James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PC, PSP, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Dec. 1, 2009 (US), Dec. 4, 2009 (EU)


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PS3/X360/PC Preview - 'James Cameron's Avatar: The Game'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on July 8, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game takes you deep into the heart of Pandora, an alien planet that is beyond imagination. When conflict erupts between the RDA Corporation, a space-faring consortium in search of valuable resources, and the Na’'vi, Pandora’s indigenous people, gamers will find themselves thrust into a fight for the heart of a planet and the fate of a civilization.

James Cameron is one of the most well-known film directors. His movies are almost universally classic, ranging from some of the best action movies ever made to "Titanic," the top-grossing film of all time. It's been a while since we've seen anything from Cameron, and with good reason. His current goal has been the production of "Avatar," a completely original film property that he's been trying to get made since 1995. It's been in production limbo for quite a while, but Cameron's "Avatar" is finally set to come out this December.  It's sort of a sci-fi version of Pocahontas, starring Sam Worthington, recently of "Terminator: Salvation" fame, as Jake Sully, a crippled ex-Marine who's been hired to work as an "Avatar" on an alien planet. Sully falls in love with an alien princess and ends up trying to save her world from the very corporation that hired him. James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is a prequel to the film and casts players as their own custom-created character as they witness the events leading up to the movie.

Avatar is set in the very distant future. Mankind has colonized space, and a number of various corporations and groups are busy mining space for every bit of profit that can be found. One of the most lucrative locations in space is Pandora, a lush planet that is absolutely filled with valuable minerals. However, the planet Pandora is also filled with deadly alien species of many shapes and sizes. The most notable are the Navi, a group of 10-foot-tall blue aliens. By human standards, the Navi are primitive, but they're also extremely tough, and Pandora is their home. They naturally don't like corporations strip-mining their planet and have proven to be a tremendous barrier to progress. In addition, Pandora's air makes it difficult to work, since no human can spend much time there without expensive equipment.

This is where the Avatar comes into play. The Avatar is a human-Navi hybrid creature that is a mindless body; it's controlled when a human "jacks" into it, placing his mind inside the Avatar. The Avatar itself is almost indistinguishable from a Navi, which allows humans to function on the planet without risk. In the game, players are put in control of one of the soldiers and sent to Pandora to help with the efforts to conquer the planet and its precious resources. As is common in these sorts of stories, you'll find that the Resource Developer Administration isn't the only group interested in the planet. The Navi are a sentient and intelligent race, and the conflict will center on which side the player chooses to side with.

Based on our E3 demo, Avatar's defining feature actually doesn't have anything to do with the gameplay. It's notable because the entire game is in 3-D.  The actual game can be viewed in 3-D by using special glasses, much like you'd use at a movie theater. In fact, it is using the same technology that the "Avatar" movie will use for the same purpose. While Avatar is far from the first game to use 3-D as a gameplay feature, it's among one of the first to really push the idea of visual depth in video games. Like Pixar's wonderful "Up," Avatar uses the 3-D effect to add depth to everything in the game world. Nothing in the demo had the "jump out" effect that is so commonly associated with 3-D products. Instead, the game was designed to simply provide greater immersion in the environment. It's difficult to explain exactly how much depth the 3-D visuals give to the game, but it really is an experience like no other. Grass seems to pop up into your face, dirt particles and bullet shells seem to fly past your head during combat, and everything seems more physical and real.

Avatar bills itself as a nonlinear third-person shooter, and from what we've seen, that sounds pretty accurate. Players take control of a human soldier in a fairly traditional third-person shooter system. Your primary advantage is that your human soldier has a vast number of powerful technologies that are not native to the planet. These include all kinds of powerful weapons, but those are far from your only tool. Players will be able to choose from 30 different "skills" as the game progresses, and they can be used to your advantage in combat. Skills include a speed boost that allows players to dart across the battlefield, a cloaking device for stealthy operations, and even a repulsion wave to knock enemies backward. These special abilities really allow humans to survive on Pandora, as even the best weaponry is little match for the dangerous inhabitants of the planet in a head-on confrontation.

While human soldiers are reasonably effective on foot, they're most effective behind the wheel of one of the game's many vehicles. In our demo, we got to see a handful of the available machines, including jets and ATV-like vehicles that could provide both transport and firepower, although they're also much larger targets for some of the nastier enemies. Perhaps the shining jewel of the RDA's weaponry is the Armored Mobility Platforms (AMPs), which are basically robot suits that humans can pilot. They're powerful and look to be the primary source of human domination on the battlefield. While the player doesn't seem to be able to use these vehicles overly often, they provide some truly ridiculous firepower when they're in use.

The humans need ridiculous firepower because Pandora may be a beautiful planet, but it certainly isn't a friendly one. During our brief demo, we saw some incredibly deadly enemies. Everything from the plant life to the animals seems to want the humans dead. Plants would shoot bees at the unfortunate RDA soldier, and he was under constant attack from "viper wolves," which look like wolves but are far faster and deadlier than any earthborn species. There were even tremendous rhinoceros-like creatures, which could knock over tanks with ease and required an entire regiment of troops working together to take down. Even ignoring all of these hazards, there are still the Navi, who certainly don't look kindly on the humans who ravage their planet.  We only got to see the Navis for a brief period, but they seemed deadly indeed, attacking with primitive but deadly melee weapons and falling only when multiple soldiers turned their guns on the alien creatures. Players will also have the ability to scan the alien creatures to find out more about them, which should prove useful in finding weaknesses.

Killing enemies and completing missions earns the players Effort Points, which appear to be a combination of money and experience points. By earning EP, you can obtain new skills and abilities for your character; the more difficult the task, the more EP you earn. Effort Points are also apparently going to have some influence on the overall conflict on the planet. The world itself is divided into two factions: RDA and Navi. The more you fight and the more effort you expend, the greater an influence your chosen faction will have. It's not entirely clear what will and won't come from this influence, but one can safely assume that your overall goal will be to eliminate the opposing influence.

At some point during the game, players will gain the ability to take control of an Avatar, and even to side with the Navis. It isn't explained exactly how this particular changeover will occur, but we got to see a brief view of what playing as a Navi is like. They're extremely large and powerful but don't have advanced technology so you'll have access to bows, swords, maces and other primitive weapons with which to dominate your foes. The Avatar's advantage is that it is substantially faster, more durable and more powerful than a human being. In a straight-up fight, a Navi will win every single time, even without advanced weapons. The Navi can use human weapons, but only for brief periods of time. They lack the knowledge and ability to reload weapons, so the best they can do is get a brief moment of firepower before returning to their primitive weapons.  The Navi also have the ability to control animals like a human would control a mechanical vehicle. The ponytails that the Navi have are actually a biological "link" that can be plugged into an animal, allowing the Navi to control it. Considering that the animals on the planet are already a tremendous threat on their own, a Navi-controlled animal can be a very brutal opponent.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is interesting in that it is a movie tie-in game that doesn't feel anything like a tie-in. The universe and setting seems almost perfectly geared for a video game, and if it weren't for the fact that I knew it was based on a film, I'd simply assume it was a completely original universe. The gameplay mechanics and setting look to blend together in very interesting ways, and as a prequel, it's unrestrained by the film's story. The 3-D visuals are absolutely breathtaking, and they really need to be experienced for oneself to get a full understanding of what they add to the game.  Due to be released shortly before the film hits theaters , James Cameron's Avatar is shaping up to be one of those rare movie tie-in games that is not only fun for fans of the film, but also fun on its own merits.

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