Avatar's Not-So Expanded Universe
James Cameron can't do anything the easy way. He can't just make a movie; he has to build a world. Rather than making the world of Avatar exist only on movie screens, he's taken it to gaming with a prequel-ish title that fills out some of the details of the corporate incursion into the dangerous planet of Pandora. The idea is that, by presenting a story that precedes that of the film, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game can create a true expanded universe. Does it work? Sort of.
Avatar, the game, hasn't had the exceptional reviews that have been thrown the way of the movie. But it isn't quite as bad a game as some have made out (it's no Rogue Warrior) and is a better experience when played with the film storyline in mind. That's another way of saying "see the movie; then play the game." Because what the game's best moments deliver are the details the movie doesn't have time for.
The primary criticism levied against "Avatar," the film, is that the script is deficient. That's quite true, and manifests in many ways, one of which is that the world never seems as dangerous as we're told it can be. There are hints of deadly strife between the opportunistic humans and native Na'vi, but until things really go insane in the last act, we don't see much of it in action. "Show, don't tell" is the classic screenwriting rule, and one that Cameron breaks left and right.
Forget the story and just shoot.
What happens, then, is that Ubisoft's game steps in to provide some of the backdrop we don't get to see in the film. You'll start as a human who arrives on Pandora much as Sam Worthington's character does in the film. You'll explore some of the jungle in your human skin, and see the human-Na'vi conflict come to life. Then you'll jump into a Na'vi Avatar and play as a giant, blue, non-human native. Eventually a choice is made -- side with the humans or the Na'vi, after which you're locked into one side or the other.
The decision between playing as a human or Na'vi is meant to be a moral choice, and to many players I suppose it is. Though if you buy into James Cameron's take on the material it's really no choice at all -- you have to play the Na'vi to feel good about yourself. In that respect the "moral choice" here is just as much a smokescreen as it is in most other games. To me, however, it was about seeing what was behind the movie's curtain, so I first jumped in as a human.
The best additions to the Avatar universe come right at the beginning of the story, before you make any choice at all. Running around in your first hours on Pandora, you'll see the enclosures built to protect most of the humans, and the dangers faced when those defenses start to break down. There is genuinely more context to the human experience on Pandora than you'll get in the film, and that's a neat thing. There's more danger, and more uncertainty.
Or, wait, is the shooting the story? I'm confused.
Only a couple more hours into the human campaign, however, you'll be so powerful that there isn't much on the surface that can deal any serious danger. So we're seeing the conflict play out, but we're right back where we started -- Pandora isn't as dangerous as claimed. Those Na'vi that, we're told, "are very tough to kill" turn out to be just another tissue-paper adversary. You've got unlimited weapons, and the enemies have teeth and sticks. It's no contest.
A certain firepower-porn sensibility does add some context to the story. The weaponry is fun, no question, and there's something valuable to feeling how terrifyingly thrilling it can be to pilot a helicopter through a flock of alien dragons, shooting them down left and right. If Cameron's film left anyone with questions about how a human could just blow the hell out of Pandora, the game might give some ugly insight. Sadly, the moral angle of firepower porn isn't reinforced as you're carrying out most of the human missions, wasting a great deal of story potential and leaving the destruction as little more than exploitation.
Playing as a Na'vi, the colorful beauty of the Pandora jungle is the primary selling point. (No Fallout brown here!) That's ground covered with much more power in the film. Here I was hoping for the same sort of vague background I got playing the human side -- let's see how the Na'vi interact; let's get a sense of some of the rituals that seem like arbitrary plot devices in the film. But there's no real getting in touch with the culture Cameron cobbled together. Just a lot of dashes through beautifully colorful jungle.
Come on now, that's not even fair.
The dangerous aspects of the Na'vi are undermined here, too, by simple gameplay. The natives rely on rudimentary weapons compared to the human adversaries, and as your arrows bounce off armored attack ships you'll have a hard time believing that they're really a force to be reckoned with. There's no way to band the Na'vi into a real fighting force, and they're just as ineffective here as in the film. False advertising!
Given the much-ballyhooed moral-choice "feature" that has infested gaming over the last couple of years, I held out hope that the game version of Avatar would do more than show off more of Pandora's flora and fauna. The first couple hours ironically work the best in that respect, and after that it's almost all downhill into the territory of average licensed spin-offs. Game-changer? Hardly.