There's a lot of buzz around Hollywood that "Avatar," James Cameron's latest film, is going to forever change the way movies are made. The blockbuster with a monstrous budget is one of the most ambitious movies ever made, and if early chatter is to be believed, it may well be one of the best. Pity then that the same can't be said for the game based on the film, which doesn't seem interested in striving to be more than a generic third-person action title. While movies may never be the same, cliché gaming tropes seem to be here to stay.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is set two years before the events of the movie, and players take on the role of Abel Ryder, a signals specialist shipped to Pandora for a special assignment. Not only is Ryder an expert operative, but he is also one of the few humans suited to the Avatar program, effectively letting him control a synthetic version of one of the Na'vi, the planet's indigenous race. Conflict is in the air as both the human RDA Corporation and native Na'vi have grown distrustful of one another, and the RDA is on the cusp of a discovery that will allow them to basically mine Pandora dry without delay. It's your classic story of good guy locals versus the bad guy corporation, only this time with a few more assault rifles and gunships.
Early in the game, Ryder is given the choice between siding with the RDA or the Na'vi, but neither option is really all that attractive. The RDA grunts are all narrow-minded meatheads who advocate a "shoot first, ask questions later" mantra, while the Na'vi are suspicious and standoffish, constantly giving Ryder the cold shoulder. When the game let me choose between factions, I was just as inclined to turn around, walk away and find the nearest transport back to Earth.
Depending on the choice you do make, though, the ensuing adventure plays out very differently, and Ubisoft has managed to essentially cram two full-length games into one package. Siding with the RDA is the easier path, as you then gain access to all the advantages the military has to offer. Combat is handled through machine guns, shotguns and heavy artillery, and most of the vehicles you can control are designed with destruction in mind. Particularly overwhelming is the mech suit, which can lay waste to just about anything the jungles of Pandora may throw at you.
The problem with taking this path is that the end result is little more than a ho-hum action game with a bunch of exceptionally boring missions. You'll spend most of your time mindlessly following orders and going on fetch quests, not realizing the repercussions of your actions until it is far too late. The entire eight hours you'll spend are occupied with objectives that are hardly ever more complex than "go here, shoot that, and return to base." Even the ending is a waste, effectively using a few lines of dialogue to undo all the work you'd spent the entire game achieving. "Unfulfilling" may be the best way to describe this portion of the game.
Should you choose the Na'vi path, then prepare for frustration, as playing as one of the "good guys" apparently means you should be placed at such a disadvantage you'd rather just quit. While the humans mainly rely on guns to do their fighting, the Na'vi are a more primitive race and enter combat mainly with bows and melee weapons. Thus, even though you can usually take out an RDA trooper with one swipe of your dual blades, you're going to have to get close enough to him to dish out the pain. The problem here is that the Na'vi armor is essentially stitched together out of leather and hides, so there's not a lot of bullet-stopping power there. Furthermore, since the space marines almost always attack en masse, be prepared to die in a hail of gunfire over and over again. While the game tries to level the playing field by lessening the environmental dangers for those playing as a Na'vi, the consolation means little in the face of a fully automatic weapon.
While the Na'vi missions are slightly more varied than those of the RDA, it doesn't necessarily make them any better. Objectives will often require a healthy dose of platforming, and while the jumping mechanics in the game aren't the worst I've seen, they're still far from being the best. Also, even though the Na'vi also have access to "vehicles" in the form of local wildlife that they can ride, their mounts are far inferior to the machines the RDA possesses. It's strange that the game works so hard to hamstring the Na'vi, especially considering the fact that since they're meant to be the more sympathetic figures you'd imagine more players would want to start out the game on their side. The question is, after all the frustration this faction causes, who would want to finish the game, let alone replay it from the other team's side?
In addition to their standard weapons, both factions also have a set of special skills that improve over time as players gain levels. Most abilities are shared between both groups (instant health regeneration, reduced damage), but both sides have a couple of special skills. The RDA, for instance, has a special repulsor field that will knock back and stun nearby enemies, while the Na'vi can summon vicious animals to fight by their side. Unfortunately, while a few of the powers are lifesavers, most of them border on useless, and you'll likely forget they're even there.
Another underutilized concept is the Conquest mini-game, meant to confer in-game bonuses to players. This little distraction plays out a lot like Risk, with each faction creating troops, moving them into territory and attacking one another. Victory comes down to simply having the largest army, so whoever sends out the most soldiers wins. Many map sections contain bonuses, such as experience boosts or attack or defense bonuses, which are transferred back into the single-player game. The big problem is that the cost of units is so high that in order to amass an army large enough to capture and hold territory, you'll need an extremely large number of credits. How does one get these credits? By completing missions and objectives in the single-player campaign, that's how. Thus, what is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship turns into a negative feedback loop as the sheer number of necessary credits means you'll be in no shape to take on Conquest mode until very late in the game. By that point, though, you won't need any of the bonuses it confers because you'll already have all the best weapons and armor and will likely have already reached your maximum level. A good idea is wasted once again on poor execution.
Avatar also features several multiplayer modes, but the lobbies are so sparse and the game so unbalanced they're hardly worth mentioning. You have your standard deathmatches, capture the flag and control point maps, with each team controlling one faction. The major problem is that the imbalance between the RDA and Na'vi is carried over into multiplayer, so basically whichever team controls the RDA wins. It's frustrating, unfair, and an example of how multiplayer was shoehorned into a game that didn't really require it simply because it's expected of all games nowadays. Honestly, I'd rather have no multiplayer at all than something this atrocious.
One thing that does stand out in Avatar is Pandora itself, and it's clear a lot of time went into designing a lush and living world. The jungle is full of beautiful of dangerous flora and fauna, and it's very tempting to stop anytime you find the high ground and just take a moment to look around. This is a beautiful, wild land, and it's clear that while it is gorgeous, it is also dangerous, so players must always be on their toes. Furthermore, the game can be played in 3-D, provided you're a rich bastard with a TV capable of such feats.
Sadly, though, all that beauty was wasted on an otherwise subpar game, one that gets the job done but otherwise doesn't bring much to the table. Playing as a member of the RDA can be fun in spurts, but it quickly boils down into a chore. Meanwhile, siding with the Na'vi is about as much fun as being repeatedly kicked in the head, and neither faction's story provides a strong enough narrative or decent incentives to keep playing after you begin to grow bored. James Cameron may be a cinematic mastermind, but it's clear that the team who created Avatar: The Game doesn't share his creative genius.
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