52 Weeks of Canadian Gaming - Week 52
Avatar: The Game
Release Date: December 01, 2009
Developer: Ubisoft Montréal
ESRB Rating: Teen
Reviewed by: Brian Wray
With Avatar, we were promised a game that would be more than a typical movie tie-in developed quickly to capitalize on a movie’s success. Heck even famed canuck James Cameron took the stage at E3 to promote the game. So does Avatar: The Game lives up to the hype?
Even though I purchased Avatar on release day, I had decided not to play the game till the final week of my 52 Weeks of Canadian Gaming challenge. Part of the reasoning behind this decision was to allow me time to see the movie before playing the game. I really did not want any possible spoilers ruining my enjoyment of the movie. Well I have seen the movie (twice so far) and I needed not worry as none of the main events or characters appear in this game with the exception of an extremely brief appearance by Sigourney Weaver’s character near the start.
One cannot watch Avatar the movie without being wowed by the dreamlike visuals. I watched most of the movie with my jaw firmly planted in my lap. The imagery was that good. The visuals in Avatar: The game not surprisingly are among the best available on any console. Actually let me rephrase that. The graphics of Pandora, the moon on which the events of Avatar (the movie and game) takes place, are incredible; everything else is adequate. Character and creature models are mostly bland and poorly animated. The game suffers greatly from various graphical glitches as well such as clipping and missing textures. I needed not play long to see witness clipping first hand. Right at the start of the game, I watched grass swaying back and forth through a concrete platform, people walking trough rocks while others appeared to be blessed with the ability to hover. The game does ship with the potential to play in 3D. I cannot comment on the 3D functionality as I do now own the equipment required to play the game in this mode. It is not from lack of effort as I even went shopping for a 3D TV set specifically to play this game, but such sets are a rarely in Canada.
It is not just the graphics that appear to have a lack of polish. Sound quality in the game is sub-standard for an Ubisoft Montréal title. The game’s dialog is predictable and bland, delivered in the most non-emotional way possible. The various audio effects are also bland and lifeless. After amazing titles such as Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed, I have come to expect better from the Canadian developer.
Gamplay wise Avatar: The Game is not all that bad. The player first starts off as Corporal Able Ryder. After an all too brief introduction to the game, Ryder must choose to side with the Resource Development Administration (an evil private money driven corporation) or the Na’vi (the innocent 10” tall indigenous inhabitants of Pandora). Once a side has been chosen, the player can no longer return to his former life and is forced to live out his/her decision. To experience everything the game has to offer, one has to play the game at least twice. I chose the Na’vi (of course I did, I am not heartless after all). I do have a single complaint about this interesting turn of events. At no time is the player made aware that this is a final decision that cannot be undone (autosave even cancels out loading a save game). Also the game does not give enough background information to allow you to make a decision based on emotion. The choice comes down to a momentary brash decision.
Indifferent of the side chosen, the gameplay will remain quite similar. The game is a linear action/adventure title that has the player completing mission after mission till a boss appears. Each mission will be the same, visit several (usually three) locations to gather specific items, perform a specific task or talk to specific characters etc…return for new mission. Avatar attempts to be a bit richer in gameplay that just repeating the same quests over and over again, in that there are multiple zones with different zone specific challenges that need to be completed over and over again. The game zones are not huge, but can be tedious to travel when on foot and the mission will required repeated travel over the entire zone. The good news is that the game supplies the player with many quick travel options with teleports stations aplenty and numerous vehicles or mounts to ride.
As challenges and missions are completed, this will reward the player with new or improved skills and weapons. I am not sure why this was even introduced to the game. It is a very poor attempt at making character feel more powerful and giving the illusion of choice to the player. The problem is that at no time did I feel more powerful. As the RDA, I already outgunned my opponent and this did little to change with better guns. On the opposite side, all the new weapons and skills do little for the Na’vi other than to barely keep-up with the RDA, but never surpassing them. Also the weapons and skills once selected will auto-update themselves so the player needs only to select his/her preferred mix at the start of the game and need not even consider this screen ever again.
The game’s difficulty level is greatly reduced by the inability of the player to actually die. Well Ryder (as himself or as his avatar) can die, but will respawn a few feet away at the nearest checkpoint ready to go again. Re-spawning at the nearest checkpoint will reset the enemy as well causing the battle to restart. This annoyance can be alleviated by spending a few minutes to collecting cells samples. After collecting a total of ten samples, Ryder will be rewarded with a recover. Think of a recover as a boost of energy. When used, it will replenish his life allowing the battle to continue without the need to restart at a checkpoint. Ryder can have up to 5 such recovers at once. I have yet to see a battle, even a Na’vi one, that could not be completed in 5 recovers.
Interesting enough is that Avatar features a whole new game within the game. When Ryder approaches any teleport, the gamer can opt to play the Conquest mini-game. This is basically a Risk clone in that the player tries to take control of Pandora. The interesting twist is that the experience gained in the main game will convert into currency to purchase units and upgrades in the Conquest game. In a similar fashion, as zones are capture in the Conquest game, this will provide experience and upgrades in the main game. The concept is awesome, the implementation not so. The mini-game is not involving enough to warrant playing more than a few minutes. Also the rewards available in Conquest are not substantial enough to make the effort needed to capture zones.
The biggest problem with Avatar may be related to the controls. When playing as the RDA, the controls are acceptable for a third person shooter, but the vehicle controls are a bit sloppy. When playing as the Na’vi, the controls feel just a tiny bit off, even when on foot. It should not be a hassle to climb up a branch and drop down on a ship from above, but it is. The controls get a heck of a lot worse when on a mount. I do not want to give anything away, but needless to say that I choose to be on foot more often than not, even when I could travel in a quicker method.
The controls alone are not a game killer, but combined with a weak collision detection system and that is when frustration begins to kick in. Hazards close to Ryder will score a hit, even if actual physical contact is never made. This is most obvious (and frustrating) with direwolves. Attempting to outmanoeuvre these critters is a moot point. Best just kill ‘em from a distance.
The final issue is with the game’s artificial intelligence. This is often a pet-peeve of mine in games, but the AI in Avatar: The Game is especially horrid. I can ignore the fact that enemies a foot in front of me cannot see a 10” tall bright blue creature, even when riding on the back of an even bigger creature. I can even turn a blind eye when a boss gets trapped against a fence making for an easy target. Where I draw the line is when a Na’vi warrior, who is in tune with everything on the moon, will start attacking all wildlife for no obvious reason.
Avatar: The Game does allow for some multiplayer action allowing up to 16 gamers, playing as either the RDA or the Na’vi, to battle for control of Pandora. The online community appeared quite populous, but this is still the early staged of Avatar’s life span. I assumed that the online play would be a bit unfair as the Na’vi simply cannot stand up against the RDA leading to extremely unfair battles. Sure the Na’vi has great close combat skills, but they still need to get close to their target among a rainfall of bullets. I assumed incorrectly. The games I played appeared quite well balanced with either side winning about half the battles with very close scores. Still I cannot help but think that Ubisoft Montréal should have spent more development time on the single player campaign rather than creating a multiplayer aspect that will be all but ignored in a few weeks.
The hype was great for the game. Avatar was to be a game that could stand on its own, a game that would change our stigma associated with movie tie-ins. Avatar: The game failed to live up to any of its promises. Not only that, but the game appears to have fallen victim to the deadline demon. Had Avatar received an extra six months development time, the game could have been special. As it is, the game simply cannot stand on its own. Even the oodles of praises lavished upon it movie brethren cannot save Avatar from an early trip to the discount bin.