If you're reading this review, I'm assuming that there's a good chance you've already checked out James Cameron's big sci-fi epic, "Avatar," in theaters. The movie wowed me with its incredible 3-D effects and some of the most realistic CGI effects I've ever seen, but it failed to impress me with its run-of-the-mill story line. This isn't a review for the film, though, so let's take a look at the game inspired by the film, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game for the Nintendo Wii.
The first thing to note is that this is a different experience from what you're going to get on the PS3 or Xbox 360. Whereas those two titles make use of a plot that follows a human protagonist who takes on a Na'vi Avatar (much like the character in the film), the Wii iteration has you taking on the role of an actual Na'vi warrior, with no human behind the wheel. It's a pretty one-sided adventure, featuring a disgruntled Na'vi warrior who's upset at the increasing advances of the human newcomers. He's taken issue with their handling of the Na'vi's ancient artifacts and land, and he's made it his goal to win back these items from the humans. In a slightly interesting twist, the Na'vi you control is shown — via in-game dialogue and the pre-mission briefings — to be morally ambiguous, and some of his actions are perhaps a bit too aggressive for his species. The Na'vi you control justifies his actions by comparing himself to a prophetic warrior, which may or may not tie into a similar tale from the film. It's not Hamlet, but there's a little more to the story than I expected, and I appreciated that.
The story takes place prior to the events in the film, but you'll see quite a few familiar faces as the plot advances. It's the same group of humans from the film, including the same mercenaries, and they have the same goal of seeking out high deposits of the ore called Unobtainium. Visually, Avatar: The Game makes good use of the same environments seen in the film, with some of the wildlife and plants making their presence known, and some even serve a purpose in the game. Along with that, you'll come across small groups of lighted orbs, which tie into the Eywa spirit that the Na'vi worship. These lighted orbs serve as experience points that can be spent in three areas to build up your Na'vi character over time. This mostly ties in with the weapons you'll use, the staff and bow, but the third category is more general purpose and includes things such as health and the window of opportunity for stealth attacks. It's not particularly inventive as far as leveling systems go, but I expected it to be more straightforward, so I was once again pleasantly surprised to find some depth to it. There are a number of branching power-ups within each skill tree, and you'll have a hard time maxing out everything before the game ends. You can revisit levels to collect any of the missing Eywa essence you didn't get the first time around, and you'll probably need to do this a few times.
While I did find some surprises in this licensed game that I enjoyed, I can't help that feel that Avatar: The Game could have used a bit more polish prior to release. Visually, it stands up well to other action/adventure titles for the Wii, propelled ahead a bit by the lush visuals and vibrant colors in the alien world of Pandora. Things get a tad dark at times, but that can be adjusted by fiddling around with the brightness settings. The third-person camera view tracks your character well enough and is adjustable, so I didn't have too many issues with it. I didn't care for the default angle when I'd draw my bow; it tends to zoom in but doesn't auto-lock on your intended target, so you need to do some tracking after you aim. The camera becomes a bit of a mess when you introduce a second player — mostly for the scripted attacks, like the stealth segments — so while the idea of drop-in and drop-out co-op is definitely a plus, the overall execution could have used a little more work.
The rest of my issues with the game are with the actual gameplay, which isn't awful but feels like the developers tried to vary the types of action so much that none are particularly great. There's a surprisingly heavy focus on stealth elements; your Na'vi warrior can hide from enemy forces from up high or in tall grass and then sneak up to deliver one-hit kills or attacks that'll knock them out instantly. You'll typically run into patrols of two or more enemies, so it's tricky to take out one without being seen by the second or third enemy in the group. Since the game zooms in for a more cinematic attack, you lose all sense of your surroundings for a few seconds and be a tad disoriented when the camera snaps back into place. This leads to a few too many mistakes when it comes to direction, and you'll typically be spotted before you can right yourself again.
There is a handy lock-on ability that you can use, and it highlights a color above the enemy and shows white, yellow or red. White means that the enemy is completely oblivious to your presence, yellow means he'll start to look for you, and red signifies that he knows exactly where you are. You can wait it out if you're in the yellow category, and after a few moments, it'll snap back to white and the enemy will return to his normal patrol path. Being spotted doesn't necessarily mean instant death, and it's usually worth saving time and losing a bit of health to step forward and pulverize them all. Most of the time, there are enough healing plants to make this work. Because of this, the stealth element rarely feels necessary, aside from large groups of enemies and the occasional boss fight that utilizes it. While stealth is kind of fun for the first couple of levels, you'll quickly realize that it's hardly necessary and it's just as easy to melee your way through most fights.
The combat isn't particularly fantastic either, but at least the motion-controlled aspect of it works pretty well. With the staff, it'll do a good job of recognizing your left, right, up and down movements — to the point that it's a little too sensitive for my liking. It was nice to see that even without a Wii MotionPlus accessory attached, it managed to pick up which direction I was moving the Wii Remote and responded accordingly. You need that precision to pull off combos in the game, or else you'll simply perform single-hit attacks that don't cause a great deal of damage. The controls are really pretty solid, aside from the segments where you pilot a Banshee, but I'll get to in a second. The bow and arrow combat is a little more subdued; it doesn't make use of any Wii Sports Resort style setup like mimicking a bow and arrow with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. It's all button-based, which seems like a drawback when you consider that it works pretty well in Wii Sports Resort. It's not a big complaint, but I do wish it had been a little more imaginative.
The Banshee-controlled sections of the game, however, end up with the most frustrating controls. If you've seen the film, Banshees are large winged creatures that the Na'vi bond and fly with by hopping on their backs. The Balance Board support that this game features is tied into these flying segments; you basically tilt your weight on the board to pitch forward, and you can also tilt left and right. It works fine, but unless you're already accustomed to using the Balance Board on a regular basis, it's going to take more effort than it's worth to become proficient. The default controls have you using the Nunchuk and moving it around, tilting it to mimic the flight on-screen. This works for the most part, but it doesn't seem to register quick movements very well, which is troublesome since most of these sections deal with dodging obstacles as you fly toward them and require some quick reflexes. It was really frustrating to tilt to the left and not see my Banshee make any movement on-screen, causing me to rebound off a cliff face. Thankfully, the checkpoints are really generous, so it's not impossible to get through these parts even with the awkward controls.
As it stands, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is a serviceable experience in the world that James Cameron created for the movie, but at the same time, there are enough issues with the controls, camera and combat system to keep it from being great. If you're in love with the world of Pandora and dying to get another adventure out of that realm after you've watched the movie, then pick up this title as a rental or wait for it to drop in price. It has a few highlights worth checking out, and it's nice to see this developed entirely for the Wii instead of being a dumbed-down port of the Xbox 360/PS3 title. It feels like it could have used a little more work to iron out the kinks, and at the end of the day, there are better games out there that are more deserving of your time than this run-of-the-mill adventure.
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