James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game
James Cameron’s Avatar was conceived fifteen years ago, with the director describing the influences for the piece as “every single science fiction book [he] read as a kid”. Unfortunately the technology available at the time (1994) was not capable of delivering Cameron’s vision and the project had to be put on hold. Fast forward to December 2009, and Avatar has finally seen a full release, the product of rumoured $237 million investment and the development of bespoke 3D filming techniques – the resulting sci-fi epic has been warmly received the world over. At this point, we should probably clarify that the above is in reference to the movie, not the videogame. While James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game commenced development back in 2007, the results are far less convincing than its big screen counterpart.
Cameron himself is quoted as saying “For the movie Avatar we are creating a world rich in character, detail, conflict and cultural depth. It has the raw material for a game that the more demanding gamers of today will want to get their hands on – one that is rich in visuals and ideas, and challenging in play.” If nothing else, this was an encouraging statement of intent in regards to Ubisoft’s videogame and that the title was also promising to deliver broad support for 3D capable television also hinted at a degree of ambition rarely seen in movie spin-offs. Avatar (the movie) undoubtedly delivered on Cameron’s promises; visually stunning, a new bench mark for 3D, backed up with a plot and concepts that set it apart from more standard sci-fi fare. That it is a strong foundation for a game is beyond doubt; that Ubisoft have failed to capitalise on the opportunity the tie-in presented is, unfortunately, similarly clear.
Avatar: The Game falls into the same traps that have plagued countless movie tie-ins in the past – while it may look the part (especially in screenshots…), spend some time peeling away its layers and it soon becomes apparent that it is content with merely ticking boxes. While it by no means reaches the same lows as recent licensed titles such as Sega’s Iron Man, it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.
The game jettisons the central characters from the film in favour of uninteresting facsimiles, and this feels like a strange move. The movie’s lead, Jake Sully, is gone and ushered into his place is Lance Corporal Able Ryder – possibly one of the least charismatic video game characters to grace our screens for some time. This lack of personality may have been intentional – Ryder is after all an avatar through which we are able to explore the alien world of Pandora – though if we’re being honest we doubt that such a concept is at the root of Ryder’s vacuousness. What is more exasperating is the game’s inability to capitalise on moments of potential drama resulting in a narrative that not only fails to capture that of the movie, but fails to tell an interesting story of its own. Take, for example, Ryder’s transition from RDA employed mercenary to renegade member of the Na’vi tribe – within the space of a few short chapters, Ryder goes from a RDA grunt to giant blue, gun-wielding, combat-gear wearing avatar then into a fully fledged member of the Na’vi tribe complete with loincloth, bow and arrows and hunting knife. There is no sense of ceremony and little feeling of progression, just a series of poorly linked episodes. New equipment is also dumped into your inventory with little to no fanfare and this further diminishes the sense of progression.
Gameplay wise, Avatar is a fairly standard third-person open world action adventure, though the openness of it all is questionable as the game pulls you down fairly linear pathways. On the whole, missions quickly settle into a fairly basic rhythm and play out as follows: Find person x, who will give you a task to find 3 or 4 other locations and carry out some menial act of destruction. Mechanically everything is generally robust, with character control being intuitive and at times fairly enjoyable. The range of vehicles on display fare less well, with somewhat wobbly flight controls being a particular weakness.
Ubisoft Montreal have tried to add an additional layer to the gameplay with the inclusion of light role-playing elements, with experience points being earned for the completion of missions and defeating enemies which in turn can be spent on upgrading your character and unlocking new abilities. While a sound concept that is generally well implemented, advancing Ryder’s abilities rarely feels anything more than tokenistic, with the new weapons and skills that you learn lacking in the ‘Wow!’ factor. Online modes also feature, but in the face of the likes of Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 1943 are little more than minor distractions (and once again, reek of a game merely going through the motions…).
What’s most frustrating about Avatar: The Game is that it gets quite a lot right. Visually it can be pretty striking and on some occasions just downright pretty; Pandora’s luminescent flora and fauna make as good HD-fodder on the small screen as they do at your local IMAX. The rest of the game – from the gangly Na’vi and military hardware of the RDA to the planet’s wildlife – are also well modelled and fans of the film will no doubt get a kick out of spending some more time exploring Pandora. Being given the option to choose which faction you wish to play as is also an interesting idea (even if in practice the difference between the two factions is minimal) and offers an opportunity to play out an alternative time-line to that followed in the movie.
And yet, despite these highlights, Avatar: The Game consistently squanders its potential. In some ways we can’t help but think that Ubisoft Montreal would have been wise to be less ambitious (was the support for 3D TVs – which are currently as rare as hens-teeth – really justified?) and deliver a more linear experience that simply gave you a chance to relive your favourite bits from the movie. Instead of that, they have a produced a flimsy Grand Theft Auto-lite wrapped up in the Avatar licence. That on frequent occasions it actually manages to undermine some of the “detail” and “cultural depth” that Cameron strove to create with the movie and Pandora’s inhabitants further reduces the game’s appeal, even for those smitten by the movie.
It’s fair to say that here at D+PAD we’ve played a fair few movie tie-ins over the years and have grown to approach such titles with a certain degree of caution; with Avatar: The Game however, we were quietly hopeful that Ubisoft Montreal would deliver something special, but once again we’ve been left wanting. James Cameron has undoubtedly created an interesting universe in Avatar with the potential to spawn a cracking videogame spin-off. Unfortunately, Avatar: The Game is not that title.
Have you downloaded the latest issue from GamerZines yet? Check it out here!