James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game – The PS3 Attitude Review
On one hand Avatar suffers from the recurring hex almost all movie tie-ins bear; an immovable launch deadline thanks to the movie it is so intrinsically bound to, matched only by the difficulty of imparting interactivity and freedom into what is – at its core – something both passive and finite.
Of course, the other hand in this equation belongs to one of the master craftsmen of his generation. A visual maven who has birthed some of the most memorable and well-loved science-fiction characters ever. Hence there is a complex duality to Avatar that raises an interesting quandary; how much of what works in the game can be attested to the source material, and how much that doesn’t work is because of that very same property?
Of course, ultimately a game must be judged on the sum of its parts, the source of its virtues and failings irrelevant to the bigger picture of whether or not it works as a coherent entity. The short answer to this high-level question is a firm and noncommittal “sometimes”, a need to delve into Avatar’s inner workings required to understand why, though the game is competent at times and provides elements of fun, achievement and spectacle, it ultimately – and also inevitably – falls short of the movie
Avatar presents the world of Pandora from Cameron’s film as a tropical and dangerous playground. Much like the film it is based on, Avatar the game firmly places plot and character development in the back-seat while relying on the world’s design and compelling premise to fuel its progression.
As a property, the material suits game format quite well, with clearly defined factions each espousing their own objectives and morality compass. In the beginning there are two distinct protagonists – who just so happen to be the same guy – Able Ryder in his human form and his personification in alien guise, a ten foot blue Na’vi/human hybrid – the avatar. The juxtaposition of human and alien gameplay initially presented offers enough variation to be a workable dynamic, up until a decision you must make essentially splits the game into two separate and mutually exclusive arcs. It’s a novel concept and literally divides Avatar into two self-contained games that can be played right after each other if the urge compelled. This also shouldn’t be deemed spoiler material as, quite clearly, the choice to liberate or conquer is emblazoned on the box-art. From a value perspective it’s also more than welcomed. If only we knew the gravity of the choice when presented.
The bifurcation between human and Na’vi paths is a pivotal moment in the game and occurs quite early on. Just as you’ve gotten to grips with each of the two admittedly similar control systems, you’re presented with a choice to stick with one until the game’s culmination. It could be viewed purely as a decision of conscience but, if you had a preference for one type of gameplay (marine vs. Na’vi) and you’ve just gone with your heart (or your head), the way you had wished to at least initially complete the game could be now closed off forever. Or until you play the game a second time at least.
The issue is not with unclear game direction (though a clearer warning would have been nice) and more in connection with how your game is saved in Avatar. While the seamless, unobtrusive and dynamic auto-save feature has its virtues, the inability to simply save, make a choice, not like it and then retrace your steps is unfortunately lacking – especially in a title where half the content is permanently switched off after a moment’s decision. Of course, the gamer purist might argue that games shouldn’t be so arbitrary, so fickle that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. Make your decision and live with it. There is some logic in such an argument.
Alas, with what is a crucial life-altering decision, there really is not a great deal of difference between playing as human Able or big blue with a tail Abel. Both have access to a myriad of weapons, both traverse the environment in similar fashion – though Nav’vi Able is too big to fit in a buggy so he gets a direhorse: a strange six-legged horse-like creature native to Pandora to trapse about on the lush moon. Each character can teleport to different locations across the current map through the use of technology or mother-nature (teleport trees), and both can access a series of un-lockable attributes that can be then systemically mapped to the face-buttons and activated while performing a shoulder squeeze.
The combat is workmanlike if a tad derivative, stunted by a series of noticeable deficiencies some players will instantly bemoan. There is no first-person mode for sharp-shooting for example, no enemy locking mechanism or auto-lock option, and no ability to take cover. Which would have been handy considering Pandora is dense with strategic fox-holes and ambush areas along with your adversaries’ uncanny ability to shoot you from three kilometres away – even when you’re moving through foliage. Vehicles are also somewhat hit and miss, with the banshee in particular exceptionally difficult to control and unravel from a tree whenever you have – for the millionth time – flown straight into a natural obstacle.
Aptly, considering you play a marine, the majority of tasks within the game is grunt work. Go fix a fence, go cure some animals, go find me a plant. It’s a blatant tool to inject some longevity into the game and it works. Add in the “Sector Challenges”, (remove the fog of war from the map by visiting every location, kill all the viperwolves in the area) and you find a game that will keep most people busy for a few days. It’s disjointed, however, rarely progresses the plot or Able’s purpose for being there, and often feels tacked on; almost as is there’s another arc playing out simultaneously within the game. You must choose to liberate or conquer Pandora, or manage its upkeep.
The star of Avatar – The Game, with all due respect to the men and women who made the game, is Avatar – The Movie. The best aspects of the title are when it explores the lore and intricate detail of Pandora and its inhabitants. Able comes with the ability to focus on any piece of fauna, flora or object in the game to later review in the somewhat pre-filled Pandorapedia. It’s a nice touch, and just like a similar physical tome handed out to film journalists about to see the movie version, it contains more information than most gamers will likely consume. It does go a long way in fleshing out the Avatar universe, explaining the concept of “thought transfer” among other things, along with some truly well-written and wonderfully informative scientific data (most of it factual) that, if you didn’t know you were playing a game, you’d be convinced you were attending a science class. If you have no interest in science, astronomy, physics or the like, however, the device still provides a purpose in letting you keep track of your objectives.
Design wise, the game obviously head a massive head-start. Cameron’s attention to detail and speculative mind is all over the title. From the buggies to the weapons (and even how they sound), the game accurately recreates the tone and distinctive feel of the movie. Of course, James Cameron and his film were the inspiration; crucial cornerstones to build upon, but where extrapolation and expansion was needed, the game’s design team have managed to marry the two together. A painting both master and apprentice have contributed to with only scholars capable of telling the two apart.
Unfortunately, though soundly competent, the graphics themselves don’t always honour the masterful design work. Pop-up is a particular problem along with some tearing and questionable collision detection. The game uses a modified FarCry engine with the obvious difference of an extra couple of perspectives. Jumping to the third perspective in Avatar might have been a conscious design decision but we can’t help but wonder what it would have been like as an FPS. The world definitely lends itself to the concept, and we feel some of the difficulties faced in combat and movement would have been mitigated to some degree if the game have gone in this more personal direction.
There just seems to be a lack of polish to Avatar: The Game. A prime example being its start when Able is travelling to Pandora on a space-ship. Essentially this is the same start to Killzone 2 – soldiers moving out to a planet in order to get a job done. Compare the detailed and near-flawless presentation of Killzone 2’s prologue to that of Avatar’s, however, and the gulf is not just evident, it’s huge.
For the most part the visuals do at least recreate the colourful wonder of Pandora seen on the silver-screen. It’s a kaleidoscope of reds, blues of greens, a veritable riot across the RGB spectrum that is a welcome respite from the traditional browns and greys other games utilise.
The multiplayer aspect is competent with the staple modes such as Team Deathmatch and Capture The Flag featuring, played out between the two warring factions of human and Na’vi. Unlike some other multiplayer games, choosing a side here actually greatly influences how your experience pans out. The Na’vi have the ability to micro-teleport for instance which adds an interesting twist to some of the more tried and trusted online gameplay modes.
Avatar is far from being a bad game. However, the length it would need to travel in order to be deemed a great one is probably equidistant. Hence, it comes with due warning. If you exited the cinema and were totally in love with Cameron’s new world, you’ll likely find some value and enjoyment in picking up Avatar: The Game. But even if you did enjoy the film but prefer to keep your movies and games on two separate fields, a diehard gamer will find little satisfaction in this competent yet flawed title.