Avatar: The Last Airbender Hands-On

We try out THQ's action RPG based on the popular cartoon.

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THQ showed off Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Wii at an event in New York this week. The action role-playing game features an original story and lets you take the core cast of characters on an adventure to face off against the Fire Nation. We had the chance to try out the game's unique Wii control mechanics, which put an action-oriented twist on its traditional gameplay.

Get ready to battle the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Get ready to battle the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

If you're a bit behind the times with your Avatar knowledge, we'll offer a quick primer. The cartoon started airing on Nickelodeon in 2005 and is currently one of the more high-profile cartoons on the air. The fantasy adventure is set in a magical world that sees humans coexisting with unique animals and supernatural spirits. Humans are split up into four nations: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Within each nation, there are men and women called benders, who have the inborn ability to manipulate their native element. Bending is an art form that's equal parts martial arts and elemental mysticism. The bending arts are tied to each of the elements, so individuals will be adept at water bending, earth bending, fire bending, or air bending.

With this kind of setup, there'd have to be a twist, right? And there is! Every generation, a bender will appear who has the power to manipulate all four elements. The unique bender is called an Avatar, and this person embodies the spirit of the planet that reincarnates every generation. To keep things fair, the avatar cycles through each of the nations to keep balance and serve as a conduit to the spirit world. The delicate balance maintained by the Avatar spirit's reincarnation is thrown off when it winds up in a young boy named Aang, an air nomad who doesn't take the news of his heritage well and winds up checking out for about 100 years, thanks to a series of unfortunate events that leave him and his air bison in suspended animation. As you'd expect, Aang's absence causes some serious imbalance that results in the Fire Nation dominating the tribe scene and Aang's people being wiped out. What's a recently returned messianic figure to do in a situation like that? Return order of course, which sets the stage for THQ's upcoming game.

The Last Airbender puts you in control of air-bending Avatar and poster boy for the series Aang, as well as his pet and his three friends--Haru, bender of earth; Katara, bender of water; and Sokka, the nonbending member of the posse who relies on his wits and his trusty boomerang. You'll also have the opportunity to take control of Momo, Aang's monkeylike pet. The game follows the basic linear action role-playing structure and sends the crew on a journey to the key lands in every nation on their quest to stop the Fire Nation's reign of conquest. Anyone who's played the recent X-Men Legends games from Activision should be right at home with the tried-and-true model Australian developer Studio Oz is using for the game. You'll be able to swap control of the four principle characters on the fly to best take advantage of their individual abilities. Taking out enemies will yield experience that will raise your party's level and let you power up each member's unique elemental-bending powers. You'll find each character will have a broad array of powers within their specific element that will number more than what you can use as you play, letting you customize your posse with the sets of powers that you want. Also, your journeys will let you earn cash that you can spend in shops you'll come across throughout the adventure. While on a spree, you can choose to pick up assorted gear for your crew to better handle the enemies you'll encounter. Fans of the series will recognize familiar faces and places from the cartoon but should be prepared for all-new characters to appear.

Besides traditional adventuring with the four humans, Studio Oz has included a pleasant amount of monkey content to the experience. You'll be able to switch control to Momo and do some scouting. Besides allowing you the chance to walk a few miles in the shoes of a white-furred simian, the mechanic lets you use the little guy to discover hidden content and access areas his large human pals can't get to. Sadly, Momo's adventuring seems pretty staid, so anyone hoping for some Wii-powered, feces-flinging action--an obviously natural fit for the versatile controller--can only hope that it makes it into the next game.

Speaking of the Wii controller, just what can Avatar fans and those curious about the system's unique interface expect? Well, based on our hands-on time with a work-in-progress version of the game, it'll be an active experience that mixes traditional mechanics with a whole lot of waving. The game makes use of the Wii remote/analog-bean combo that's been the standard configuration we've seen for most of the action games for the system so far. You'll maneuver the character you're actively controlling with the analog stick (with your artificial-intelligence controlled posse following close behind). Melee attacks will be handled by a combination of waving the wand and pressing the A button. You'll have to make sure you're close to the enemy before you start busting virtual heads, though. When you need to tap into the power of the elements to help even the odds, you'll have to hold down the B trigger on the Wii-mote and wave either the controller or the analog bean horizontally or vertically. Each peripheral has two elemental moves--one bound to each direction--letting you perform a total of four. The analog attachment lets you toggle the party's stealth mode, as well, which renders the gang invisible for stretches when you need to be sneaky. For those keeping score at home, we should note that Avatar doesn't support the Wii-mote speaker.

The game has a cel-shaded look, which is similar to that of the cartoon that it's based on.
The game has a cel-shaded look, which is similar to that of the cartoon that it's based on.

The visuals in the game, while not finished, are shaping up well and offer up stylized cel-shaded graphics that mimic the look of the cartoon. While not a show-stopping showcase for the Wii's graphics, Avatar's visuals feature clean detail, smooth animation, and a fluid frame rate that adds up to an authentic experience that should please fans. We weren't able to get a proper feel for the audio, but we expect that the game will mix familiar tunes from the cartoon with original tracks.

From the look of what we've seen so far, Avatar is shaping up to be a good showcase for one type of experience on the Wii. The hybrid experience it offers handles like a happy medium between taking advantage of the controller's key features and relying on traditional console gameplay. The question that lingers, as it does over all the Wii games we've played, is, of course, how the control mechanics will hold up over the kind of long-term play session a game like Avatar will offer. Beyond the control angle, the game seems like it will offer a solid enough action RPG experience that can stand on its own, mixed with enough elements from the cartoon to please fans. We would have liked to have seen the game offer multiplayer support of some kind, though, considering how perfect it would fit into the adventuring format. Avatar: The Last Airbender is currently slated to ship this fall on current-gen consoles and the Wii.

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