Uh oh. A video game based on a movie? This can’t be good, right? The only thing worse than a video game based on a movie is a movie based on a video game. But wait a minute. We are talking about a James Cameron film here, the director of such blockbuster movies as Aliens and The Terminator. And we are talking about Ubisoft here, one of the video game industry’s brightest publishers, responsible for such critically acclaimed franchises as Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia, and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell. Surely these two artistic giants can vanquish the voodoo associated with making a video game based on a movie, yes? No.
Sadly, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game gets off to an ill-conceived start. Kudos to the development team for refraining from taking the easy route and simply repeating the movie adventure in game format, instead the game takes place two years prior to the events of the film. You play as Able Ryder, a signals specialist brought from Earth to join the Avatar Program, and to help the RDA track down a sacred site on the alien moon Pandora. The opening minutes are spent meeting chief RDA characters followed by an hour of grunt work that doubles as the game’s tutorial and introduction to the world of Pandora. Then players are faced with a game-altering decision: to continue working for the RDA, who if they can find the mystical Well of Souls will take control of the planet away from the indigenous Na’vi, or to side with the natives and help preserve their way of life.
Really? This early? It’s way too soon. At this point in the game do I really know enough about the Na’vi and their plight to betray the RDA? No. Have I been a member of the RDA long enough to feel any sense of loyalty towards them? No. So what am I basing my decision on? This declaration should have come around the midway point of the game, after players had enough time to forge some sort of connection with one faction or the other. Instead it’s thrust upon players prematurely and thus has nowhere near the kind of impact that it should have.
Choose you will, though, and from that point on you’ll play one of two distinct campaigns. At first glance the two factions are quite unique. The Na’vi are considerably taller, stronger and more agile than humans, and their arsenal is decidedly more melee based. Appearances can be deceiving though. Upon closer inspection, particularly with respect to the skill tree - which is progressively unlocked through an experience point system – you’ll spot a number of similarities. As a member of the RDA or Na’vi, you’ll share similar skill sets such as the ability to heal your wounds, become concealed within the environment, perform a ground thrust attack, and call in support. Sure, the source of that support is quite different, but support is support. A little more distinction between the skill trees of the RDA and Na’vi would have been nice.
What drags Avatar: The Game down even further is its gameplay, which unfortunately I would describe as mostly linear, repetitive and wholly uninspiring. Whichever side you choose to fight with, you’ll play through the campaign in repeated fashion. Talk to person X, who will tell you to travel to location A and complete an objective. Return to person X who will tell you to visit person Y. Person Y will tell you to travel to location B and complete an objective. Return to person Y who will tell you to revisit person X. Rinse and repeat. Now you might be wondering how Avatar’s gameplay is any different than say Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s not, really. Ultimately Avatar: The Game fails to develop its characters and storyline in an interesting manner beyond the opening stanza, and as a direct result its shortcomings in terms of gameplay are magnified. All of a sudden hiccups with the camera and melee combat systems are all the more noticeable.
There are things to like about Avatar: The Game, like the production value, which is top notch. Avatar uses the Dunia engine, which was built in the making of Far Cry 2. The environments are both wondrous and colorful, particularly during night missions when the phosphorescent plants come to life. Pandora is certainly done justice visually. The audio is strong as well, headlined by a sweeping score and sound effects shared with the film. One of the gameplay highlights is a Risk-like meta-game that you can jump into throughout the campaign. Success in the meta-game translates into in-game bonuses for your character, such as additional experience points. Of course, when you’re having more fun with the meta-game than you are the main game, that’s…not a good thing.
Besides the Dunia engine, Avatar shares something else with Far Cry 2: continually respawning enemies. In an early Na’vi mission you’re tasked with locating and taming an Ikran, a mountain banshee, but first you have to fight your way through several RDA soldiers and drones. On my initial playthrough, I got lost and had to retrace my steps. As I did, all of the enemies that I previously killed respawned. So I killed them again and began my ascent, again. On my second attempt I took a misstep and fell off one of the platforms. The fall wasn’t enough to kill me, but once more I had to retrace my steps, and again all of the enemies respawned. It wasn’t 30 seconds since I killed them last and already they were back in full force. How does that make a lick of sense? It doesn’t, it’s just annoying and frustrating. Thank Eywa I was able to complete the ascent on my third try.
There is competitive multiplayer present, but it’s not going to pull you away from the likes of Left 4 Dead 2 or Modern Warfare 2. In fact, I don’t think Avatar: The Game needed a multiplayer component. Let this be a message to developers out there. I know multiplayer is the trendy thing to include, but sometimes you’re better off spending your time and resources creating a great single player game, rather than a mediocre single and multiplayer experience.
I’ve probably made Avatar: The Game out to be worse than it is. The problem is I’ve seen Avatar, the movie, and I was profoundly moved by it. I figured the amazing team at Ubisoft Montreal would have been more than capable of doing the source material justice. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. In the end, Avatar: The Game joins a long list of misguided movie-turned-video games.