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James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

Score: 70%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 16 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is a strange beast. It's not terrible like so many other film-based games, but it's not destined to be mentioned in the same sentence as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and King Kong. It does a number of things right, but for every good decision, there is a poor one. Avatar: The Game is worth a look, but that's about it. A rental period should be all you need to determine whether this game is for you, and by the time you make your decision, you'll probably be done with it anyway.

Avatar: The Game looks great. The world of Pandora feels brutal, alien and organic. It's not just the environments that are done right; it's the overall presentation. Even when you pause the game, there are little details everywhere that remind you of where you are and what you're doing. Few movie-based games get the presentation right like this game does, and for that, the developers are to be commended.

Avatar: The Game sounds almost as good as it looks. It doesn't come close to the bar set by Crysis or Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, but it's definitely above average. The soundtrack is mesmerizing and pulse-pounding, and the weapons sound aggressive and powerful. The only weak link is the voice acting. Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver reprise their roles from the upcoming film, and anyone who's played Mass Effect will instantly recognize the voice actress who plays Kendra Midori. While they do a respectable job, the star power alone can't save each and every voice track.


Gameplay:

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is a prequel to the recently released film. The story revolves around the planet Pandora, a lush green world that is home to a toxic atmosphere, a number of hostile plant and animal species, and the tribal race of blue-skinned natives known as Na'vi. You play as Ryder, a soldier of your own customization who has been selected for participation in the RDA's Avatar program. This program was conceived as a means of communication with the Na'vi, who aren't exactly fans of humanity. By slipping into a machine, Ryder can transfer his/her consciousness into a genetically-engineered Na'vi clone known as an Avatar. A few hours into the game, a war erupts between the RDA and the Na'vi, and Ryder is forced to choose a side. Naturally, this means you've got two fundamentally different campaigns to play through. This is the developer's way of trying to give the game some longevity, but it doesn't quite succeed all the way for three main reasons. First, the storytelling flat-out sucks; you won't become attached to any of the main players, and by extension, you won't care what happens to them. Second, there is apparently no such thing as moral neutrality on Pandora. This makes the whole experience come across as preachy; the Na'vi are very clearly the victims/heroes and the RDA's work is shown as little more than village-razing and planet-raping (though their actual mission is for an apparently priceless natural resource). The final reason is that, well, the game isn't terribly fun to play.

Regardless of which faction you choose to fight for, Avatar: The Game is a pseudo-open world action game. I say "pseudo" because you can't literally go anywhere. The jungles of Pandora are scored with conveniently cleared-out areas (probably due to the RDA's less-than-honorable work). The beaten path is the only path, and those who want to explore their own way will be disappointed. Furthermore, if you want to move faster, you'll need to use a vehicle. The vehicles are a huge pain in the ass, and what's worse is that some missions require you to use them.

When you're not turning RDA soldiers into pincushions (or gunning down Na'vi), you can play Conquest, an optional strategy mini-game that doesn't really offer that much incentive to play. It plays out like a board game that would require a lot of number-crunching. It's interesting in and of itself, but it doesn't figure into the gameplay heavily enough to help the entire package stand on its two feet.

Structurally, Avatar: The Game is remarkably similar, if not identical, to most other open world games. You traverse the jungles of Pandora, accepting and completing quests, all of which require you to complete a number of uninspired objectives. If you've played an open world game before, you've completed missions that are borderline identical to those in Avatar: The Game.


Difficulty:

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game would have been a difficult game had it not made use of a mechanic that made BioShock and Battlefield: Bad Company such easy games. Collecting enough cell samples from the local flora will award you with a Recover, which you can use to replenish your health bar when it is depleted. If you die without a single Recover in your inventory, you respawn at a checkpoint and the world remains as you left it when you died. This takes the claws out of the game's more trying encounters, and it obviously affects the game's overall difficulty level. Here, it's a good thing, because you're not going to want to replay any of the missions; the gameplay simply doesn't hold up well enough.

When it comes to the actual action, long range combat is almost always the answer. Running headlong into the thick of it is a guaranteed strategy to get killed, as it is in so many other third-person action games. Naturally, guns are the weapons of choice for the RDA. Unfortunately, close-range combat is all but encouraged when you're fighting for the Na'vi. You are given melee weapons, a bow, and a gun. You'll probably turn to the bow as your go-to weapon; it's very effective, even against enemy vehicles. Still, the emphasis on close-range combat in the Na'vi campaign gives the RDA the edge, though technically, they're not the good guys.


Game Mechanics:

This day and age, shooters seem to be at their best when they are coupled with experience bars and customizable upgrades. James Cameron's Avatar: The Game implements a growth system of its own. While it's always satisfying to see XP+50 each time you put an enemy down, the skill system doesn't fare so well. From the start, skills are automatically equipped, leaving you on your own to discover what they are and how to use them. Once the game takes the time to describe them to you, you'll realize that they're not terribly useful. Sure, you'll unlock more powerful versions of each skill as you earn experience, but the game doesn't really reward you for being marginally faster and stealthier.

One of the game's best mechanics is the Pandorapedia, which acts like Metroid Prime's logbook. As you wander the jungles of Pandora, you can scan objects of interest; this includes vehicles, wildlife, plants, and a whole lot more. As you complete scans, entries are added to the Pandorapedia. The information in the Pandorapedia is often fascinating, and it really helps to enrich the experience.

There are games whose multiplayer components redefine several aspects of the core gameplay. James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is not one of them. It takes the vanilla action of the campaign and simply transcribes it to work over Xbox Live with a number of very standard multiplayer modes. It's always fun to play with others, but there are far better action games to take online than this one.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game gives a very strong first impression, but it isn't long before the experience tapers off into something wholly unremarkable. The framework is there, but the key components don't lock into place as well as they should. A few months of extra polish would have done a world of good. This year has seen the release of two games that allow you to explore a planet named Pandora. James Cameron's Avatar: The Game comes in second place.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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