James Cameron's Avatar: The Game Review

By Jason D'Aprile - Posted Dec 01, 2009

Ubisoft tries to cash in on James Cameron's latest cinematic epic Avatar with a prequel game that's big on production values, but lacking in most other areas.

The Pros
  • Some gorgeous visuals and scenery
  • Great looking vehicles
  • Lots of action among two campaigns
  • Somewhat interesting multiplayer
The Cons
  • Repetitive missions
  • Clich├ęd gameplay
  • Bad story
  • Choppy controls

Ubisoft has been grinding the hype machine well into overtime with James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, touting the game’s connection to James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie complete with a development team of hundreds and no shortage of magazine covers. Now that the game is done, it's clear that Avatar: The Game would have been better served with less focus on the publicity and more time on the world's possibilities.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

Easy Ryder's Big Adventure

Avatar isn't a terrible game; it's simply one that is nearly devoid of creativity beyond the alien landscape of Cameron's design. One of the most immediate problems is the lack of cohesive storytelling. So little focus is given to the setup and characters that there is no real connection to the interspecies war saga. Even worse, Avatar forces you to make a major decision about the plot of your game at the very beginning: whether or not to become a traitor to the human race. It happens at a point when you’ve played so little of the game, there’s simply no motivation to make a decision either way. For what it's worth, you play a signal specialist -- a job description that apparently means badass, one-man army -- named “Easy” Ryder.  Speaking of cliché...

Luckily for him, Ryder is special. Ryder has just arrived on the planet Pandora and his genetic code gives him the rare ability to take over the body of a vat-grown Na'vi -- the humanoids native to the planet. Throughout the game, you are seemingly the only capable soldier. Amazingly, everyone relies on you to do everything. There's almost never a logical explanation for most of what you do. It's all basic busy work like, “Go find items One, Two, and Three” or “Go kill commanders A, B, and C.” Every location is occupied with people who are helpless without you and who constantly need you to go here and there.

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Crysis of Design

Thankfully, as you travel there are plenty of battles happening around you, which helps make the war zone on the planet of Pandora feel more dramatic. A jungle world, Pandora has a real Crysis vibe to it, only with killer alien plants and animals and 10 foot-tall blue, angry natives running around. Graphically, it looks good in general, although the character models look a bit rough. Also, the scenery is somewhat angular; however, despite this, the game is mostly pretty.

Vehicles play a big role in the action. The maps for each location are relatively large, so grabbing an ATV or buggy to speed up the travel time is welcome. Controls both on foot and in vehicles are tolerable, but it's way too easy to get hung up on frustrating invisible walls and other obstacles. You can even get completely trapped, forcing a suicide and re-spawn. Likewise, aircraft controls are sluggish and unresponsive and these failed moments render the best portions of the game merely tedious.

There are two separate story-lines in Avatar. The human campaign is exactly what you'd expect -- a lone super soldier running around, killing things and completing tasks. Unfortunately, the alien side is pretty much the same. The main change is that the Na'vi have melee attacks and ride native beasts instead of vehicles. These savage natives are bigger, stronger and faster than the humans, so the combat mechanics feel different, but the mission structure doesn't.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

And on the Plus Side...

In all fairness, the game can have a certain appealing rhythm. The familiarity of the gameplay works reasonably well for anyone who likes their third-person action set against an attractive and exotic backdrop. Each faction has special abilities, like cloaking, healing, super-speed and time-limited strength. Crysis-style stealthiness can add a little difference in how you approach some of the game's battles. Plus, teleport stations, once unlocked, let you pop back to other active stations on the map saving a lot of time and combat.

Also, there's a big focus on team-based multiplayer, which could prove to be the big draw for the game. Na'vi vs. human battles feel much more convincing with other humans instead of the horrible AI. In terms of multiplayer modes, there are quite a few variations on capture-the-flag and team deathmatch. The crux of the multiplayer relies on the differences in combat between the melee-focused Na'vi and gun-toting humans, providing a rarely-seen different feel to team-based multiplayer. If players can pry themselves away from Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3 long enough, Avatar may manage to provide an engaging--if minor--third-person alternative to standard sci-fi online battles.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game

Alienated Landscape

For fans of sci-fi action with lots of substance, James Cameron's Avatar: The Game is definitely not a must-have title. It's playable and entertaining in small doses, but there's so little originality in the game design that it feels like a quick -- if not highly expensive -- attempt to get the game out in time for the movie. The story is awful and the gameplay is far too repetitive to truly inspire and capture players. This is a real shame, because the source material clearly has a lot of unrealized potential.