James Cameron's Avatar: The Game Review
This disappointing film tie-in transforms the magical into the mundane.
- Branching story provides replay value
- Some nice-looking environments
- Melee kills are fun
- Conquest mode is a neat idea.
- Conquest mode is ultimately all but useless
- The story and characters stink
- The action gets tedious
- Absolutely awful vehicles.
Bigger doesn't mean better. Developer Ubisoft Montreal disregarded this mantra when creating James Cameron's Avatar, delivering a mediocre game loaded with unnecessary padding, rather than a tight and enjoyable package that could have gotten players excited about the upcoming film of the same name. In fact, if you're eagerly anticipating the upcoming Avatar movie, it's probably best that you avoid this bland and overlong third-person shooter altogether, because there's nothing fantastical or compelling about its story or characters. That isn't to say that Avatar is all bad. A branching story featuring two disparate factions makes this a two-games-in-one experience, so if you like wringing the last drop out of your $60, the single-player campaign might keep you busy for 15 hours or so. Unfortunately, while a few of those hours are entertaining, Avatar's action is too bland and tedious to justify the game's length, and a variety of bugs and bizarre design elements put a further damper on the fun.
Avatar takes place on the planet Pandora, which the human-controlled Resources Development Administration (RDA) is stripping of its resources--much to the dismay of Pandora's indigenous population, the blue-skinned Na'vi. Meanwhile, the RDA has established a way of transferring a human's consciousness into an artificially created human/Na'vi hybrid called an avatar. You play as Ryder, an RDA operative who soon finds himself (or herself, if you choose a female persona) in over his head as he discovers the consequences of the RDA's destructive presence on Pandora. About an hour into the campaign, you'll be faced with a choice: side with the RDA, or live as an avatar and take your chances with the Na'vi. Yet no matter which path you meander down, you'll meet a series of unmemorable characters, played by unexceptional voice actors who deliver their poorly written lines without a trace of enthusiasm or urgency.
More disappointingly, the game assumes a familiarity with the nature of avatars. Cutscenes are abrupt, and moments that should carry weight, such as the first time you enter the body of your giant blue avatar, are presented without a shred of wonder. Your own character embraces that same matter-of-fact approach, reciting the dialogue in monotone, even as events unfold that would make most folks' jaws drop. With few exceptions, humans come across as resource-hungry simpletons, while the Na'vi are reduced to monosyllabic native stereotypes. And no matter which faction you align with, the flabby ending sequence will make you wonder why you bothered to see the story through. The blend of sci-fi and fantasy seems conceptually solid, but the ideas were given a treatment so cavalier that it's impossible to care about the fate of this world, of its people, and of your own character.
You won't find any more magic in Avatar's world than in its story, because though it too seems conceptually solid, it's similarly diminished by a general lack of energy. Pandora is at first sight a beautiful place, covered in lush foliage and teeming with beasts both savage and submissive. If you follow the RDA route, some of the monstrous plants will even spew poisonous fumes at you or knock you over with a powerful swipe of their leaves (really). The environments are attractive in the way most jungles are, and sights of flying beasts overhead and winsome waterfalls in the distance make Pandora's beauty simultaneously inviting and imposing. Yet over time, the environments lose their allure. Dark greens and darker greens melt into each other, and the visuals start to feel heavy, which will make you long for a change of scenery. A few of the areas you visit provide much-needed variety, but even so, the atmosphere grows wearisome and eventually wears out its welcome.
Each of Pandora's explorable regions is relatively large, and missions often involve traveling long distances to get to your next objective. Along the way, you'll run into a number of different types of enemies that seek to destroy you. If you side with the Na'vi, you have a few instruments of death to keep you well protected. Your default bow will likely be your go-to weapon. It snaps to targets when you hold the trigger, which is a real boon in the busy environments, given that it can be tough to spot camouflaged RDA foes. You can also sport a machine gun, though it's rather feeble, so you're better off replacing it with another choice, such as the enormous spiked club, which is good for mowing down a few viperwolves at once. In fact, melee combat leads to Avatar's most consistently enjoyable kills: it can be a lot of fun to cartwheel toward your target and slice him up with your dual blades. You equip four weapons at a time, but you can switch them out for other available options, and over time, your weapons level up and you gain access to better armor. Leveling up isn't a game-changing mechanic--your core abilities remain more or less the same--but there's still something rewarding about rising to the next tier of weaponry.
If you go the way of the RDA instead, you won't wield any melee weapons and will instead shoot your way to victory. You've got a pair of pistols to get you through if the better guns run out of ammo, but they're all but useless; luckily, your shotgun, flamethrower, and other weapons seem appropriately powerful, if not exactly satisfying to use. Imprecise targeting and inconsistent hit detection make it feel like you're spraying bullets around willy-nilly much of the time, and humanoid enemies are too stupid to make shooting them exciting. Your foes often will ignore comrades falling over dead right in front of them, engage harmless creatures and ignore you as you pick them off, and walk directly into walls and continue to walk in place. Not that AI characters are the only ones prone to technical weirdness. You might get stuck in a crevasse while flying a banshee, fall into an inescapable fissure, or dismount from a direhorse directly into the geometry of the plant right next to it and be unable to get out.