NGC/PS2/Xbox/PC Preview - 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

by Geson Hatchett on Sept. 4, 2006 @ 7:19 a.m. PDT

Based on Nickelodeon's hottest new show, fans will play as Aang, Katara, Sokka and Haru as they grow into an unstoppable team utilizing the kung fu inspired bending arts through the Avatar universe. Players will explore the four Avatar nations in beautifully detailed environments and battle new enemies.

Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Studio Oz
Release Date: October 10, 2006

It's amazing, really. I'm looking at the press release for this game, and it's saying that the show that it's based on is really popular … with kids aged 6-11.

I don't know anyone aged 6-11 who watches this show, but that's mainly because I'm not looking for them. I don't have to. What I do know is that my entire circle of friends – be they male or female, geek or socialite, cartoon-watchers or non – have been hooked on this show months before I ever knew what it was. I was late to the party, but as it stands, I'm just glad I got there.

There's no denying it – Avatar: The Last Airbender is awesome. I am pleased to report that its video game is shaping up to be just as awesome as well.

A quick primer for anyone who hasn't seen this yet: Avatar is set in a world with four nations, each one with its own elemental affinity. You've got air, earth, fire, and water folks, and each of them are able to manipulate (or "bend") each element to their will. A century-plus ago, the Fire Nation decided to take over the world, and attacked the other nations, nomads, and tribes. They succeeded despite the three-on-one odds by being ruthless, taking advantage of a massive comet's power, and because the Avatar (a soul that's been reincarnated dozens of times and is able to control all four elements at once, thus keeping peace and balance in the world) somehow vanished at the worst possible time.

Fast-forward to the present. The Air Nomads have been all but wiped out, and the Earth Nation and Water Tribes are on the run, and oppressed. Two water tribe members from the South Pole (Katara and Sokka) find the young Avatar (Aang, now officially the last airbender), encased in an iceberg, where he's been sleeping for the past hundred years. They break him out, and now, they're on a worldwide quest to teach Aang all the bending powers he can so he can right the Fire Nation's wrongs.

You can already see how this sort of scenario screams "video game." Lots of cheap-cash-in choices could have been made (thoughts of a horrific fighting game come to mind), but in the end, THQ, Nickelodeon and developer Studio Oz went with the best-suited genre. The game is an action-rpg and is surprisingly robust given its intended youngster audience, because it creates a middle ground between the two extremes that we've seen for the genre so far.

Players can customize their characters, give them equipment, and assign to them martial arts moves and element-bending techniques once the characters have leveled up enough to use them. Furthermore, special techniques have their own strength levels to achieve. Secrets are scattered around the world in the form of special sub-quests and chests, and many of these chests require feats of bending to open. These feats are performed via a rhythm sub-game which is easy to pick up.

Character and story management is done via easy-to-understand menus. You've got the equipment and customization screens which contain simple interfaces for character customization and statistics. You also have a menu, much like in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you can keep track of side-quests you've accumulated, and how far you are in them. In all, Avatar avoids being too complicated for people under a certain age (a la the X-Men: Legends games). At the same time, it avoids being intelligence-insultingly simple by handing you everything on a single platter (i.e., the console versions of Teen Titans). Preteens especially will be in heaven as they embark on an open-ended quest set in a faithful rendition of the Avatar's world.

When I say "faithful", by the way, I mean faithful. You'll be exploring the Four Nations, and all of the sub-territories therein, and effort has been made to make the territories behave as they normally would. Remember when you played Spider-Man 2 and people would go, "Look! It's Spider-Man!", as well as make other random comments as you web-swung around New York City? The people here do that too. Some will gossip, some will recognize the Avatar on sight and hail his return and presence, and others will spread wild rumors about flying bison sightings. It really helps to draw you into the world.

The game picks up around the end of the first season, after Aang, Katara and Sokka have made it to the North Pole, and have repelled the Fire Nation's attack. Before Aang can master waterbending so that he can save the world, however, Prince Zuko makes a last-minute risky small-scale invasion, and ends up kidnapping Katara as a last resort when it fails.

When the game starts, you'll be playing only as Aang. Things soon change as events fold, however, and by the later parts of your quest, you'll simultaneously be controlling Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Haru (the unwilling Earthbender who had a single-episode cameo around mid-Season 1). No word yet on whether or not other heavy-hitters like Prince Zuko, Princess Azula and her squad, or super fan-favorite Toph will show up as playables, but odds are that THQ and Nick are keeping them close at hand in an admittedly wise plan to make sequel money. Oh, well. Of the characters you do play, each have their own strengths – Sokka and Haru have power (and, yes, Sokka's boomerang is yours to command), Aang has speed and air techniques (for some reason, his trademark Air Ball is the last one you can get), and Katara can use her waterbend to heal as well as defend herself.

If you're a boy or girl aged six to 11, or, heck, if you're an any-aged fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, keep an eye out for this game when it hits in October. It'll serve as a decent fix. If you're not a fan of Avatar, go watch the show, and you will be one eventually. Then, feel free to come back and keep an eye out for this game like the rest of us.

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