Version tested: Xbox 360
Not to be confused with that game where you can run around and get 1000 gamerpoints in 60 seconds, James Cameron's Avatar is an adaptation of the Titanic director's upcoming and potentially rule-changing 3D adventure film, and the name on the box is more than a marketing ploy: he probably did spend more time selling the game concept in interviews than he spent debugging analogue deadzones in a corner of the Ubisoft Montreal office, but Cameron has put his stamp on this because he sees it as an important part of his Avatar vision. That alone is more promise than anyone typically associates with a game of a film.
The game itself is also immediately intriguing. Having picked between various male and female character models, you're thrown into the role of signal specialist "Able" Ryder, who is being sent to the planet Pandora to reinforce the RDA, a human military force locked in uneasy coexistence with the 10-foot-tall, indigenous purple Na'vi. The Na'vi live in simple villages, belying the harsh wildlife - harsh enough that the titchy humans have to surround their research camps with huge metal fences - and as you run around being introduced to the mechanics you have to fend off assaults from "viperwolves" in the jungle and catch only glimpses of the Na'vi themselves.
Before long all that changes, however, as on top of being put in an intriguing place, you're put in an intriguing position. Through the RDA's "Avatar" programme, your human consciousness is transported to a Na'vi body, and then you're confronted by a troubling accusation: all the evidence suggests the RDA is exterminating the Na'vi in order to plunder Pandora, and you have to choose between executing a human traitor or helping him to escape and siding with the Na'vi, and accepting all the complications that implies (not least of which is that your human body is stored in a sort of science-fiction coffin while you inhabit your avatar).
It's a simple choice, of course, but the difference between Avatar and other action games where you face polar opposites is that a huge volume of content genuinely rests on the decision: Avatar is effectively two entire games, and the path you take defines the next seven or eight hours either as a Na'vi third-person action-adventure or an RDA third-person shooter.
There is a lot of common ground between the two, of course. Both are third-person action games in the same mould, where the story moves you around several fairly vast, non-linear but not quite openworld levels, where you meet with key allies and then head out to complete a variety of actions to ingratiate yourselves with them or further your cause. Na'vi and RDA weaponry and abilities are different, but there's functional overlap in terms of controls (weapons are accessed by and remapped across d-pad directions, abilities are on face buttons with a bumper modifier) and the nature of the special skills (the Na'vi may be able to summon a viperwolf buddy, but both have strength buffs and healing spells, effectively).
While the order you visit locations and your focus once there is very different for each campaign, you are also running around Pandora in both cases, and so whichever path Ryder takes you still get to enjoy the lush environments Ubisoft Montreal has pulled together using a modified Far Cry 2 engine. Alien blossom and petals flutter on the breeze amidst bright, kaleidoscopic fauna, misty rivers and the soaring highways of broad boughs and jostling canopy. Some will mock James Cameron's vision of an alien planet (choice quote from one friend of Eurogamer: "Did it really take him 10 years to come up with a blue horse?") but it's nice to be in a colourful world for once (and besides, the horse has four front legs, and you can ride on it).
Initially, it really is the world and its mysteries that draw you in. The RDA soldiers discuss the massive fences they had to erect because otherwise the plants literally bite your arms off; there's panic in the ranks as sirens go off to signal the local fauna stampeding the barricades; and your weapons seem flimsy in the face of so much implied threat. Even when you get out amongst it, the game works to maintain that sense of being lost in the unknown, whether as isolated, overmatched RDA troops out in the wild or as a not-quite-Na'vi with much to prove, a traitor to your real species.
However, things take a turn for the worse around the time you realise implication is about the worst of it. There is often a sense of grind to the first few missions in a vast adventure - even brilliant Ubisoft games like Assassin's Creed II take a while to get going - but unfortunately the pattern is stuck once set: you're simply asked to wander between distant yellow markers on the map screen, then dispatched to another marker, sometimes to fetch plants, sometimes to speak to particular people, or sometimes to get in a fight. What little variety there is also finds itself undone by a lack of imagination beneath the surface: an unusual Na'vi mission, for instance, has you fighting an RDA dropship, but just has you doing the same thing three times (climb a ladder, effectively), and the third time is actually the first location again.
Nothing Avatar does upsets your expectations of a game in this genre, but the core combat on both sides also fails to carry this lack of variety, and despite the constant accumulation of experience points, there's little progression to the weaponry. On the Na'vi side you use the bow and arrow at distance, and switch to blades or a staff for button-mashing melee attacks. You can string five hits together to activate a special, but the lack of tactile feedback in close quarters is deflating, and control is imprecise. On the RDA side, you have ranged weapons, but the Na'vi mainly run (and even teleport, infuriatingly) right up to you, so you spend a lot of time flailing, and the lack of hit response makes it difficult to appreciate kills.
There's no subtlety in either case. As a Na'vi, Ryder can use the jungle to avoid skirmishes in some cases by sticking to thick, elevated tree branches, but there's little opportunity to use it to your advantage in combat - something the Ewoks mastered in 1983. Enemies are pretty much the same throughout the game and their AI is poor, and sometimes bugged too, with plenty of running against walls and both sides reliant on being able to aim flawlessly over distance, rather than having any tactical nous.
The AI's flimsiness also spreads into the general set-piece behaviour. Pandora is meant to be at war by the latter stages of the game, binding you tighter to your chosen path - but in practice you can sprint between the yellow markers ignoring most of the ongoing skirmishes, which have no relevance to your story or character development except where specified, and so as the gameworld becomes more congested you feel less a part of it, and even more of an interloper, running between NPCs who stand on the spot waiting for you rather than doing anything else.
Events are also undermined in a couple of fundamental ways, the most surprising of which is that nobody ever explains why the RDA is on Pandora (not even in the "Pandorapedia" in the menus) or why they are using the Avatar programme (it can't be for infiltration - the Na'vi are fully aware of it). The divisive choice that sets you on an RDA or Na'vi path is also rather silly in the cold light of day: you're being asked to choose between people manifestly committing genocide, or the oppressed locals. It's hardly shades of grey. Nor does the writing really support it.
One point of interest is that the campaigns portray key characters from opposing perspectives, but it's too heavy-handed to work. For instance, one RDA officer who instructs you is a hard worker exasperated by troop deaths, or, from the Na'vi perspective, he's a soldier in a mech with a different icon above his head. The dialogue is also clichéd and inadvertently comical, particularly on the Na'vi side, where the person speaking broken English peppers it with unpronounceable Na'vi words like "Wdeasdjkng", and then translates them into things like "The First Voice". Ryder doesn't help. At one point my (female) version responded: "me no hablo Na'vi". That's not funny, that's a bit...
Outside the main campaign, there's a Risk-inspired meta-game where you invest XP in buying units to take over territory. It's a novelty initially, but it's mostly about coming back at intervals to stack a particular area with overwhelming numbers and then click on the adjacent one, so it doesn't hold your attention for long. There are also regular multiplayer modes - Team Deathmatch, CTF, Capture and Hold, King of the Hill and Final Battle (destroy enemy locations before they reach yours), and to be fair, I didn't get to try these pre-release. It's also fair to say, however, that the combat is sufficiently poor that it would not be able to support compelling gameplay in these generic modes.
Investigating these things on my way out of Pandora for the last time made it all the more disappointing, because as you run around the world itself it's evident how well put together it is. It may be a bit silly with its giant bats and weirdo rhinos, but it's a beautiful place, and that gully and waterfall bit over there would make a great set-piece, and that cliffside section is very atmospheric, and so on. Pandora could well lend itself to a great film, and would lend itself fabulously well to a good third-person action game. Unfortunately, despite Ubisoft providing two third-person action games here for the price of one, both of them are dull and forgettable.
5 / 10