For the most part, “games of the movie” tend to be pretty crap. You know the type: rushed out the door to coincide with the film release, lacking in everything but licensed voice actors, and filled with pitiful attempts to rake in the film-loving crowd with gratuitous recreations of “that cool part in the movie when ….” They’re a generally horrible breed of game, but every now and then, a tie-in title will come along that’s actually pleasant to play, or even, dare I say, good on its own.
James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game (ugh) is almost that title. It goes far enough out on that limb to get to the bit that’s not too crowded, but it could have gone further. It even manages to have a standalone story — one that you don’t need to watch the film to understand, thanks to the tons of extra info the developers have packed into this game. As expected, however, you’ll have a fuller experience if you’ve played the game after watching the film — a mistake I only rectified between my first and second play-through.
In case you’ve somehow missed this holiday’s biggest box office ball-buster, here’s the Who and the Why behind Avatar: In the year 2100-something, humans ruined Earth and sought out a new place to wreck. They came across Pandora — an Earth-like moon, five years’ travel away, that’s packed with a rare and precious metal called Unobtainium. The big, scary corporate giant, RDA, lands on Pandora, begins mining the crap out of it, and soon discovers a native race of humanoids called the Na’vi. The RDA then tries to come to terms (mining terms, to be specific) with the Na’vi through a program called AVTR, which allows humans to temporarily jump inside their own lab-grown, artificial Na’vi bodies. Once accomplished, these Avatar drivers can gain the trust of the Na’vi, so they can all sit around together, having a great time while the RDA turns their entire planet into one giant strip-mine. The game’s hero enters the scene a few years after the AVTR program has begun. He (or she — you’ve got the choice) is a signals specialist who’s just dying to jump into the brain of an Avatar and specialise in some Na’vi signals.
The beginning part of the game is the typical tutorial stuff. You’re shown around the human control centre called Hell’s Gate and a nearby region called Blue Lagoon, and told to do various stupid grunt work that a ten year-old could probably manage. This is a bit alarming because your character is apparently only one out of every five million people who are genetically compatible with the program. Why they’d risk sending you off into the carnivorous jungles to rescue some whimpering jarhead is anyone’s guess, but anyway. During this time, you’ll also be chucked into the control of an Avatar, meet up with a native or two, and learn a few neat tricks like controlling various vehicles and riding a six-legged horse thing. About an hour later, you’ll be given a choice between the Na’vi and RDA. But, and this is a little weird — considering the game is called Avatar — if you choose RDA, you never again get to control one. Now, you might consider that a spoiler, but this divides the game into two distinct pieces: so think of the rest of this review in that context, and stop crying that I’ve ruined the game for you forever.