Release Date: October 10, 2006
Kids' game or not, I have to admit that I've been awaiting Avatar: The Last Airbender for quite some time now, with bated breath. I'm a huge Avatar fan, as are all of my friends, all of whom are pushing 30 by now.
Yes, 30. Seriously, Avatar is age-universal on a level of the old Spielberg animated shows. Don't underestimate it. (I'm talking to you, my lovely humorous bosses who like to share a giggle at my taking review assignments for so many licensed cartoon games. Don't think I don't notice.) [Ed.: We're giggling with you, not at you.]
Ahem! Anyway, I'd been awaiting this game for a while because, if you've been following its track record, the Nickelodeon/THQ relationship has always borne faithful fruit. There's a reason why THQ's Nick-licensed games are so successful. THQ gets full access to all of Nickeloeon's resources; characters, voice actors, everything. Their development studios are used to the material, and creating decent games around them to boot.
I just never had a reason to care about this until now. I like the Tak games in small doses, but that's it. I leave the NickToons to the kids. However, now Avatar is here, and I'm so very glad that THQ and Nickelodeon haven't had any sort of falling-out before this game was completed. If you follow Avatar, then the immersion into the show's world that you'll experience is akin to that in Spider-Man 2: The Game.
As I noted in my preview some weeks back, the game takes place just after Season 1, after the Avatar gang reaches the North Pole. (This, sadly, means no Toph, or Azula and company. We can't get a sequel fast enough, folks.) After a small interlude where Katara is kidnapped and must be rescued, our heroes find that talented benders are disappearing, and machines of death are popping up in their place. Could there be a connection? What does Prince Zuko have to do with all of this?
The game plays out like a pre-teen version of X-Men Legends, where you will, within a few hours of starting the game, end up controlling Aang, Sokka, Katara and Haru all at once. Each has his/her own particular strengths and weaknesses: Aang's good all-around, Sokka's good for up-close physical fights and crowd control, Katara's healing powers work wonders, and Haru is a distance fighter with Earth projectiles of all sorts. Unfortunately, things don't change up from this main team, but they work together well enough that it matters little in the end. Controlling the team is easy, using the trigger buttons to access powers, and before long, they feel like an extension of the player. Combination attacks are also possible, though, unfortunately, little in the way of specialized team tactics. The enemies you fight have decent, but not great, AI. They will swarm you with sheer numbers if you're not careful, though. I've had to run away from my fair share of fights because I was outnumbered three- or four-to-one.
While catering to a younger crowd, the role-playing system of Avatar is surprisingly robust. You can buy and sell equipment, and manage your characters' stats. Maximizing certain kinds of stats will benefit some characters more than others. Different levels of special abilities can be allocated when characters gain experience, and items can be collected for equipment synthesis. All of this is presented in simple, easy-to-use (though slightly tough to navigate, as they're analog-only control) menus, along with another screen that keeps track of all of your active quests and side-quests, a la Knights of the Old Republic.
Also of note is the Focus system. When a character is called upon to perform a great feat of bending (or in Sokka's case, uh, boomeranging) in order to either unearth a chest or perform a quest task, Avatar shifts to a rhythm mini-game. It doesn't last long, but it's a good break from the action.
If you have a high-definition television, then the Xbox is far above the rest in the graphics department, running at 480p. Even without hi-def, it still zooms along at a full 60 frames per second. Combine that with a decent job of character animation, and you're practically watching the show if you squint. This comes at the cost of some load times, but not all that much, honestly.
You don't need a fancy-pants HDTV to enjoy the sound, however. The music fits the mystical tone of the show, but what really shines are the voices. Everyone who voices the characters in the show reprise their roles here, and their performances are just as good in the game as they are in the show. Furthermore, a large amount of sound clips were recorded and used for NPCs to give a sense of ambiance. This means that when you walk through a friendly city, the people will gossip about events, or gawk at and hail the Avatar when they see him. When infiltrating Firebender territory, you'll hear soldiers talk about how they accidentally set their sheets on fire last night, or what they'd do if they'd ever come across the Avatar in battle. I'd have preferred even more sounds to be recorded, as if you stand around for a few minutes, people will exhaust their lines. Fortunately, said line sets change whenever you visit a new territory, so you won't get tired of listening to people for long.
Are you a fan of Avatar? Then you pretty much need this game – you have no choice in the matter. It is, after all, new Avatar, and it plays well enough for you to want to experience the entire adventure. You like new Avatar, don't you? Of course you do. Anyone looking for a good game to tide the kids over will find a good product here as well. It's a little easy, but otherwise, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a solid, well-put together game.