. During this interlude you actually steer with the Nunchuck's tilt sensors while shooting with the Remote; this setup worked surprisingly well, despite the 'chuck's lack of sensitivity. If you're playing co-op at this point, one player will steer while the other shoots - and I'd imagine that this arrangement would make things even easier. I should also point out that Avatar supports MotionPlus, although I've not yet had a chance to see how that affects the game.
On the graphics front Ubisoft has done its best to give Pandora's jungles a sense of lushness, and the levels I've seen are certainly quite packed with colourful scenery. All the same, I had a slight sense of comedown while playing this game directly after the 360 version. I know that it's hardly a fair comparison, but it's worth repeating that the HD iterations gain quite a lot from their detailed visuals. We'll be running a new preview of that game next week, but for now it remains to be seen whether Avatar on Wii will be able to carve a niche for itself in the busy holiday season, or whether it'll be eclipsed by its beefier peers.