Sometimes you don't realize how important certain elements are in a third-person stealth game until they are missing. Excellent controls, a good camera, and consistent feedback are all important features of a good sneaker, yet none of them appear in James Cameron's Avatar. With this film tie-in, you instead get clumsy context-specific controls that don't stick to a consistent set of rules, and there's no manual camera manipulation--apart from the ability to reset the camera behind you. This is a pretty game that gives you a glimpse at the inviting world of Pandora, and there are a few interesting ideas buried within. However, the broken targeting system and inconsistent aiming constantly yank you from the reverie, and the story's overt moralizing doesn't do the game world any favors. Avatar is sometimes boring and sometimes frustrating but rarely satisfying, and it can be safely categorized as "another movie game you don't need to play."
While a few of Avatar's levels mix up its formula, most of them involve sneaking through foliage-heavy jungle corridors and human military bases, which your own character, Rai'uk, refers to as "metal villages." The reason for such tribal-speak is simple: Rai'uk is a member of the Na'vi, a race of tall blue beings native to the moon called Pandora. Humanity has tainted Pandora's once unspoiled beauty with its resource mining program, and a group of newcomers massacred Rai'uks peaceful village when he was just a youth. Now, Rai'uk sneaks through the jungle, seeking artifacts stolen from his clan and exacting fearless vengeance. The world and the Na'vi people are interesting, but the story is little but a soulless parable about the evils of imperialism and the innocence of its victims. The story updates between levels end with the phrase "and so the warrior…," which is a nice framing device that makes you feel as though you should be reliving an ancient and exciting tale passed on through the ages. However, the levels that follow and the fable that unfolds are weak and uninspired; if you're looking forward to the Avatar film and hope to gain a sneak peek at its potential pleasures, the PSP game will only crush your enthusiasm.
The simple act of moving around is easy to take for granted in most games, but Avatar makes basic movement a chore. You can climb onto certain boxes and jump from one vine to the next, but only when the game wants you to. When a particular move is allowed, a prompt appears and you may leap or scale as appropriate, but the prompt is finicky, so you must be within a small and very specific area to activate it. You can sometimes leap down from ledges and the like without the appearance of a prompt, but there don't seem to be any consistent rules that dictate when you can and when you can't do so. You might be crossing a branch when a soldier spots you from below, and then find yourself unable to shoot him with your bow, even though he is clearly visible and within range, and unable to leap from the vine due to Avatar's arbitrary rules of movement. Tons of invisible walls and ledges further exacerbate the awkwardness, so expect to occasionally walk off a ledge and find yourself standing in midair.
Contextual controls aren't Avatar's only attempt to make decisions on your behalf. You never crouch, walk, or hide of your own accord, but do so only when the game deems it appropriate. It's an interesting idea, because such changes to your stance represent one of the game's few attempts to communicate important information to you. For example, when there are enemies nearby but you are hidden from view, the edges of the screen blur and you automatically crouch. But this approach doesn't work out. One of the most important facets of a stealth game is your ability to take in vital information and act appropriately. For example, you should be able to survey an area, scout your enemies, and plan your attack. But in Avatar, you can only snap the camera behind you, and there is no minimap. By not giving you the tools you need, the game hamstrings your ability to employ stealth tactics, and undermines its own gameplay. The clumsy camera control leads to frustrating moments in which you must reposition yourself to take in your surroundings, and the camera occasionally pans down too far, hindering your view of the environment even more.
Not only do you have no minimap, but you can't press up against walls and peek around corners. While an icon over his head indicates that a soldier is nearby, you may not be able to tell which direction he's facing, which might lead to a direct encounter you'd rather avoid. You can hold the L button to lock on to a target, which keeps the camera focused on that soldier, but you can't choose your target manually; if there is more than one enemy in range, the game again makes a decision on your behalf, locking on to one of them--quite often the one you don't want to approach. Again, this leads to awkward repositioning as you try to focus on the enemy you wish to take down, and often fail to do either. When things work out to your advantage, however, stealth kills offer a certain amount of murderous pleasure, such as when you silently wade through water toward an enemy and pull him off a walkway and into a soggy grave.
You won't always employ the stealthy method. You can take aim with your bow, or club soldiers with your staff, though neither option is much fun. At times, you can shoot arrows through solid objects and hit your target, while at others, you can't hit enemies or nearby exploding barrels even when you are unmistakably in range and the target is in plain view. Melee combat isn't particularly bad, but it takes so many strikes to down an enemy that you don't feel much like a warrior, even though the game calls you one. The only real change of pace comes by way of Avatar's on-rails flight levels, in which you ride a dragonlike banshee while shooting down hovering mines and human gunships. Gunship takedowns end in a cool-looking quick-time event, which is fun the first time. But subsequent flight levels play the same way and recycle the same cinematics--they don't even change up the required button presses during the quick-time sequences. These levels are initially a welcome change of pace, but they get tedious quickly.
James Cameron's Avatar's only other features of note are its leveling-up mechanic, in which you cash in spirits you collect for weapon upgrades, and its Way of the Hunter mode, which is a temporary souped-up stealth mode that makes you less visible and more resilient. But neither aspect can energize this inelegant, four-hour-long stealth adventure, nor can the admittedly stunning visuals, which hint at a lush and vibrant world begging to be explored. Alas, the beautiful Pandora goes to waste in this poorly conceived stealth game that requires you to have precision without giving you any of the tools you need to be precise.