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James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game

James Cameron’s Avatar has been a long time coming. The acclaimed director’s first film since the award winning Titanic has been shrouded in mystery for years with the inevitable video game tie-in following suit. This year’s E3 saw Cameron spend a good few hours talking about the project during the Ubisoft press conference without even a shred of footage; instead relying on his own words to sell the product. With the big man backing it and so much secrecy there was a degree of hope towards the title despite the lack of coverage. Unsurprisingly that was just wishful thinking. James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game is your typical tie-in; it has some neat ideas and a lot of depth but it’s never put to good use.

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“I managed to gain more information on the plot by watching the movie trailer than I did playing the entire game”It’s also not much of a seller for its movie counterpart. The story is essentially non-existent throughout. I managed to gain more information on the plot by watching the movie trailer than I did playing the entire game – it’s that barren. All you really need to know is that the game takes place roughly two years before the movie. A private military group called the RDA have travelled halfway across the galaxy for an expensive, rare mineral found only on the planet Pandora. The indigenous creatures on the planet aren’t too happy about humans invading their homeland, particularly the 10 foot tall, mysterious blue species known as the Na’vi. Things start off relatively peacefully with ongoing negotiations between the two factions carried out via the use of Avatars – human/Na’vi hybrids utilised by the RDA. The player character – man or woman, whichever you choose – happens to have the right DNA to use an Avatar, and so you’re thrust into the exotic and dangerous world of Pandora.

The game fails to really tell you any of this important narrative information, and the poor dialogue and monotone voice acting doesn’t help matters. However, the plot’s biggest failure comes half an hour in when you’re asked to choose which faction to fight for, the RDA or the Na’vi through use of your Avatar. This is supposed to be an impactful scene, choosing whose beliefs and morals you want to dedicate the rest of your playtime to. But it’s made redundant because you’re never given any exposition to allow yourself to make a logical choice. All it really boils down to is whether you want to shoot stuff with advanced weaponry or hit things with sticks. I may be underselling the Na’vi slightly, but choosing them is a poor decision I made first time around.

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With great power

Powers also play a role in combat. There’s no rhyme or reason for them being here, but both the RDA and Na’vi can utilise them. Much like the weapons, you can carry any four at a time. Some are fairly basic, such as the ability to sprint for a shot time or regain health in the midst of battle. Others deal out damage or strengthen your defences, usually affecting enemies in close proximity. Much like similar systems used in RPGs, they take a while to recharge so you won’t use them too much, especially since combat is pretty easy to begin with. But the effects on display are impressive, and it adds a subtle degree of variety to the combat.

Avatar: The Game opts for the two-campaign set, so each faction is unique besides from the obvious gameplay differences. If you want bang for your buck there’s plenty of playtime to be had playing through each separate campaign, though I wouldn’t recommend the Na’Vi side to anyone. While they may look like fun the mediocre combat is anything but. You can carry four weapons at once, whether it be a bow and arrow, crossbow or a multitude of melee weapons such as giant staffs of twin blades. Ranged combat works well – despite arrows killing people way before they’ve even made combat – but it’s never particularly exciting. Your only alternative is melee combat which is extremely poor. The one-button move set gets tedious within minutes and the lack of any sort of lock-on means it’s awkward and erratic. When the majority of the campaign revolves around these two poor combat methods it’s hard to have any fun with it.

The RDA campaign is marginally better. The weaponry on offer here is a lot more exciting with assault rifles, shotguns, flamethrowers and grenade launchers coming into play. The loose shooting can feel a little inaccurate at times but it’s a step up from the Na’Vi combat and can be quite enjoyable at times. Sadly it’s not as focused as it could have been with both campaigns consisting of a plethora of repetitive MMO style quests. It’s an odd choice for a game like Avatar but could have worked if more originality was injected into the experience. Most of the quests revolve around navigating from point A to B and either killing enemies at the other end, collecting items, or both. There’s a small degree of variety with some anti-climactic bosses – they just dissolve after defeat – and set pieces, but it’s not enough to save it from tedium.

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“The nausea experienced when driving the buggies was almost too much at times.”Even travelling from each location is upset by your navigational options. The Na’vi can mount a few of the indigenous creatures populating Pandora, including the aptly named Direhorse. It’s ok for getting around but it seemingly floats across the ground and is unable to plough through enemies despite its size and myriad legs. Though the RDA alternative isn’t much better. Buggies are the vehicle of choice here, but the baffling amount of awkward camera movements from the slightest bump or change in direction is, quite frankly, vomit-inducing. I’m not one to fall ill from playing games but the nausea experienced when driving the buggies was almost too much at times. The airships are better once you get used to the controls but they’re not used as much as I would have liked.

Surprisingly one of the best parts of Avatar: The Game is the Conquest mode. It’s hidden beneath the rest of the game but if you stumble upon it there’s some fun to be had organising your troops across the world, building units, defences and deciding strategies to tackle your foes. It doesn’t really impact the gameplay as a whole since you can quite easily play through the whole game without ever going near it, but if you want to put some time into it it can be an enjoyable distraction from the unpolished combat.

And sadly it’s that same combat that makes up the multiplayer component. Once again the Na’vi are out of favour here with the RDA getting the best weaponry and vehicles. As a result it’s fairly unbalanced and plagued by the same problems as the single player. I can’t see it sustaining for too much longer.

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“Unfortunately, the framerate constantly struggles to keep up with the briefest of action.”Visually Avatar looks fairly impressive most of the time. There are some ugly character models but the world of Pandora is lush with foliage, stunning vistas and some of Cameron’s unique geographical designs. Within a few hours the constant shades of green do begin to tire, so it’d be nice for a change of scenery once in a while. But for what it is it looks good. Unfortunately, the framerate constantly struggles to keep up with the briefest of action. Just running through the jungle bogs it down and disrupts the flow of movement and combat so it’s disappointing this wasn’t polished.

James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game is your average movie tie-in. While it tries to do a lot with its MMO style quests, EXP, multiple campaigns and Conquest mode, it never really focuses on making the basic gameplay mechanics a success. The RDA campaign can be enjoyable when you’re using some of the more powerful hardware, but the Na’vi are poor on all levels and the mundane quests you’re sent on never fail to bore. With more refinements to the combat this could have been a solid effort in the battle to make a good movie tie-in; as it is, it can join the rest in the bargain bins.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @richardwakeling.

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