James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game

There’s one thing I LOVE about James Cameron’s Avatar, and that’s the concept. Now that the initial flood is out of the way and we got Christmas over with I’m putting aside an afternoon to go and indulge myself in the movie because, from the bits I’ve seen, it looks fantastic!

But I’m here today to tell you about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game – and although it’s a little incorrect I’ll be abbreviating that name down a bit from now on, OK?!

Avatar places you as a Signals Specialist in the RDA sent to Pandora by special request to do something or other, I may have blinked and missed the exposition of this bit but I don’t think it actually matters a whole lot. You meet up with a few people and wander around doing the obligatory in-game tutorial bits before being shipped out to one of the human bases on the planet, where the story begins and the action starts for real.

There’s one thing I’ve missed in this and that’s your introduction to ‘wearing’ an Avatar. For those of you who’ve been off-world for a while, the eponymous Avatar is an artificial construct built/grown with your DNA to match the native Na’vi of Pandora. Your consciousness is transferred to this tall, blue vessel via the use of a Link Chamber where your human body remains until you decide you’ve had enough running around free and clear and want to be short and breathe through a mask again. The first time you go through this transfer would, I expect, be a somewhat disorienting and yet wondrous experience; a new body, new experiences, new and different sense levels, even the perspective of being 8-9 feet tall would, one would expect, be explored and realised in such a way to really draw one into the world and it’s character. But no. What we actually get is about 30 seconds (if that) of standing up, half-hearted dialogue about being dizzy and everyone feeling like that and then your back in your human body and done. Now then, I’m no game designer but… wouldn’t a 5 minute ‘new driver’ course have been a decent element to drop in here? Perhaps provide a little obstacle course which upon completing provides that little <plink> we love, with a minor achievement or trophy? Imagine that as you first venture forth the controls are just that little bit slow to respond and you feel just a little bit clumsy, but as you complete each element it gets better until you’re ‘in tune’ with you new body. The dialogue could also reflect this “Woah this is weird”, ” OK, I’m feeling more in control now” until finally “I LOVE this new body!”. That would be been fun and, I think, have served to get my buy in to the character itself.

I could now run through the storyline of the game itself, explain all of the things that happen and why, but the problem I have is that, while the story elements are actually pretty good, there actually isn’t that much of it. Let’s not forget that this is a relatively simple tale of choice and consequences. Instead I’m going to talk about the thing which we really care about, the gameplay.

I read in the PR blurbs that the games ‘branching storyline’ provides for an immersion into the story of Avatar and of Pandora itself. Hmmm. Avatar had to be one of the most linear RPGs I’ve played in a long, long time. Perhaps it’s a generational thing but I truly feel that we’ve moved beyond the ‘do a quest, get a reward, get told where to go, rinse and repeat’ style of games towards a truly interactive world where the decisions we make and the responses we give in conversation actually matter to the feel of the game we’re playing. And as far as conversations go in Avatar, it’d be nice to have a choice in these rather than having to sit through a single threaded to and fro, typically punctuated by glib remarks and cringe-worthy characterisation.

Then there is the game engine itself. Imagine you are stalking your enemy, you circle around the landscape until you find that perfect vantage point from which to take your shot, unfortunately the game decides that the camera is behind a leaf, a really big leaf. You cant just walk forward because you’ll get shot and if you move to one side or the other you’ll either get shot or lose your line of sight. That’d be annoying. Now imagine you’ve been tearing through the jungle on your DireHorse and you dismount to take care of some ‘Bad Guys’ the horse would naturally move away from the noise and action right? No it decides that right in front of the camera is the PERFECT place to stand.

Now imagine that you are climbing and jumping over some rocks, you slip (Oh no!) and fall INTO the scenery! The camera shows you nothing but jagged pixels and colour and all you can do is jump madly about hoping that at some point the direction you pick will be through the magic doorway to reality. It is of course, but reality also has a hefty drop and death.

Now imagine that you are running, running for your life and need to climb a handy liana to get away, except of course that even though you can see it you haven’t aligned yourself to it correctly so cannot press  the ‘climb the vine you idiot!’ button.

OK, so these examples are a little extreme, the problem is that the game is clumsy. I’ve played a few games and I know that there are FAR superior handling systems out there. The use of the Unreal engine in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect’s brilliant (ground vehicle notwithstanding) third-person handling. It’s all there, so why is Avatar so rubbish!

The initial indicator that things were not going to be good in this area happened early in the game when, as a human, I took a buggy out to look for a comrade who’d got himself lost. The camera position is locked both horizontally and vertically to a point in the center of the vehicle. This means that every bump, every twist every gnarled root you drive over results in the entire scene being bounced and skewed around. It’s truly nauseating! Again this stuff has been so well done in other games, how could it have been so bad here? I can’t believe that someone, somewhere in Ubisoft Montreal play-tested that element and said ” I love what you’ve done here, this is perfect!” If they did, we should find that person and make him play it over and over and over and over until he understands the mistake he made, or is sick – preferably both.

As I traveled around the surface of Pandora via my network of Travel Agents – really, don’t even ask – I was impressed at the way the different regions seemed to have their own ‘feel’ but remained connected as a whole. For those who know the story, this will make sense, for the rest it’s just a nice bit of continuity for the different levels you’ll play through. I am going to make one significant comment here about the characterisation of the Na’vi in particular as I kind of expected the human military types to be a bit 2 dimensional. Just because they are an indigenous, non-technically developed people does not mean that they can’t be eloquent and construct a decent sentence. Having the head Na’vi warrior Beyda’amo sound, well a bit thick and brutish seems to be gilding the Lilly somewhat!

There is good here though. The scenery of Pandora is spectacular and it’s jungles lush and dense. It’d have been nice to have a slightly different perspective when playing as the Avatar version of your character as I’m sure their eyes would see different spectral elements to those of us humans, but perhaps I’m being a little too demanding there. The floating rocks and mountains are a little freaky but if you know the backstory then you know why and how they exist but the world of Pandora is well realised as are the flora and fauna therein. In fact if you were taken on a fly through, you’d thoroughly enjoy the experience, as long as you don’t have to actually do the flying.







3 responses to “James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game”

  1. Jake avatar

    I thought this played ok when I played it at Eurogamer Expo – I played through quite a hefty chunk of it once the hall quietened off and quite enjoyed it… but you’ve put me off now!

  2. MrCuddleswick avatar

    Heh, I enjoyed your review, especially the “climb the vine you idiot” button bit! Reminds me
    of Assassin’s Creed.

  3. John avatar

    Jake, It’s not a BAD game. It’s just not the best at what it does. I’m still playing it through (mainly to justify the £40!) but having seen the movie yesterday I’m more engaged with the world too. The mechanics are still a pain and I’m running everywhere rather than using rides of any variety.
    It’s actually the scenario goals and achievements which are driving me now.

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