December 19, 2009
James Cameron’s Avatar – The Video Game not only wins prizes for the world’s longest – and most boring – video game name ever, but it also wins prizes for the longest developed movie tie-in. That’s right folks, they’ve been hard at work on this game for well over 5 minutes before its recent release. It’s actually closer to 3 years, which is a significant improvement for titles of the infamous movie tie-in genre. So you’d have thought, a longer development cycle would ultimately mean better quality, right? Well, not exactly, and it was with Avatar that my hope for getting a decent movie tie-in in the near or distant future has now diminished completely.
Although Avatar is classed as a movie tie-in, the only similarities the two share are its world, its history and the odd recurring character. Set two years before the film, Avatar (the game), follows the journey of the soon to be infamous “Able” Ryder (you can’t make this stuff up), a signal specialist who has been shipped off to Pandora to help the human RDA discover the Well of Souls and gain control of the planet. The only problem is that the natives, these 12 foot giant smurf-panther hybrids called the Na’vi, who have lived there in peace for thousands of years, aren’t willing to give up quite so easily. You’ll set off on a story that is meant to evoke an emotional understanding between both factions on either side of the war, yet all you can see is the RDA being deceitful and overzealous. You are given the choice to choose sides very early on in the game, but don’t expect the story to have a lasting impact on you. In fact, I can say with the utmost confidence that I’ve forgotten what happened already... and it’s only been a few days.
So if you can’t rely on a James Cameron movie-tie’s story, all hope is lost, right? Actually, no. The gameplay mechanics of Avatar work pretty well, in an arcadey third-person shooter kind of way. One minor qualm might be the lack of the traditional zoom with the left trigger, instead, the left trigger makes you do an acrobatic roll, but in a way, that just adds to the arcade style nature of the shooter mechanics. The first problem you’ll encounter doesn’t come in the form of a gameplay mechanic issue, rather it’s the enemies you face, as you effectively only face off against 3 or 4 enemy variations throughout the whole game. Even after the first 20 minutes of the game, you’ll already be sick of killing Viperwolves... and there’s still a good 7 hours left.
The gameplay is vastly different for each race you pick (human & Na’vi) and whilst the human RDA might rely totally on its gunplay, the Na’vi relies on its short-range melee weapons to get an edge in the combat. As you can imagine though, this situation brings about the classic “Cowboys vs. Indians” scenario where the obvious matching of guns against melee weapons isn’t exactly fair. The Na’vi do have a bow & arrow and a gun they can use, but the ammo isn’t as readily available as the RDA’s, thus unbalancing the proceedings. The RDA do have to contend with the local flora on Pandora as well though, but come on, how hard is it to shoot a plant?
Not only is there a balance issue between the two races, but the RDA are just a much cooler race to play with as they can make use of a ton of different weapons that include flamethrowers, grenade launchers and more. If that’s not enough, the special powers and gadgets that the RDA have compared to the Na’vi are so much cooler. You’d much rather have a destructive airstrike than a swarm of bees, right? Exactly!
Ubisoft Montreal have also made a few interesting design choices that don’t map out well for the player. First and foremost, to include a platform mechanic and plenty of narrow walkways was never going to be a good choice considering the unresponsiveness of the jump mechanic and the arcade style precision of the movement. Secondly, the choice to include a traditional lives system but only limit the player to carrying 5 lives is a pointless one. Even better, when you lose all those 5 lives, you respawn a hundred metres away, effectively meaning that you can die as much as you want without consequence. Prince of Persia did a similar mechanic, but Avatar’s story and cast of characters doesn’t have the same charm to overshadow it and render it moot like POP did.
Avatar’s fundamental weakness is the game’s mission structure and repetition. It’s so bad in fact that I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most repetitive game I’ve ever played. Aside from a few flying sequences, the game consists of the same sequence of events. Get mission. Go to objective. Kill people on the way. Collect/blow up objective point. Go back. Then rinse and repeat for 8 hours. The game may boast two stories, but chances are after half of one, you’ll be reaching for the disc eject button. The only thing that can remotely break up this monotonous sequence of events is the short strategy “Conquest” mini-game where you can earn aids to help your cause. It’s that simplistic though that it’ll only be a distraction for mere minutes at a time.
On a more positive note, the moon that is Pandora is a fantastically realised environment, with dangerous and alluring flora and fauna and an illuminating day-night cycle. Everything screams effort and attention to detail, and you can’t help but feel that there’s some real substance to it. You can even experience it in genuine stereoscopic 3D... but it’ll cost you around £5,000 for the TV (which we don’t have), so that point is pretty much moot. The environments are huge – linear but huge – so using some of the local wildlife (if you’re a Na’vi) or an RDA vehicle (if you’re human) may be necessary. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but the controls of the vehicles are unbelievably clunky. Unfortunately its multi scaled nature can be a little disorientating at times as well and you’ll often be left wondering how you can get up to the next level. If you do get that taken back by the moon though, you can indulge in the game's Pandora-pedia which is a detailed series of documents giving you more background on the moon.
If the single player’s repetition causes too much agony, then you can always head online to play some traditional capture the flag, team deathmatch or objective based games. The problem in balance extends online obviously, and the simple mechanics act no differently. The problem online comes when you try to get a game... which is like trying to pry blood out of a stone. Simply put, the online is dead and thus, we have another game that suffers from a tacked on multiplayer mode. It would have been nice if they spent that time on the single player and actually made that more of an experience, but no. Instead you have an online community that is non-existent and a single player campaign that has the charisma of John Major.
The achievements in Avatar are like the gameplay in general... boring and repetitive. There are a series of achievements for clearing each area, a ton of secret achievements that relate to completing each storyline all the way through and a ridiculous amount of online achievements, which as we all know, are like the devil’s spawn. The online achievements are absolutely ridiculous as well and we’re pretty sick of developers tacking achievements on to their tacked on multiplayer modes. How the hell is anyone meant to rack up 150 multiplayer games when there is no-one on there to play with? Are there any good achievements you ask? Well, no. It ranks down there with that other Avatar game on achievements, but for entirely different reasons.
Despite its decent presentation and simplistic gameplay mechanics, Avatar is as shallow as the kid’s end of a Hobbit’s swimming pool. Whilst there is nothing overly wrong with the gameplay mechanics per se, after you’ve spent 8 hours going back and forth planting explosives or collecting objects for your mission objective, you’ll be ready to use Avatar as a coaster. There are two separate stories and a multiplayer you say? Once is enough thank you very much... and the multiplayer, well, in order for it to be classed as multi, there needs to be more than one person on there. Avatar’s online was a proverbial ghost town. It’s disappointing that a game with so much promise fails to deliver like nearly every other movie tie-in. It's finally time to say, we've thrown in the towel and can conceed that all movie-tie ins are doomed forever.
The audio is a mixed bag. The original score for the game on the one hand is top notch. The voice acting... not so much. It’s very static and is a definite immersion killer.
The moon of Pandora is greatly realised with its own genuine flora and fauna. Character models aren’t that bad either.
The gameplay mechanics are decent enough. They’re mostly responsive, simple and the game is easy to pick up and play.
It’s a real bore fest if ever there was one. The mission structure is plain awful and offers no variation to break up the monotonous go there, get this and come back mission objectives.
There are achievements... that’s all you need to know. The boring, unimaginative list is on par with the game’s mission structure and delivery, which is nothing short of poor.
There is nothing overly wrong with the world and the gameplay mechanics (which are quite fun to start with) in Avatar, but there is no depth to it. It’s completely shallow and repeating the same mission type over, and over, and over, and over again for 8 hours is nothing but a chore. It’s like playing fetch, and in case Ubisoft Montreal didn’t realise, I’m not a chuffin’ dog! Despite the lengthy development process, it seems that Ubi forgot one key ingredient... to make the game fun. Such a shame really for a game that showed some early potential. In the end, it’s another shallow movie tie-in.