Avatar is everywhere at the moment. It's surely one of the most hyped movies of the decade, so we shouldn't be surprised that there's a tie-in video game. Ubisoft has been working closely with director James Cameron and Lightstorm Entertainment; we've been gradually made to believe that this is more than just another cash-in, that this is a game that can stand on its own as a quality product. Were we duped by the director's appearance at E3, some fancy visuals and cutting edge 3D technology, or has Ubisoft created a game to live up to the film's hype?
From the outset Avatar appears to be a fairly by-the-numbers third-person shooter. The game opens with your character, Abel Ryder (picked from a number of male and female soldiers who are part of the Resource Development Organisation) going through the basics on Pandora - the home planet of a blue-skinned race called the Na'vi. Before too long you're introduced to the Avatar concept, which essentially transplants the mind of a human into the body of a much larger, stronger human-Na'vi hybrid. Ryder looks slightly odd running around as a tall blue man (or woman) in army gear, but he won't be like that for long.
After a brief set of mundane missions, which simultaneously teach you about the game's controls and introduce the story (humans want to take over Pandora, but the native Na'vi quite naturally don't want this to happen; therefore a war breaks out on the planet between the rival factions), the game throws up its first major curveball. Ryder, who has until this point been fighting on the side of the RDA, is given a choice: continue the fight against the blue enemy, kicking them off their home planet in the process, or stay as an Avatar and join the Na'vi, fighting against the modern technology of the RDA.
While this might sound like a gimmicky addition, one decided upon by the marketing team to ensure the box has some extra info to hook would-be buyers, it's far from it. What you end up with is two campaigns in one game, neither one crossing over too much with the other. As a member of the Na'vi your tools are fairly primitive, with crossbows, blades, bows and sticks forming the bulk of your arsenal - although there's one weapon slot for a modern RDA weapon, too. Combat here is a mixture of ranged bow attacks (which comes with a handy lock-on targeting system) and up close and personal melee blows, either from a powerful wooden staff or a set of blades.
While the aiming is somewhat twitchy, in part due to the complete lack of a precision aim mode and a less-than-smooth frame rate in the console versions, Na'vi combat is generally a great deal of fun. After combining the basics with special skills (which let you do things such as turn invisible, move faster, repel enemies with a ground pound move), the initial sense of indifference I felt towards the game was soon replaced with enjoyment. It's nothing ground-breaking, but it's good, simple fun.
RDA soldiers don't have to make do with the basic weapons of their Na'vi adversaries, with a loadout of guns, guns and more guns being all that's on the menu. Without any melee combat and a real lack of weapon variety (save for the cool flame thrower), the RDA campaign ends up feeling like the more basic of the two included on the disc. Ryder in soldier form still gets to use special skills, but the diversity in combat just isn't as good. Yet in terms of game structure and set pieces, the RDA campaign often comes out on top, making for a somewhat mixed experience overall.
The Na'vi are fighting against the RDA, so naturally as a blue-skin the main enemies you'll come across are solders, solders in mechs, soldiers in attack ships, and more soldiers. Giant flying attack ships and Mech Assault-style walkers are pretty cool, but soon get samey. On the flip side, the RDA frequently has to fight against massive native creatures, the kind that wouldn't look out of place in Lost Planet or in a genetically malfunctioning Jurassic Park. The fights against the massive beasts are some of the game's biggest stand-out moments, yet they occur during the campaign that features the less enjoyable combat mechanics.
Whichever side you choose to fight for, you'll earn XP for every mission you complete and for side missions that you finish while wandering about the various locations. Go beyond an XP marker and you'll be rewarded with upgrade packs, each giving you some goodies to enhance your character. Some will contain new special skills or improved versions of those you've already acquired; others will be upgraded weapons that inflict more damage or have a higher rate of fire; if you're really lucky you'll get new armour. You can customise which of the skills you place in the four quick-access slots, but other that that all this XP levelling up isn't nearly as RPG-like as it might seem. The entire game is incredibly linear and has been designed to give you certain upgrades at more or less the same point as everyone else playing the game.
If you've watched the trailer for the big budget Hollywood movie, you'll have no doubt seen the many wonderfully designed creatures that James Cameron and his team have created. As a Na'vi soldier you get to ride on many of these, on the ground and in the sky, yet the experience isn't nearly as pleasant as it should have been. The main culprits are clunky controls and bad animations. The flying Banshees should be fun, but they handle too much like machines, while the powerful panther-like Thanators move with the grace of a wheelie bin. The RDA doesn't ride animals, but their machines make for the better "vehicle" gameplay. Ground vehicles aren't hugely engaging, but the Scorpion gunship is superb, with a control scheme that suits it perfectly.
I wasn't able to test the game's much-talked about 3D mode (something that impressed at preview events earlier in the year), but Avatar is still a good looking game - let down at points by some inexplicably bad texture work and an erratic frame rate. The world of Pandora, with its dense jungles, bizarre floating rock formations and magical creatures, has been brought to virtual life quite superbly, but there are only so many times you can blindly ignore sequences of gameplay running at a fraction of the desired frame rate, or a six-legged horse animated so robotically that it might as well be animatronic. When you're high in the sky in a Scorpion, gunning down pod dispensers suckled onto sheer cliff faces, with the entire game world seemingly there in front of you, it's a sight to behold, but too many glitches and rough edges let the package down.
Visual quibbles aside, Avatar's main problem stems from the mission variety, or rather the complete lack of it. After some awkwardly-acted cutscenes you're given a location to head to and a fairly mundane objective that usually involves killing enemies and finding an ancient crystal shard. Once completed you return to the person that set you the mission in the first place, who will either dish out another mission or send you to someone else so they can do the same. It's a system that is fairly common in open world games, but Avatar has more in common with a linear stage-based shooter than something like GTA. There's an illusion of openness, but it's all rigidly structured.
Other distractions include a mini-game called Conquest, in which you command an army as it moves around a Risk-style representation of Pandora, taking control of zones and fighting in stat-based wars. It's a neat addition to the game, but isn't a great deal of fun, even if it rewards you with bonuses to be used during the campaign. There's a full 16-player online multiplayer mode here too, naturally pitting the Na'vi against the RDA soldiers; natives versus hostile forces; nature versus machines. Game modes include the standard Team Deathmatch, as well as Capture the Flag, Capture and Hold, King of the Hill and Final Battle (destroying key enemy tactical points before they destroy yours). At the time of writing I haven't been able to test the multiplayer functionality, but I doubt the gunplay found in the campaign simply is tight enough to translate well to a competitive multiplayer environment.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is easily one of the best movie licensed games I've ever played, but at the same time it's not good enough to stand alone as a must-own title. While the presentation is great and the combat generally enjoyable, the missions leave a lot to be desired - and there's little of the sense of wonder that the movie promises. Had the two campaigns been packed with superbly entertaining moments, the missions been more diverse in their structure, and the "vehicles" been more fun to man, then yes, Avatar the Game might have reached the heights its source material looks set to achieve. It's still a great effort, and will go a long way to right the wrongs of publishers down the years, but it seems that even James Cameron's involvement isn't enough to turn a movie into a triple-A video game.