“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 13 DAYS
The movie event of the year, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” arrives in theaters on Dec. 18, but the video game just hit shelves Thursday, and a lot of shoppers will be wondering whether the alien adventure is worth the investment. For the answer, the Hero Complex welcomes Jay West with an in-depth review of the Ubisoft game and its aspirations.
“James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game“
For Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PSP, DS, PC;
rated T (Teen) for violence, animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes.
This weekend, I traversed dense, exotic jungles and reverently gazed upon their colorful plant life and creatures. I was thrust into riotous adventures and battles and, strangest of all, lived vicariously through titanic-sized aliens. I did all of this without leaving the living room thanks to “James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game,” which takes players to the moon Pandora. As a stern and scarred military leader tells his troops in the film: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re not in Kansas anymore — you’re on Pandora. … Every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.” (Just imagine the song Dorothy and company would sing if they went over the rainbow and landed in this ferocious and leafy Oz. “Leonopteryxs and Thanators and Banshees … oh my!”)
The ideal objective for a movie-based video game is to immerse the player in an entertaining counterpart to the familiar cinematic world. Unfortunately, that goal is rarely realized; most video-game tie-ins fail to parlay the most enjoyable film elements into a separate but successful companion experience. The “Avatar” video game is a welcome exception to this cycle. It utilizes many of the same settings, characters, creatures, vehicles and weaponry as seen in the film in a dynamic and faithful fashion, yet the game encompasses its own dedicated story (it’s a prequel of sorts, with events that transpire about two years before those seen in the film), making it an enjoyable, cohesive companion to the movie, while being its own unique venture.
This is a mulit-platform video game (see above for the listing of all game formats) designed by Ubisoft Montreal. I played the Xbox 360 version — and the “portal” for my gaming excursion was a 5 1/2-foot-by-10-foot projection screen, using an HDMI-connected, 1080p HD projector — along with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound rounding out the A/V setup (3D capability is available for the game with 3D-enabled televisions).
The game begins with your impending arrival on Pandora. After five years of space travel in hyper-sleep, you — a “signal specialist” — awaken and are greeted and briefed by the RDA military that you serve before heading out on your mission. That assignment is to find and expose a mole who has been leaking military plans to the planet’s indigenous race, the Na’vi, who are 10-foot-tall blue creatures who are primal, cunning and agile. Oh, they are also less than thrilled that small but armed-to-the-teeth humans have invaded their turf. Your human character has a specially created avatar — a biological hybrid made with a mix of human DNA and the genetic material of the Na’vi — which your character can use in “remote control” style via an electronic link that syncs his or her (your choice) brain waves to the avatar’s body. Sound complicated? It’s not. Just think of “telepathically” controlling a big, 10-foot blue alien with your mind and you’re good to go.
On a side note — here’s some “window within a window” gamer trivia for you: The term “avatar” traces back to a Hindu term (it refers to a higher spiritual being taking the form of a being from a lower realm), but its popularity as a gaming term seems to trace back to the computer video game Ultima IV in 1985, which led to gamers co-opting the term to mean a virtual representation of themselves in the video games they play. And now, with this game, we have avatars representing the avatars in a film called “Avatar”…
But back to Pandora. Soon you are faced with the choice of which race you will side with — and this will ultimately determine the course of the impending war that you will be battling — all the while traveling by land, air and water and doing so by foot, vehicle or creature, depending on your character.
The video game looks and sounds stunning — the ornate and colorful high-resolution graphics translate into a vibrant, visceral cinematic gaming experience. Game play involving the luminescent jungle landscape was particularly striking to behold and explore — and the imagery of Pandora’s skies filled with floating islands qualify for comparison to the top strata of illustrated fantasy artwork. The audio is dynamic and enveloping; Forest sounds occur all around you, behemoth creatures roar and rumble the room, AMP suits make intense thuds, while gunfire and arrows whiz by you. The musical score provides a nice layer of ambiance and atmosphere.
The game play is reminiscent of Lost Planet and Gears of War, two excellent gaming series. In the course of this game, you’ll encounter characters who will guide you on your missions, and for every mission you complete, your earn XP (experience points), as well as XP for the side missions you accomplish. Upgrade packs are obtainable if you exceed an XP marker — those give you additional skills, weapons and armor. Each story campaign takes about 15 hours to complete.
This is a third-person-perspective game and, as with so many shooter games like this, targeting is crucial. Handling the aiming cursor takes a little getting used to, but otherwise, the controls feel natural and game play flows well. There have been some complaints on the Net about difficulty handling some of the controls — though, again, with a bit of practice, you should ace it. I played in online battles for several hours over the weekend and saw both friend and foe display some kick-butt dexterity and agility when handling their characters.
Though I very much enjoyed playing this game in the story-campaign modes, I have to say that the online gaming aspect is where it really shined for me. Battling on either the side of the human military or the tribal Na’vi — this aspect of the game held a tremendous amount of suspense, action and flat-out fun. There are a few game variations in online play offered here, all for up to 16 players. Game modes include: Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Capture and Hold, Final Battle — and my favorite: Team Death Match. That last one pits team against team in a war for elimination. The action here is often fast and furious and made more intense by the Na’vi sneak attacks, as they tend to blend in well with their forest surroundings.
There is also an additional mini, solo game called Conquest, in which you command an army as it moves around a Risk-style display of Pandora, taking control of zones and fighting in stat-based wars. Bonus XP won here also can be used during your other “Avatar” gaming crusades.
Another interesting feature of the game is the Pandorapedia, which contains a wealth of reference material. For would-be students of Pandora, this is reminiscent of the Dune and The Lord of the Rings appendices created for those epic fantasy sagas.
The ability to “enter” a movie and have one’s own adventure is a holy grail for fans who are passionate for both film and video games, and with this new release you can achieve a tangible sense of this. Although this game should look and sound great on a variety of TV displays, if at all possible, play it in the full 1080p HD of which it is capable — for a visually spectacular and immersive experience.
— Jay West
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Jay West is a board member of the Jules Verne Film Festival, which is staged in Paris and Los Angeles, has worked at Nickelodeon Movies and Nicktoons. He is also contributing writer and editor for Alien Experience, the website devoted to the “Alien” and “Predator” franchises and their offshoots and worked as a creative consultant on the upcoming Blu-ray releases of the “Alien” films.