Platform reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Avatar makes for colourful, phosphorescent gaming with an alien setting. Guess what? There has also been a movie made of this game, so it must be good, surely?
James Cameron’s: Avatar the movie is obviously a huge media event, an epic in the style only James Cameron (and possibly Michael Bay) knows how.
But I haven’t seen the movie, and people whose opinion I trust reinforce my lack of enthusiasm to shell out for three hours of spectacular special effects overlaying a shallow and hole-riddled story. I will probably go at some stage, but for now let’s treat the movie spin-off game as its own entity.
.....or perhaps not, for Avatar the game could also be described as several hours of spectacular special effects overlaying shallow and hole-riddled game-play.
The RDA has landed on Pandora, a hostile environment, but one rich in providing an ever voracious humanity with precious rare materials. The only problem is that the nine-foot blue Na’vi inhabitants of the planet are not so ok with space marines from Earth dropping gigantic bulldozers upon their brightly coloured flora.
So fights ensue, with the Na’vi relying on their size, speed, strength and local allies, against the technology and firepower of the RDA.
The game is a separate space opera, a prequel, to that presented in the cinematic version; as such characters from the film are not present during the 15 to 20 hours of game play. Instead you play as Able Ryder, a RDA recruit signal specialist who may (as in many games) have a destiny on Pandora greater than his initial station.
Ryder’s doom is to first gain an understanding of his new neighbourhood, and then make a crucial game changing decision during the first hour and a half. This decision is somewhat made more difficult for non-movie fans, in that the extent of Pandora’s dangers and unique RDA lifestyles are not made too clear. At no point in the game is there a description about what exactly an Avatar is, why there is an Avatar process (apart for making it easier to function on a planet with hostile atmosphere) and what the actual problem is with the locals.
The Avatar is, of course, as many movie goers will know, the process of temporary re-birthing into the body of a Na’vi, kitting you out as one with nature, but one who walks with a big club. Or to quote one of the in game characters: “Man who is not man, Na’vi who is not Na’vi, Dreamwalker.”
Once the decision to go native, or stick with the might of humanity is made, the game boils down into a series of very generic missions that follow on from each other well enough.
Both sides of the game play entirely different, for my money the most enjoyable side is as the close-combat specialist Na’vi. Playing as RDA human pans out as a run-of-the-mill 3rd person shooter, with awkward shooting controls, and but at least there is the fun of taking on Pandora’s rather vicious flora along the way.
The floating camera behind driven vehicles will induce motion sickness over every little pot-hole Pandora has to offer, the more sedate Na’vi riding creatures are easier on the stomach.
As Dreamwalker, the Na’vi, you get to belt things up with blades and clubs, and piff away at distant targets with your bow, crossbow or RDA stolen machine gun. The brochure for Avatar the game references 60 in-game weapons, but the reality is, that many of this number are simply upgrades to the existing crop, that automatically update when unlocked.
In fact, let’s touch on the RPG elements of the game; as missions are completed, points will unlock new packs of equipment and skills, 22 in all. Equipment includes the aforementioned weapons as well as armour, with improvements in the damage dealt or stopped, as well as speed and range.
Skills are abilities that can be employed at the flick of a button; stunning opponents, allowing the player to disappear for a moment, trigger a devastating charge, heal damage and so on; both RDA and Na’vi have differently named but identical skill trees. These skills level up with unlocked packages in the same way as weapons.
Early in the game, you will settle on a weapon and skill selection list that complements your game-play and then, if you wish, it is set-and-forget time for the rest of the game; it is a simple system in keeping with the level of sophistication found throughout the Avatar experience.
Conversely to the level-up system, playing Avatar has a learning curve. The control mechanism for instance can be counter intuitive, holding L2 [PS3] and then triangle to perform a mapped skill sometimes gets in the way of pressing triangle on its own to interact with objects in the game. Accidental triggering of skills in this way can make some intense battles even more difficult than they need be, thereby increasing the rude-word vocabulary of nearby youngsters.
Visually, whilst I didn’t get the opportunity to run the game in 3D stereoscopic mode, (still saving up for that 3D enabled TV) the game saturates the screen with colour. Good use is made of differing environments, from phosphorous gardens, to battle wastelands or multi-level dense jungles there is plenty of detail being thrown at the eyes. Atmospherically however it was lacking, the ambiance of a jungle world did not feel quite right, this fault is mainly attributable to sound design rather than graphical, steam and smoke effects worked well.
This detail can make the console version of the game chug. Pop-in is noticeable, distant Na’vi look like the Blue Men advertising Intel processors, until textures overlay the model when moving closer, frame rates will drop noticeably when enemy numbers rise.
The AI of the enemy is questionable, with combatants reacting to fallen colleagues only sometimes. Missions consist of kill or fetch quests often watered down to using the same technique time and time again to despatch foes. After a few hours the cookie cutter missions encompass the repeated use of cookie cutter strategies.
Only a few times does mission-tedium-syndrome get broken up by the introduction of a new mount or vehicle, but the appeal of these are short lived. Eventually the plight of the Na’vi struggle or the determination of the RDA is lost in the blight of just getting to the next checkpointed discussion. Many times, I would turn on the cloaking ability just to avoid a randomly produced battle, and get to the next story progressing trigger point.
There is also a rudimentary area control game, accessible through the teleport stations/trees found in the main campaign maps. It is turn based Risk style game where the RDA battle the Na’vi for control of the moon Pandora. Other than using experience gained in the main game to purchase, foot, vehicle, flying and defensive units, this sub game has no bearing on the main one, and could, for all intents be ignored.
The voice acting is, for the most part, excellent and the multiplayer, with its five modes is fun, if you can find people on line to go up against.
I imagine, the description of the game is similar to the movie; there is a lot of showiness masking some mediocre core structure. In the end the hero wins, we enjoy our hours in the dark, walk out into the sunshine and immediately forget the experience. Perhaps those blessed with 3D equipped TV’s or PC’s will get more from this release, the eye-popping screen-jumping effects masking a shallow gaming experience.