Was that a Warthog? I could have sworn... Given Halo seems to have informed Big Mad Jim's upcoming scfi movie more than a little, it's unsurprising to see it making its presence known in the spin-off game. Pandora (confusingly, also the name of the planet in Borderlands) is a lush land of human soldiers in vehicles battling alien humanoids with a tribal bent - it's familiar, if rather more ornate, territory. But this isn't Halo, nor is it yer bog-standard made-in-eight-months movie adaptation. Avatar really wants to be its own world, and its own game.
Point Of Importance The First: you very quickly get to pick whether you'll fight for the humans' RDA, a double-whammy of scientific investigators and military suppressors, or for the indigenous Na'vi, a sort of 10 foot tall, spear-wielding Blue Man Group. The game changes dramatically depending on which you swear allegiance to.
"It was a challenge to me and my team," says lead writer Kevin Shortt, "because you have one story and suddenly it branches off, not just in terms of you playing a different type of character, but the plot of the story changes, the locations are different... It was a lot to manage." The RDA are close to traditional FPS, though it's actually from a third-person perspective - a first-person-with-more-shoulder-shooter, if you will. They have access to jeeps and tanks and boats and mech suits, all in Avatar's angular, industrial-military style, but mostly they'll be shooting the local wildlife in the face.
The doe-eyed, wavy-tailed Na'vi are more melee-based, wielding a selection of spears and staffs to decimate their man-shaped opponents at close range. They're also able to use the environment somewhat - triggering explosive plants to splatter the enemy, and using some fairly delineated paths to bound across the forest canopy in the name of speed and tactical advantage. Sadly, they're not the tree-swinging free-runners suggested in Avatar's trailers - you largely go where you're told, rather than scampering up any old trunk.
Point Of Importance The Second: you win experience points for every kill. Which lends it a second Borderlands comparison - a shooting game with levelling up. Certainly, it incites a little of the same lizard-brain hunger for ever-bigger numbers. Even in the few hours I had with the preview code, I found myself ignoring the mission goal and gunning down any roaming VIper Wolves (like wolves, but a bit snakey) I could find in the hope of points, points, points. Unlike Borderlands, levelling up doesn't involve any choice - simply, whenever you level you unlock a preset bunch of new weapons, skill and armour. It's possible to customise your character a little by sticking to punier armour because you prefer the look, but it's not entirely advisable.
The skills involve an element of preference too - you can assign up to four to your pad's face buttons, which means you play favourites. Do you want stealth, knockback, health recovery, damage boost, what? It ties into the fundamental choice you make, regardless of which side you play for. Are you a Sneaky Simon or an Angry Andrew? It's not possible to avoid direct confrontation for any real length of time, but the skills you err towards definitely define whether you play defensively or aggressively. So the levelling hinges on wondering what toys you're going to be given next - and as long as Avatar continues to shower you with fun things, that's a good old reason to keep carving up those Viper Wolves.
In terms of links to the movie, it's a prequel - set two years before whatever doo-doo goes down in Avatar's storyline. "Nobody wanted just a repeat of the movie," observes Shortt. "We're coming out before the movie, so we don't want to give it away for people."
The RDA and Na'vi are racing to find an ancient ruin - the humans to paw through it, and the big blue guys to protect it. While the humans seem pretty heavy on the pillaging regardless of which side you choose, they're not baddies - their leaders are doing what they do in the name of science, and of protecting the human settlements on Pandora. The moment of choice, in fact, has the Na'vi appealing to your cultural sensibilities, while the RDA point out that the Na'vi are sabotaging their bases, leading to messy human deaths.
"We didn't want to simply say, 'do you want to be the good guys or do you want to be the bad guys,'" says Shortt. "We wanted it to be more 'how do you want things to go?' and 'how do you like to play the game?'" Whichever faction you choose, you make it by shooting someone in the head. For all this surface grey-area moralising, this isn't a game in which anything is ever solved by doing something other than shooting someone or something in the head. It is based on a James Cameron film, after all.
Polished and colourful, that Avatar's been in development for some three years definitely shows. "Films don't normally take three years from pre-production," points out Shortt, "but because [Cameron's] was so technically challenging, it forced his window to be the same as ours. And he was smart to say, 'I need these guys on right from day one.' Movie-game collaborations don't have the best rep. I hope we can be the ones to change that. I have my fingers crossed - but you just don't know. Ultimately the fans are the ones who end up deciding that."
It has a gloss, a lushness that's such a near-absolute rarity in movie tie-ins. That said, it doesn't seem to demonstrate anything like the great ambition that we've been repeatedly told the film does. It's a go-there, kill-this action game - but in a vibrant, alien setting with expensive production values. "Our goal was to be as faithful to the world as we could, and I think we did pull it off," says Shortt. "Cameron brought us to see the film, so sometimes we were able to go 'we're completely on the right track and this is fantastic', or 'we have to change everything and go back.' That didn't happen a lot because they were giving us all the assets that we would want, but it certainly happened. But that was what was so great - because we were talking fairly regularly, we always ultimately got feedback from Cameron."
The Far Cry 2 engine handles the largely impressive look of the thing, once again affirming its aptitude for forests and fire. The vehicles and a veneer of free-roaming (the levels are self-contained maps, but pretty large - there's an instant travel system to hop between various waypoints on them) also hint at this shared heritage, but other than that it's really nothing like last year's divisive shooter. It's an action game on an alien world, with science-fictional vehicles and experience points, after all. Also, giant lizard-bull things. Avatar may not challenge your mind all that much, but it looks set to do a grand old job of lobbing insane wildlife at you.
Avatar is due out on 4th December.