Your initial reaction to Avatar will, if you pick it up, be positive. You’ll be impressed. You’ll see potential, and your prejudices against movie tie-in games will melt away. The opening is slightly dull, sure, but things pick up once you land on the tropical hell of Pandora.Your introductory mission – “Go talk to the people inside this building” – gives you a chance to have a look at Hell’s Gate, the bustling military camp in which you land. You’ll probably notice that you can examine a number of the items and pieces of future-tech lying around, which updates your in-game Pandorapedia with far more detail than you could ever want on the equipment’s place in the game and film universe.“If this actually marries the open-world stuff with some good combat,” you will think to yourself, “this could be something special.”The entire opening Hell’s Gate chapter doesn’t do much to drop these expectations, in fact. Early missions teach you the basics, introducing you to the key concepts – that everywhere outside of bases is filled with things that want to eat you, flora and fauna alike; that your skills, allowing you to, say, stun everything nearby, or heal yourself, or turn invisible, will keep you alive; that the indigenous Na’vi are ten-foot tall alien bipeds that look vaguely catlike and that Avatars are Na’vi wearing human clothes. You have to wonder where they shop. Avatars are actually human/Na’vi hybrids mind-controlled by humans, because humans can’t breathe on the planet without apparatus, and can be mined for the extremely rare Unobtanium (no, seriously) it’s worth the expense.This is pretty much where it all goes downhill.After the introductory missions, you’re asked whether you want to side with the Na’vi against the human oppressors, or do some oppressing for yourself. This is an important choice: first, the two campaigns don’t overlap much. Secondly, whichever side you choose, you’re stuck with. If you prefer being in Avatar form, then you’ll want to go with the Na’vi, because you can never, ever change between Avatar and human again. Considering the bodyswapping is a pretty interesting concept this feels like a misstep, but there’s so much else wrong with this game that we’ll not dwell on it.So let’s go over what’s right first. Avatar: The Game possesses probably the most beautiful tropical environment I’ve ever seen, and truly raises the bar for jungles in games. Lighting effects in the darker areas are nothing short of magical, and the animation is, by and large, just as high quality. Whereas human running and dodging is deliberately efficient, the Na’vi movements – easily seen on the player character’s Avatar – are fluid and graceful, with the dodge move almost a mid-air pirouette. The game is fairly long, with the campaigns each providing a good eight hours and not even visiting the same areas until the end. The Pandorapedia is great, if you want background detail. The combat is kinda fun, in a broken sort of way.

    Right. That’s everything good out of the way.All promises of an interesting open-world are dashed after you’ve played through a few areas. There are possibly three times in the game in which you actually have a choice as to which mission to tackle next, and the rest of the time you’re pretty much glued to whatever’s demanded of you. There are optional bits and pieces in the form of sector challenges, asking you to do things like activate the quick-travel locations in each area. Disappointingly, if you’re happy to take a very small detour on each mission, you’ll likely manage the majority while doing the main quests. Calling the world “open” is also a bit of a misnomer as, despite mostly being a lush jungle environment, you’re pretty much constrained to narrow corridors joined together by larger clearings. Again, you can take roundabout paths to your eventual objectives, but there’s little incentive to do so.This isn’t improved much by the vehicles, either. Both sides have a variety – the Na’vi use animal mounts, ranging from the flying lizard-like Banshees to the huge armoured Thanator panthers, while humans have buggies, gunships, and armoured suits. The controls for each of these feel inexplicably off, as though the deadzone isn’t quite right or the controller responds a little late to your actions. It doesn’t help that large branches can be intangible objects while small stones are more than enough to get your vehicle permanently stuck, and don’t expect flying to open things up, either – with a few exceptions, all of the flying vehicles are uselessly limited in height and can’t top the canyons you travel through, meaning that they’re generally stuck to the same paths as everything else. The few capable of shooting are, in one of the most utterly idiotic decisions I’ve seen in awhile, incapable of tilting up or down, meaning that you’re stuck shooting whatever’s at your current altitude. That’s right: if you want to shoot things on the ground, you’re going to have to land. On top of that, that there appears to be no standard control system for any of the vehicles – some might have you accelerate with the right trigger and shoot with the A button, while others have you accelerate with the analogue stick and shoot with the right trigger.{PAGE TITLE=James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game Review}The vehicle problems would be forgiveable if the on-foot combat was better, but to no-one’s huge surprise, it’s not. Ranged weapons use a kind of auto-aim within your reticule and generally seem to hit enemies only if the game has decided you’re aiming at them, rather than tracking where your shots go. This is far from the most bizarre thing: Na’vi bows appear to be hitscan (as soon as you fire, the game determines whether or not the shot has hit, rather than tracking the projectile itself), meaning that you can headshot someone at a long distance and watch them fly backwards long before the arrow reached them. On the other hand, machine guns – which fire bullets, which are generally what hitscan is used for – don’t seem to be. They’re still reasonably entertaining to use, at times; blasting a huge group of enemies with your orbital strike skill and then picking off stragglers with a grenade launcher will make you smile, but you never feel like it’s you that’s aiming. Na’vi players also have the misfortune of a focus on melee weapons, which are extremely powerful but require you to get close to enemies, and when you’re fighting against tiny little camouflaged humans with shotguns, that’s rarely a good idea for you or your AI cohorts (for that matter, isn’t it a bit odd that Na’vi, with bows, can seemingly fight humans, with armour and tanks and grenade launchers, to a standstill? And that they’re trying guerilla warfare when they’re ten-feet tall and blue, in a green jungle? Oh, that James Cameron.)Naturally, that doesn’t carry across to the human campaign where you can be very easily mobbed by the blue meanies, who will happily stunlock you until you die – not that dying is much of an issue, as you’ll either have a recovery item harvested from the corpses of your opponents which will instantly spring you back into action, or you’ll be dropped to the last checkpoint. Bizarrely, checkpoints keep all of the progress you made right up until you died – if you were halfway through a mission, you’ll still be halfway through when you respawn. The fact that death is no obstacle means that the previously-mentioned tension caused by the beasties outside the bases vanishes, which is probably good, because the heavy respawning means that getting bogged down in fights is utterly pointless.There’s a levelling system in place which upgrades your skills, weapons, and armour, but only armour actually gives you any choice as to equipment as everything else is a straight upgrade (and can be instantly swapped out anyway), and it provides equally little incentive to complete side missions as chances are good that you’ll hit maximum level long before the end. Again, it initially seems cool and useful as you unlock new weapon types and skills, but before long you’re simply getting slightly better versions of what you had before and the game does little to attempt to disguise it, which takes all the fun out of it.And then, possibly most disappointing of all, we have the details in the world. For a game based on a movie that’s supposedly been in Cameron’s head for at least 15 years, there’s little in the way of plot depth. There’s plenty of info in the game, certainly, but it’s all in the Pandorapedia rather than integrated into the gameplay. Want to learn more about how the planet may be sentient? Pandorapedia. Want to know why the humans are on the planet? Pandorapedia. Want to know most things that should probably be told during gameplay? Pandorapedia. Even the writing itself is sub-par, with the Na’vi coming across as an extremely heavy-handed and badly-written metaphor for Native Americans. Referring to humans as “sky people” and having cringe-inducing lines such as, when incapable of crossing a blockade, “They are like the fire that stops the water,” are not things that does them any favours. Oh, and expect to be called “he” if you choose a female player character.If you ignore my words and decide to buy the game anyway, I urge you to play the Na’vi campaign first. For starters, the appalling writing and melee combat mean that it’s probably the worse of the two, so it leaves the better (and I use that word carefully) campaign for later. Secondly, the Na’vi are so unutterably irritating that having spent a campaign taking orders from them, the opportunity to murder thousands of them will cause your heart to skip a beat and also guard you against the ethical problems of raping a planet and murdering the indigenous population occasionally implied in the human campaign.Or just don’t buy the game. One or the other.

    Paul Younger
    Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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