Discussion Review: James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game

AvatarReview.jpg

James Cameron’s Avatar has been a box office sensation since premiering back in December and even nabbed a surprise nomination for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. But forget about the film for a second, let’s talk about the obligatory tie-in videogame – we are a videogame blog after all!

For the purposes of this discussion, I played through the PS3 version while Mike tackled the Wii version, and now that we’ve both explored the exotic planet of Pandora on our respective consoles only one question remains: is Avatar the game a worthy counterpart to Avatar the movie, or is it just another half-assed movie cash-in?

Matt: But first things first. Mike, have you seen Avatar the movie? I won’t lie, I haven’t seen it, nor do I have any interest in ever doing so. By all accounts it is basically a special effects showcase that’s a marvel to the eyes but is hallow in terms of compelling narrative and quality acting. I’m no movie snob, but I’m typically not a fan of movies that are all style and no substance, nor do I get the whole 3D gimmick movie makers just don’t seem to want to give up on, so Avatar doesn’t appeal to my tastes — not saying it’s a bad movie (I won’t pass that judgment having not seen it), I’m just saying it’s not for me.

From everything I’ve heard about the movie, though, I think it’s safe to say the game succeeds and fails in similar areas — it has the impressive visuals and it has the Hollywood-caliber action to match, but the characters and voice acting are lame and the story is trite, predictable and just plain boring.

But the good news is that with a videogame a weak story can be shrugged off (somewhat) if the actual game is fun to play — that’s why skippable cutscenes can be a gamer’s best friend! In the case of Avatar, I was shocked to find a decent third-person shooter buried behind the inept storytelling, because let’s face it, decent for a movie game is, sadly, a mighty achievement.

The story of Avatar is really nothing more than a futuristic take on classic themes like cowboys vs. Indians and nature vs. technology, and for the PS3 version the game consists of two single-player campaigns covering both sides of the conflict. You start the game as the human RDA faction, but then maybe an hour or so in a mission ends with you having to choose which side you want to take for the rest of the adventure. You can continue on as the RDA or switch sides and fight for the native Na’vi tribe, and in a smart design move Ubisoft built in an auto-save for this moment of choice so when you want to play the other side you don’t have to start all the way over from the very beginning. Both campaigns are a good 7-8 hours long, so between the two there is a meaty 15 hours worth of gaming to be had at the least. Each faction also carries with it different missions, weapons, vehicles, special abilities and overall play styles, so there actually is good reason to play through both sides.

I’ll dive into more gameplay specifics next, but I’ll let you jump in here, Mike. From what I understand, the Wii version is actually quite different in makeup to the PS3 version (beyond the obvious graphical inferiority). Is it true that the Wii version is dedicated to telling the Na’vi side of the story? Also, any general thoughts about the movie you’d like to share?

Mike: I actually have a couple of thoughts not directly tied to what I have been playing on the Wii – one about the marketing of the game, and the other about the movie.

I was depressed when I read that the movie tie-in had sold more than 2.5 million units while there are so many good games languishing on shelves. I know that is pretty much the way that the ‘shovelware’ business works, but the recent announcement that not only were there that many copies sold, but that it was a ‘sales disappointment’ just really stunned me.

As for the movie, since I have middle-school aged kids who were on vacation over the holidays perhaps it is not surprising that I have seen Avatar in 3D. And I am struggling with sounding like a grumpy old man here … but Avatar the movie pretty much sums up everything that I see as being wrong with nearly every segment of popular entertainment. Some said it was what it must have been like seeing Star Wars when it came out. Sorry – I was there, and there was more than just visual spectacle, there was a human drama as well. And as for the non-visual spectacle elements, Avatar was happy to pretty much copy and paste from a variety of stories and slap a nice action movie on top. Yet I would highly recommend seeing Avatar at the best theater you can, because it truly is an awesome ‘disengage your brain’ visual spectacle.

Keeping in mind my thoughts on the story (summary: derivative copy-and-paste crap), you can probably guess what I would think when you get rid of the only positive part of the Avatar experience (the visuals) and replace it with a mediocre stealth action game which barely manages to convey enough of the (lame) story to give you motivation to play. Yeah, I thought it was pretty typical shovelware, and hope that I can stop at least one person from buying this terrible Wii game.

As Matt mentioned, the Wii only gets half the game: you play the Na’vi side of the game. On the surface the game sounds like a great experience. It makes use of the WiiMote and Nunchuk controller, and also supports the Wii Balance Board for flying segments and also the Wii Motion Plus improves targeting. Since we have all of that stuff, I put it to use … and all I can think is I pity anyone trying to work through the game without them!

For control specifics, you move with the analog stick and make attacks by slashing the WiiMote. The Wii Motion Plus definitely helps with accuracy of targeting, but the use of the Wii Balance Board felt very gimmicky to me, but that might be due to my older son being a skateboarder and therefore having loads of those games for the Wii that make full use of the balance board. I found the controls to be of the ‘when they’re good they’re very good, but when they’re bad they’re horrid’ sort … and mostly they were horrid. My targeting would drift around so that aiming would be frustrating, and many of the controls are overloaded so it is easy to do unintended things. Stealth mode engages reliably, but getting into combat mode, or pretty much anything else, is a hit or miss process, often ending up in cheap deaths.

There is more I can say about the general gameplay elements, but wanted to let you talk about the PS3 controls and your gameplay experience.

Matt: I’m sorry to hear the Wii version didn’t turn out so hot. When I heard it was using the MotionPlus – one of the rare non-sports games to use the damn thing — and other accessories I was hopeful. I have a few other Ubisoft Wii titles in my ’09 holiday season review backlog (and just got No More Heroes 2) and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of effort that’s gone into taking advantage of the unique features of the Wii with each of their recent titles. Too many third-parties — and even Nintendo these days, sadly — mail it in on their Wii game development. Unfortunately it sounds like that’s happened again with Avatar.

Back to the PS3 version…

As I touched on earlier, the PS3 version of Avatar is a pretty standard third-person shooter, with mechanics that remind me an awful lot of Capcom’s Lost Planet (minus the grappling hook). The controls could have been smoother and more polished, but overall aiming and shooting performs as it should…well enough to enjoy at any rate.

In addition to the differing campaigns from a story perspective, the two factions also differ in play style. Playing as the RDA is more of a run-and-gun experience with assault rifles, shotguns, grenade launchers, mech suits, jeeps, gunships and other heavy weaponry. Playing as the Na’vi, on the other hand, feels more tactical, visceral and at one with nature as you snipe soldiers from a distance with bow and arrows, sneak into close-quarters range to pound enemies to death with clubs and staves, and use local flora and fauna as allies against the RDA threat.

Whichever faction you choose, your avatar grows more powerful as you play via a simple but surprisingly satisfying leveling-up system. As you complete missions and pile up kills you earn experience points, and with enough experience you level up and unlock special upgrade packs that reward you with new weapons, armor and special abilities like health regen, invisibility, defensive/offensive power boosts, short-distance sprinting, air strikes and so on.

Between the two factions and their unique gameplay touches, there is a nice variety to the game’s action. However, the mission and level designs leave a lot to be desired. The levels actually look quite lovely, bursting off the screen with lush foliage, majestic waterfalls, and an impressive sense of scale that gives the illusion of being open world. But as you begin working through the missions you quickly realize that you are just running from Point A to Point B to destroy or collect something and move on from there in an extremely linear fashion. When you enter the first area of Pandora you immediately expect action on the same scale as the environments, but even during its best moments the game never quite delivers on its full potential.

Unfortunately, there are much worse things going on in Avatar than ho-hum mission design. The game’s AI is pretty much brain dead, and ghost spawning runs rampant, as you’ll clear out an area, move forward and all of a sudden get raped by an enemy that randomly spawned out of thin air behind you. On the whole, the game is also absurdly easy. By collecting cell samples you build up a recovery meter, and as long as you have a notch in this meter you can instantly respawn right where you died at the push of a button and resume play. I get that the game has to be accessible to cater to the more mainstream type of an audience it’s aimed at, but this perhaps takes it a little too far into cakewalk territory. Finally, vehicle controls are downright terrible – thankfully vehicles are completely optional except for a couple missions.

I have a few more topics to hit on, such as the online multiplayer and this interesting strategy side mode called Conquest, but before moving on is there anything else you’d like to share about the Wii version?

Mike: The one positive thing I will add is that the Wii has a decent drop-in co-op multiplayer system (local only). In this mode you and a friend work together to battle through the main campaign, which can be fun with the right person and a good sense of humor. The problem is that you share the same screen, and therefore the camera needs to cover both of you simultaneously. The result is that you have little ability to do coordinated stealth attacks since the camera tends to move around to whoever is engaging in an attack. It feels like the mode is better suited to an action campaign … but sadly the Wii version doesn’t have one of those. There is no online component of any type for the Wii version of the game either.

As I have been reading your comments a single refrain echoed through my head: typical movie tie-in shovelware. And that really sums up the game for me – typical shovelware crap.

The other stuff – WiiMotion Plus, Balance Board, co-op, etc – all feels like they already had it coded for something else so tacking it on here was a ‘freebie’, especially since the way they function doesn’t feel like an awful lot of time or energy was put into making them work. And that is really true for the rest of the game: the stealth mode auto-engages; enemies are so dumb that all you need to do is back up a couple of steps and you are totally invisible again; and things like jumping and climbing are only possible when the game decides they are, making everything ultra-linear.

The Wii version of Avatar could have been a decent game: bow action is a proven strength of the Wii, and the balance board could have excelled. Also, the visuals are generally quite solid, and the use of so many technical features in addition to drop-in co-op mode provided loads of possibilities. Yet in the end it feels like the typical toss-away movie game: performance was erratic, controls were inconsistent, use of technology was more gimmicky than useful, and even the multiplayer mode seemed ill-conceived for the game as designed. There is absolutely no anguish or lack of clarity as I tell you to PLEASE skip this dung-pile of a game. My only regret is that we couldn’t have arrived before millions of you voted with your wallets to continue the constant onslaught of terrible movie tie-in games.

Mike-SkipIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Nice visuals for a Wii game
+ Includes loads of new Wii technology
+ Drop-in co-op

Cons:
– Erratic framerate
– Inconsistent controls
– Multiplayer ill-suited to stealth
– Enemies are terribly dumb
– Short campaign with no replayability

Matt: Picking up where I left off… Avatar on the PS3 actually ships with a fairly sizable 16-player online multiplayer component. The modes are nothing new – team deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, attack/defend type missions, etc. – but in the few matches I was able to find it was actually kind of fun to take sides in the RDA vs. Na’vi conflict and fight against other live players.

Conquest Mode is an interesting side feature as well. During the single-player campaign you can visit any teleporter and engage in Conquest play, which takes the form of a Risk-esque strategy game of global domination. The interface consists of a global view of Pandora, and in turn-based fashion you move units around the globe and attempt to take over the planet region by region. With a region under your control, you can build up defenses and buy more troops to move into other adjacent territories, and as your territorial control spreads you earn additional experience points and even stat bonuses for like health boosts and increased critical hit percentage.

But ultimately, even with the prospect of gaining additional powers for your character, Conquest Mode is a useless side attraction. Because the game is so easily completed by simply charging through with blinders on, sinking time into Conquest is fruitless, and thus the mode as a whole is a wasted concept.

As pointless as Conquest and some of the other content can be, though, I do have to give Ubisoft credit for at least trying to push a lot of different ideas into the PS3 Avatar — the ideas don’t always pan out, but the effort was there. The Wii version may be more shovelware garbage, but the PS3 version, in my opinion, certainly is not. That doesn’t mean it’s the greatest movie game in the world…it most certainly is not that either. But it is at least a respectable third-person shooter, and if you liked the movie or are simply in the mood for mindless shoot-‘em-up action, Avatar is the type of game that makes for a fun rainy weekend time-waster rental.

Matt-TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Nice dual campaign structure
+ Diverse gameplay for each faction
+ Satisfying reward system
+ Pretty environments
+ Surprisingly high replay value

Cons:
– Boring, cliche storyline
– Way too easy
– Unimaginative mission and level structure
– Pointless Conquest Mode
– Annoying ghost spawning

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 and Wii, also on DS, PC, PSP and Xbox 360
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: 12/1/09
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: PS3 – 1-16, Wii – 1-2
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

PS3:


Wii:

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!