James Cameron's Avatar: The Game Updated Impressions

Ubisoft Montreal showed us balance board support and a new level from Avatar ahead of PAX 2009.

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James Cameron's latest Hollywood blockbuster is inching nearer to release, and we got an update of the game on the Nintendo Wii at Ubisoft's Montreal studio. We first saw Avatar on the Wii at Comic-Com 2009 and were pleased with how its gameplay and visuals looked. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a bit more to play it for ourselves, but we were privy to a major announcement during our hands-off visit: In addition to Wii MotionPlus, Avatar will feature Wii Balance Board support.

The Banshee, sitting on that rockledge, is your ticket to ride.
The Banshee, sitting on that rockledge, is your ticket to ride.

Avatar is set on a hostile alien moon called Pandora, where the Resources Development Administration's human forces are trying to mine for a valuable mineral while fighting an uprising from the indigenous Na'vi. These noble, blue-skinned humanoids may be primitive warriors in the rawest sense, but they are more than capable of inflicting damage on the hostile offworlders. The Wii version features a unique story which revolves around you playing as a young Na'vi warrior, whose village was destroyed by the RDA. A female Na'vi will also be playable as a second cooperative character, and while we have yet to find out more details, we're told she will play an important part in the overall plot. The Leonopteryx is a formidable flying creature which resembles an orange dragon, but this demo was focussed on the Banshee, which is a smaller, blue dragon. The mission that we saw takes place directly after the Comic-Con demo--in which your character is seen riding off into the sunset on a Banshee after destroying an RDA dam--and it has you guiding your Banshee through lush tropical valleys and gorges while contending with the RDA's airborne forces.

Balance boards may typically be associated with sports games, but the peripheral looks like it really complements Avatar's adventure setting. According to producer Noel Kechichian, using the Wii's variety of control schemes was important to the team. "We really took a different path than the next-gen [version]. For us the priority was first to use all of the interactivity that was given to us on the Wii," explains Kechichian. "Our two objectives were to create this unique feeling of being a hunter in the environment and to push the graphics of the Wii as much as possible. But at the same time we really wanted to emphasise the social side of being on the Nintendo Wii."

To fulfil this, the team has included a two-player cooperative mode. "One of our main features is the jump-in/jump-out system that allows a second player to [play] at any time of the game." In co-op, the first player controls the Banshee, and the second player is responsible for shooting. Kechichian and another Ubisoft staffer demonstrated this, and using the balance board looked pretty straightforward. Left and right movements steer your beast, leaning forward on your toes accelerates, and leaning back on your heels slows the Banshee down. To shoot, you use the Wii Remote to aim and fire your bow and arrow at enemies. At one point our Na'vi was pursued through gorges by a helicopter which attempted to drop mines on us. This triggered a quick-time event where you shake the remote horizontally or vertically, or tilt it, to latch onto the helicopter and damage it.

If you're playing by yourself, you can use a balance board and remote in the same way, or you can use a remote and a nunchuk. Instead of using the nunchuk's analog stick to move the Banshee, you use the built-in accelerometer to guide it in any direction, while the remote is used for aiming and shooting your bow and arrow at RDA troops. The Wii MotionPlus offers a greater level of control when aiming; however, it isn't necessary to enjoy the game, says Kechichian: "When we first designed the game, Wii MotionPlus wasn't part of the balance. So we really wanted to make sure we provided the best controls for the player, the most precise control using the Wii Remote at the very beginning of the game. And the Wii MotionPlus basically offers an addition layer of comfort, of precision, but first our main mandate was to give the best experience possible without [it]."

Avatar offers both on-foot, and aerial combat.
Avatar offers both on-foot, and aerial combat.

Avatar is looking promising, and it does a great job of replicating the strange and exotic Pandoran environment. We saw some gorgeous environments filled with waterfalls, lush jungles, and canyons with floating rock formations and crisscrossing vines. The characters and creatures also looked well detailed and animated, and we're looking forward to seeing more of Pandora in the future.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game will be released for the Nintendo Wii on December 18 in Europe and on November 24 in North America. For more on the game, check out our previous coverage, including our interview with James Cameron.

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