Movie tie-ins are generally the lowest common denominator when it comes to video games. They’re generally designed as nothing more than cash-ins, with developers given little to no time to create a fully fleshed out gameplay experience. I had slightly higher hopes for Ubisoft’s James Camerons’ Avatar: The Game, thanks in large part to his ridiculously absurd diatribe during Ubi’s E3 press conference about how closely he worked with the publisher. After about an hour with the game, it became clear that while this particular game based on a movie was different from the rest of the pack, that doesn’t mean James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game a good game.
I’m not sure where in the movie’s timeline that James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game takes place, but thankfully, it doesn’t follow the movie’s plot at all. Supposedly. I haven’t seen the movie, but I think it’s safe to say the game doesn’t just allow you to play through the movie’s key moments since only one of the characters from the film appears in the game (Sigourney Weaver), and that appearance is limited to about twenty seconds at the very start of play. The story kicks off with you arriving on Pandora as an RDA signal specialist. Upon arriving, you’re informed there’s a traitor in the RDA who is giving away military secrets to the Na’vi, and that you’ll be responsible for tracking them down. About half-an-hour in, you’ll find the traitor, and you’ll be given a choice whether you want to take them out, and continue working for the RDA, or to defect to the Na’vi, and fight against the corporate machine. The first time through, I chose to play as the RDA because lets face it, I didn’t fly into outer space to not kill blue aliens. As the RDA, your mission is to acquire fragments of unobtanium (yes, that’s what the valuable mineral resource of Pandora is called), which you’ll then use to find a secret location on Pandora that will give the RDA control of the planet. As the Na’vi, you’ll play the exact opposite, as you try to defend your planet’s resources from the vile military machine. The story is neither engaging, nor particularly well written. Human characters are bland stereotypes, and the Na’vi dialogue in particular can be pretty painful. Honestly, if we can create giant blue clones to imprint our brain patterns onto, how hard could it be to create an ear bud translator so the Na’vi don’t sound as unintelligible as Indians from 1950s Westerns?
Regardless of which side you choose, single-player missions all devolve into fetch quests that culminate in boss fights. It’s not that bad at the onset, but when every single new mission is the same exact thing over and over again, with the only difference being the amount of minor tasks you’ll have to complete before you’re allowed to finish the major objective, progressing in the game becomes more tedious than fun. For example, every RDA mission in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game has you collecting three shards of unobtanium before reporting back to your commanding officer to get co-ordinates for three more shards of unobtanium. As the game progresses, you’ll have to do more and more menial tasks before you’re allowed to go after the unobtanium, which wouldn’t be a big deal if those tasks held any weight. The mini-missions don’t feel tacked on, but they do feel as if they’ve been put in the game to make the play time longer. Even though many of the objectives are placed as far apart on each level’s map as possible, getting around isn’t that bad thanks to a pretty healthy supply of vehicles or animals. For the most part, all the RDA vehicles control fairly well, but the physics sometimes get a bit wonky when hitting a rock. Not every piece of debris should cause your car to flip wildly out of control. Flying is pretty fun, even if it’s a bit difficult to gauge how close you are to the floating landmasses. Animals aren’t especially fun to use, but it’s better than walking long distances.
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game has a pretty decent combat system… as long as you’re playing on the RDA side. Everything is in third-person, and the shooting mechanics are pretty good, even though targeting is a bit wonky. It’s really hard to see smaller enemies on the screen thanks to all the vegetation, and some of the larger animals are really difficult to combat thanks to their ability to close distances extremely fast. Na’vi are eliminated very easily thanks to the range and power of the RDA weapons, particularly later in the game. You’ve also got some futuristic soldier bonuses, like the ability to heal yourself in battle and limited super-speed, as well as a few others. Outside of seeing what each of the abilities did, I never used a single one except for healing for the rest of the game. Controlling the Na’vi though, is a different story all together. The only ranged weapon they have is a bow and arrow, as most of their combat relies on up close melee attacks. This wouldn’t be a problem if the enemies you were fighting didn’t have extremely powerful guns capable of mowing you down at a distance. If you do manage to get up close, there are some cool attacks, as the various staffs and blades you use are pretty neat. Combined with the handful of magical attacks (similar to the RDA’s combat abilities), like instant healing and short-range teleporting, Na’vi should be a fun race to play as. It’s too bad the game doesn’t feel the same way. I mean, look, there’s no way an advanced military force like the RDA can lose to a bunch of blue cat-people with animal hide armor and bone weapons. James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game also has an almost needless leveling system where your abilities, armor, and weapons will upgrade based on experience you from the tasks you’re able to accomplish. Strangely, leveling really only occurs after finishing off each set of story missions, so the XP system, which is never explained at all, could easily have been left out in favor of just rewarding you with the upgrades for finishing your objectives.
Multiplayer is best summed up in a two words: frustratingly aggravating. There are a handful of modes to choose from like Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Attack and Defend, but none of them are all that memorable. While most developers have found a way to alleviate multiplayer issues like spawn camping, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game actually pays no mind to advances like random spawn locations, and online players are all too ready to capitalize on the ability to mow you down as soon as you spawn. The lack of balance between the RDA and the Na’vi is even more obvious in multiplayer. Any gamer worth their salt will be able to cut you down from across the board with the endless range of the RDA weapons, and even though it may be really rewarding to learn how to master the Na’vi melee combat, jumping into a game, and getting stuck on the alien team almost always results in a lopsided loss. Up to sixteen people can play, but if you’re lucky, you’ll be in a match with four other people. It may be due to the fact that the game just came out, but I’m wagering it has more to do with the fact that there are so many other better multiplayer games out right now that there’s no reason to waste your time waiting around in a lobby for James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game’s multiplayer.
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game is lucky it looks so damn good, otherwise it’d be a complete waste of anyone’s time. The jungles of Pandora are lush and vibrant, and are quite impressive when compared to any current gen game, let alone a movie tie-in. Colors pop off the screen at every turn, and the huge landscapes of Pandora look quite amazing when you stop for a moment to check them out. Characters are animated well enough, but some of the wildlife doesn’t get nearly the same treatment. The voice work is passable, but don’t expect any of these performances to stick with you. Since I don’t fall into the minute percentage of 3-D television owners, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game does give you the option to use stereoscopic 3-D should you have the ability. Even without 3-D, the game’s presentation is the one stand out feature of an otherwise average game.
While James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game bring any new gameplay elements to the table, it will certainly provide at least a few hours of entertainment for those of you really looking forward to the actual movie. Given the lengthier development time that this movie tie-in received, I’m surprised the gameplay and story aren’t a bit more polished, but there’s nothing horribly wrong with James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game. It’s a fairly run of the mill third-person shooter, with some less than enthralling multiplayer, and an impressive visual package. Hopefully the movie delivers more of a memorable experience.