Videogames made solely to coincide with the release of a major movie tend to be terrible -- rushed, lazy, and made with little to no care by studios who are just doing the bare minimum required to get paid. Avatar: The Game, however, is supposed to be different. James Cameron himself said that this videogame was not simply based on his movie -- it was part of the experience.
Ubisoft Montreal had free reign to do whatever they wanted in the Avatar universe, crafting its own unique adventure on Cameron's lush and verdant world of Pandora. So, what did Ubisoft Montreal do with this playpen of creativity, this ticket to take an upcoming movie and produce a videogame that truly stands out as an amazing counterpart to Cameron's original vision?
Ubisoft Montreal made a videogame solely to coincide with the release of a major movie.
Oh well. Read on the full review.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game (PC, Wii, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: December 1, 2009
James Cameron's Avatar revolves around a conflict between humans and aliens on the wild and untamed planet of Pandora. It looks incredibly original and unique -- but the visual aspect is the only thing original about this story. Avatar is yet another "humans and technology are evil while aliens are an allegory for black people" story, one that missed the boat ever since District 9 pipped it to the post.
Rather than do anything interesting and perhaps try to create a story that is not so black-and-white, Avatar's premise is incredibly lazy and something we've seen a million times before. The human RDA Corporation is corrupt and greedy, commiting atrocities and claiming that the alien Na'vi race is bloodthirsty and savage, when of course they're actually peaceful and innocent lambs. This is basically a sci-fi premise written with a stencil.
The only barely-original hook is the "avatar" in question, and even that feels done before. In any case, avatars are the result of DNA manipulation in which an empty body resembling a Na'vi is created synthetically. Humans can insert their consciousness into an avatar so that they look like a Na'vi and go undercover. In Avatar: The Game, the player character starts as an RDA soldier that can bond with an avatar. Long story short -- you soon uncover that the RDA is evil, so you must choose between the Satanic humans or the Saintlike Na'vi.
These two paths ultimately affect how you spend the rest of the game and turn it into a shooter or a hack-and-slash. As a human, you have access to vehicles, turrets, and all sorts of advanced weaponry. As a Na'vi, you gain the special ability to be terrible at everything. You'd think that playing as the Avatar franchise's big mascot would be the superior option, but apparently it isn't. Na'vi get a selection of spears, knives and clubs against mechanical suits, machine guns and grenade launchers. The blue goons do get one machine gun, but it runs out of ammo so quickly it's not worth using most of the time.
Whichever race you pick, one thing is constant -- this game's combat is a total mess. As a third-person-shooter, it lacks a cover system or even a basic way to improve your targeting, and the character is set way too far left of the screen for no reason whatsoever. As a hack-and-slash game, you are basically armed with a stick against an army with guns. You get shot to ribbons in seconds and often have no way to avoid the masses of bullets and explosives that come your way. There is also no targeting system and you use the right trigger to perform melee attacks. Combat invariably involves running around in a circle, hammering the trigger and simply hoping you'll hit something, interspersed with hitting "A" to recover your health when you invariably get shot to death.
The combat "system" in this game is a joke. It's sloppy, lacking in strategy, and the in-game camera is so bad that you can't focus on anything. It also doesn't help that the graphics all seem to blend into one another, making targets ridiculously difficult to even see. This is especially bad for the Na'vi, since humans are half their size and easily melt into the game's environment. This is 2009 and the game's combat feels like something from the PSOne era. Games this messy and lacking in basic essentials simply should not exist. Even for a licensed game, that's pretty disgraceful.
The only unique part of combat is the special skills. Players can level up to gain new abilities which are accessed by holding a shoulder button and then pressing one of the face buttons. Such abilities include temporary speed increases or the chance to summon one of Pandora's animals to fight by your side. The skills are interesting until you discover than they have almost no impact on the game, providing little more than visual treats with very little affect on the flow of combat itself.
If the combat feels lazy, the missions are even worse. Almost every other mission is a fetch quest. Some of them have no other objective than "Go here and collect five random things." I'm willing to say that roughly 50% of the game is simply traveling to a location, picking up an arbitrary number of objects, and then bringing them back. In fact, if the Avatar movie is not about picking up random items and ferrying them back and forth across Pandora for no reason, then the game is a blatant misrepresentation.
Again, the mission structure is something I'd expect to see from the mid-nineties. Objectives never get more inspired than the same things we've been doing for nearly twenty years. Go here, kill that, pick this up, escort this character. One mission had me walk from one area to another, talk to a character, and then walk back the way I came. That was it. It seems that timewasting objectives that exist merely to pad the game out is Ubisoft Montreal's speciality. It has to be said that the studio's gotten very good at it.
All this uninspired garbage is helped along by one of the worst videogame environments I've ever had the displeasure of playing in. Pandora looks pretty, but as a game world, it's truly horrible. The whole game is a mass of maze-like paths and high ledges with no protection from instant-death stumbles. Following objectives on the game's terribly vague mini-map is an exercise in frustration, with the map giving no clue as to which path to take or whether the objective is in the treetops or on the ground. It's frequently easy to get lost and go down dead-end paths, or take the low road instead of the high road, realize one's mistake, and backtrack all the way back to find a split in the path that will take you up where you need to be.
Ubisoft also worked so hard on making the graphics pretty that it forgot to make them clear. As mentioned before, everything blends into each other so it's incredibly hard to find things you need. There are many vines dotted around the map that let you climb up to important places, but many of them are essentially camouflaged. Occasionally a marker will highlight them, but for some reason this only happens during random missions. Often, the vines will just stay hidden in the rest of the greenery, and you'll be wandering around for ages trying to work out how to get up to a high point.
The vehicles handle decently for the RDA, but the mounts used by the Na'vi are horrible. The "horses" are slow and unwieldy, with the player unable to attack on them, the larger mounts are impossible to aim with when attacking, and the flying creatures are horrible, frequently getting themselves stuck and controlling like cheap hang gliders. Fortunately, the use of these animals is rarely essential, but the times when one does use them are not fun times at all.
The visuals are pretty much all this game has going for it, so much so that they even impede the gameplay. It all looks beautiful, but you can tell that this game, and the movie it's based on, is nothing but eye candy and James Cameron saying "Look how blue these horses are, isn't that weird!?" The animation does not match the graphics, with characters moving stiffly and the Na'vi running like they desperately need the toilet. The game also frequently throws in pointless, small, unskippable cutscenes that convey no information. Do we really need to randomly see an NPC flying away on the back of a giant moth dragon to let us know he's not going to be in the area after we've finished talking to him? Again, such things scream of dishonest game padding.
If you have millions of dollars for the right kind of TV, Avatar is in 3D. Only an idiot would care about that, though.
The game also has multiplayer, but that manages to be sloppier than the single-player campaign. It generally consists of running around the huge, sparsely populated map, desperately looking for something to kill. The maps are so big, and the characters so small, that it feels like a total waste of time. It's also brutally unbalanced in favor of the RDA. It's a case of bows-and-arrows against the lightning, as a bunch of blue space hippies armed with spears try to fight mechs, machine guns and all manner of other weapons. There's no reason to pick the Na'vi in multiplayer, except somebody has to in order for a game to happen. It's pathetic.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is a waste of time, and a squandered opportunity. That a studio was given free reign to make their mark on a potentially huge upcoming movie franchise and just threw the opportunity into the garbage can to produce this lazy, slapdash, develop-by-numbers excuse for a videogame is truly sad. It seems to have been made with the mindset that, just because it's a licensed game, that means it has to be as unoriginal and sloppy as possible. It really doesn't have to be that way, and people deserve much better than this slap in the face.
If this game is any indication as to the quality of the movie, then it's safe to say that this is one trip to the theater that you do not need to take.
Score: 3.0 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)
reviewed by Jim Sterling