Quite frankly licensed games suck. Sure, there’re a few exceptions to that rule, but even during this heat wave (43 at the time of writing) if someone offered me the chance to sit in a freezer playing nothing but licensed games, or sit in a room hot enough to boil a fox, I wouldn’t have to think twice. Anything with “The Game” attached to it is almost 10 times as bad, and the very thought of that is enough to make the world’s supply of super computers spontaneously combust. Still, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game not only has James Cameron’s name attached to it, but it was also announced way back in 2007. That suggests it’s had ample development time, not a bunch of first year game design students working on it during their lunch, as I suspect most movie tie-in games are developed.
You begin choosing from a range of female or male (human) characters to play as, any of which will be known as “Ryder” the signals specialist when you arrive on the planet Pandora. As part of the RDA, the human military on the planet, Ryder is one of a select few that are able to participate in the Avatar program. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (and we ask why?) an Avatar takes the form of the local 10-foot species, the Na’vi, and is controlled by a genetically compatible human who becomes one with their Avatar. The RDA’s relationship with the Na’vi appears to be even worse than it is in the film, despite the game being a prequel, and they have no problems killing them to the point where they almost seem to be trying to make them extinct. Early on Ryder finds a human traitor, who has been helping the Na’vi, and has to choose between killing him or betraying the RDA and forgoing his human body.
You’re thrown this option within the first few hours of play, and it will actually determine what type of game you play for the next 5 hours. Playing as the Na’vi it felt a little like Star Fox Adventures (but by no means as good) whereas playing as the RDA gives you more of a straight forward over the shoulder third person shooter. The latter obviously isn’t as cool, as why wouldn’t you want to play as an Avatar? However, as the game is done and dusted within 5-6 hours there’s plenty of time to go back and do both.
Which side you take will alter what missions you play, what guns you have, and how much combat you face, but beyond that it’s fairly similar. As a human you have a range of badass guns at your disposal to destroy the Na’vi and their home planet. Meanwhile as the Na’vi you have more naturalistic weapons such as swords and bow and arrow, but then for some reason you also have a machine gun. It’s like a dog going for a walk then having a beer; everything seems natural and then the illusion is ruined.
The world of Pandora looks great, and is cool to discover in a videogame, but it’s like being on a historical tour. There’s so much you want to see, and find, but the fat balding tour guide won’t let you and insists you stay on the boring path. Like many licensed games we’re led to believe that Avatar: The Game offers us a non-linear open world. And while you can walk around in the wrong direction you’re really quite limited to select paths, otherwise you’ll get stuck on a bit of bush.
After the initial excitement of being on Pandora as an Avatar wears off, in about 12 seconds, you’ll find that the gameplay is actually quite boring, even though it does look impressive at times. You’re told to follow yellow dots on your mini-map, go there and shoot stuff on the way, only to be told to go to another yellow dot. Then it happens all over again. That in itself is enough to bore the pants off of even the biggest Avatar fanboy; to make things worse, it doesn’t even work. You do the same thing over and over again and yet that one objective is fall of inherent flaws. The biggest problem, besides dying of boredom, is that the yellow dots are too hard to find. You’re often standing right on it, and can’t find it because it’s actually many levels above or below you. Then, because you can’t climb up here, you have to walk all the way around a select path to get up only to find you’re still on the wrong level. Worst still is when you can’t even get to the illusive dot. I took one wrong turn, and I spent the rest of my gaming session trying to find out where I went wrong and how to get back to the annoying yellow speckle. When I was finally on the right track I turned to shoot an annoying short man and accidently walked of an edge. Now I’m in the wrong area, and have to walk all the way back to climb up. It would have been faster to invent the technology to create a real life Avatar than finish a level where all I had to do was get to several dots on my map. Wait, that’s all the levels.
Playing as the RDA was a little better, as at least we got to shoot more stuff. It has exactly the same “go here and get something, then return” type of gameplay, but it’s bearable when you’re killing more than the occasional enemy. While it’s fairly bland the combat works for the most part. The point and shoot (with just one analogue stick) feels a little dated, but it works fine, and reminds us of the days of controlling just the camera with the other stick. Playing as either the RDA or Na’vi, Ryder will earn experience points primarily through killing the enemy. They’re then used to purchase updates for your weapons, or special abilities, but personally, I didn’t see the point. It really didn’t make a difference to the game play and I’m rather certain that my character didn’t get much stronger. Playing as the Na’vi your health will automatically regenerate when you’re not in combat. As both you can press the assigned button on the control pad to use a medikit which will restore 80% of your health. And, should you still fail, most likely due to recklessly running in guns blazing, you’ll probably have a restore at your disposal, which revives your character on the spot. I challenge you to die!
After you struggle through the single player there’s the online mode, which looks impressive. We tested out the capture the flag and deathmatch modes first up, and were instantly disappointed. Getting into a deathmatch fine, but the same gameplay shortfalls hindered our experience, in that it was exceptionally boring. We got sent into several capture the flag games, and every time were left by ourselves. I won a game 3-0, but was told it was a draw because nobody else was playing. It’s a bit of an issue when nobody else is either playing online, or is put into the game. There’s a fair few achievements (or trophies) for playing online, so this will no doubt annoy gamerscore fanatics. There’s also no split screen multiplayer, which seems odd. While online didn’t entice us, offline multiplayer would have made a lot more sense in a game like this. Look at the target market, children who are addicted to the film and buy it just because it’s Avatar. They probably would have played offline with their friends, but nobody in their right mind will play this online over a much better FPS, especially when you can’t even get into a game.
Unfortunately we couldn’t test out Avatar: The Game in 3D. It’s hard to judge it when we haven’t seen it for ourselves, but it’s also unfair not to take it into consideration; especially when the film is regarded for its stunning 3D visuals, more so that its narrative. Reports suggest it looks amazing if you have a 3D capable TV, and even without it Avatar: The Game really shines in the graphics department. That is to say the luscious forest, yet militarized, world of Pandora looks fantastic. The characters, too, look good, but some of the finer details aren’t there. The sounds are far from desirable, with poor voice acting, terrifyingly bad dialogue and music that doesn’t set the atmosphere of what is sure to be a stunning 3D environment, as it should have.