James Cameron's Avatar: The Game (Xbox 360)
After more than a decade, trailers and television commercials have lifted the shroud of mystery from "Avatar," the long-brewing would-be opus from director James Cameron. The movie promises to bring audiences an amazing new vision. But the game based on the movie doesn't even come close.
Unlike many tie-in games, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game doesn't transpose the movie's plot into game form. What it does do is offer up the same core themes with different characters. Instead of reluctant hero Jake Sully, you play as reluctant hero "Able" Ryder, a military man working for the Resources Development Administration, an interstellar mining company. The RDA is working on a jungle planet called Pandora to excavate a rare resource called unobtanium. Humans can't survive unassisted in Pandora's hostile atmosphere, so a select few, including Ryder, transfer their consciousness into genetically grown Avatars. These blue-skinned forms are designed to blend in with the 10-foot-tall native Na'vi.
After discovering the atrocities the RDA has been committing against the Na'vi, players can align themselves with the RDA's paramilitary war machine or stay in their Avatar form and side with the Na'vi warrior tribes. A story created solely for the game -- surely a good sign, right?
Unfortunately, this is where Avatar's flaws start to become apparent.
There's not as much novelty as you would think in being a 10-foot-tall, catlike warrior. Kinda feels like Conan fighting Master Chief.
The "space marine problem" is one dilemma. As much as we see them in the movies, clich?s of militaristic science-fiction have become even duller in the videogame realm. They are easy to tick off: tough guys huddling in dimly lit spaceship hulls, head-spinning examples of gee-whiz technology, locking and loading an arsenal of intriguingly lethal guns. You've seen these elements in Halo, Killzone, Gears of War, Resistance and dozens of other, lesser games. For a title linked to a film that is supposed to reinvent action movies, there's a whole lot of same ol', same ol' going on in Avatar.
Like in other third-person games, you're often getting attacked from multiple directions. But with no cover system, Avatar doesn't let you make a strategic stand to win a firefight. Instead, you're running around haplessly, trying to shoot and dodge. The environment is tough to read, filled with nooks and crannies that look traversable but aren't. Some guns shoot farther, carry more ammo, or reload faster; but nothing about them feels exciting. There's no iconic weapon on the RDA side -- no Plasma Sword, no Lancer for you to love like it was your right hand.
When presented with the chance, I chose to go native in the hopes that rolling with the Na'vi would show me something significantly different than the space-marine stuff. No such luck. The Na'vi missions put you through every tedious anti-colonial clich? imaginable: freeing prisoners, battling through villages as they're being bombed, disabling bulldozers as they're razing rainforests. Recycling another set of ideas, the Avatar gameplay has you using low-technology weapons -- swords, fighting staffs, bow and arrow -- and mystical abilities to fight against the invading human soldiers. The Avatar game expects you to walk through a parade of clich?s and interpret that as depth. And through it all you feel nothing.
Cameron earned his renown as a world builder, right? The vast, murky depths of the Abyss; the grinding, implacable animosity of the Terminators and, hell, even the nostalgic romance of the Titanic's period-piece details all prove that he can draw audiences into his vision. Pandora is a beautiful world full of weird critters and sweeping views, but its textures and plant forms repeat over and over. Any urge you might have to wander into an inviting glade or underneath a waterfall will get rebuffed once you discover how walled-off much of the world is. The planet might look organic and awe-inspiring on the big screen, but it feels oddly cramped as a game space.
Maybe it's because Ubisoft Montreal is executing somebody else's vision, but slogging through the game drained what little anticipation I had for the movie. Cameron and Ubisoft should have tried harder to marry the two mediums.
This review is based on a final build of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.