James Cameron, love him or hate him. He's a visionary film director and you can be that whatever he's cooked up is going to be epic in scope and ideas. This is true regarding his latest Blockbuster flick: Avatar. And of course, just like usual...the video game industry has been hot on the heels of the film, with Ubisoft trying their hand at movie to game magic.
Set two years before the main story from the film, Avatar chronicles the journey of Ryder, a young hopeful (who you can choose) on the planet of Pandora. A hostile place that is teeming with exotic flora and fauna, most of which wants to devour humans outright. The RDA Corporation wants to mine Pandora, because a particular rock gives them a huge payout back home. The native Na'vi doesn't want this to happen. It's a simple story with some nifty twists and turns later on.
I'm not quite sure where a lot of the hate comes from for this game; it's a bit of a throwback to the old school shooter. No cover and no fancy mechanics for aiming/shooting. You have the standard controls, move and shoot. You do have an rpg-lite layer of gameplay to contend with, where you can do various sector challenges to gain experience points that rack up to a level up, upon level up you get new stuff unlocked such as: new armour, new skills, upgraded weapons and new weapons. There are several vehicles to pilot, mech suits and copters as the RDA side, or the elegant Ikran (flying creature) and Direhorses for the Na'vi. My only gripe is that it takes a very MMO idea to the quests, you do this, go there, fetch that, kill x-of this.
Fortunately the gameplay is 'old school' solid, it plays out very differently depending on which side you choose and there is a checkpoint at the choice so you don't have to play the same level over and over again when you come to change your mind after finishing the game as one side or the other. The RDA are technologically strong, powerful and the easiest side to survive Pandora with...they get attacked by the native flora and fauna a lot, so expect to spend a lot of time fending off killer monsters, plants and a few other surprises. The Na'vi are weaker, they prosper with hit and run tactics and make excellent use of the environment. Yet the game is hard when you play as one of them.
You can equip three additional weapons at any time, four skills and change them out as you play without the need for special kiosks or complexity. You have a bunch of objectives per sector to do to gain 1000XP each time, these are repetitious and cover the gamut from destroy-x things, explore the map, activate x-objects as the RDA, or explore the map, destroy-x things and activate x-object as the Na'vi. They aren't needed to complete the main game missions, but do give you 1000XP per challenge completed and count towards achievements (for you achievement hunters out there, yes we are looking at you Saul M).
Once you complete the gold coloured story quests, you can usually move on to a new sector on the planet and do more. It's a big game; the sectors are massive and teeming with things to eliminate. Thankfully there's a good quest log, a decent map and a way to track resources, objectives and so on. There's also a Risk-like Conquest mini-game built in, but I didn't spend too much time with this since it gives you very little in the way of reward compared to the main game and the Risk-like style of game isn't my favourite type, so I couldn't give that section the love it deserved. From my observation, it's has a limited tutorial and it's very tough.
There are some times when the game seems to just pour on the mobs, with guards or hostile fauna spawning in from nowhere, it reminded me of the bugs with Vegas 2 terrorist hunts, when the enemy would appear to shoot you in the back just as you cleared a room. If you like this MMO style spawning, you're going to love it. Kills = XP depending on what you kill. RDA gain XP from killing plants, animals and Na'vi. Na'vi gets it from RDA and their installations.
It's nothing new, but it adds a tactical layer to the gameplay that might not be present sometime. One minor gripe is that the falling damage seems to be the same for both RDA and Na'vi, one would expect the native tribe to the planet to be able to withstand a longer drop. Also the falling damage does seem a little severe, as does the amount of firepower that the RDA field in direct comparison to the Na'vi, even late game when you level up. Still, minor gripe aside, that's probably just like the film.
The check-point system works very well, you can collect DNA to help you revive in combat and even if you die, you respawn at a nearby checkpoint with little or no grinding needed to get back to where you were. Objectives auto-save so there's no need to repeat huge chunks of play. You can also jump back to sectors you've already done and play on after the game ends to clean up challenges.
Avatar has one strong point and that is Pandora, Pandora is a pretty place and comes with a long day/night cycle. It is however worth seeing at night, since the place becomes eerily beautiful and almost magical, everything changes, the water gives off a fluorescent glow as you step in it and so does the ground. It's like someone turned on a Black Light and coated everything with UV paint. The overall effect is pretty breathtaking and is certainly one of the graphical highlights of the game. Pandora during the day is no less beautiful and Ubisoft's graphic designers/level editors and environment artists are to be commended. If you loved the look of Crysis then you're going to adore Pandora. The special effects are good, the dynamic lighting is suitably effective and the only thing I could not check out was the 3D option, since I don't have the glasses and I'm not sure if my HD TV can handle it.
There's a good level of detail on the characters, the equipment and especially on the Na'vi themselves, with their gorgeous tribal markings and the flowing colours. The RDA favour very Quake-like colour schemes but the whole game eschews a brighter palette and makes a refreshing change from drab-shooter colours.
These are good, solid and very well done. The RDA move like humans, their soldiers are grunts and they have the motion down to a T. The Na'vi are graceful hunters and move with a fluid motion in combat, their attacks causing the RDA to fly backwards most of the time. The hunting creatures like viperwolves are extremely well animated, they're lightning-quick and they provide a challenge even at the higher levels of the game.
It's a mixed bag; it provides a challenge at times but doesn't do anything overly special. It can lose the plot sometimes and just sit there not doing anything. When it works it presses you hard as both RDA and Na'vi.
The sound effects are good, the ambient spot effects are excellent and the planet is brought to life extremely well by the audio of the game. The RDA gunfire and the whip of Na'vi bows are well done. They probably pulled a lot of sound from the actual movie assets.
A very grunt-like score for the RDA is counterpointed by a whimsical tribal one for the Na'vi. I love the music in this game a lot; it's extremely well composed and very well performed.
Voice and Dialogue
The voice work isn't too bad, there are some famous voice actors doing various roles in Avatar, such as Commander Falco...who I can describe as a lighter version (same actor) of the Colonel in Metal Gear Solid. There are some parts which sound forced. The dialogue is vanilla and there's nothing overly wrong with it, the Na'vi speak in a suitably cracked tribal way and the RDA are gung-ho.
RDA and Na'vi throw down in some basic deathmatch, team deathmatch, King of the Hill, Capture and Hold, Final Battle (kind of like defend objective or destroy it play). It's generic and vanilla; it won't hold many people's attention too long I don't think. Not when you can get the same fun out other games that are more established in the mp genre. I think the game deserved co-op and that co-op is still vastly underused in gaming these days. You might find some milage in it; the experience was occasionally interrupted by a bit of lag but nothing monumental.
Movie to game...
Avatar went the route of doing the game set in the world of Avatar, not trying to shoehorn in the movie. It is set 2 years before the movie and tells a self-contained story from two viewpoints, it has rpg elements and is actually a fun game if a little flawed. I can truly say this is actually one of the better movie based games I've played, but in the end there aren't that many great movie based games. Perhaps, Riddick and that's really it.
Still, it's worth a play and that's what counts!