Smaller missions sometimes don’t equal out to big ones

When we attended E3 2009 we were fortunate enough to see some behind the scenes of Avatar the game. Ubisoft was gracious to let our humble little site in to witness one of the better-looking games for 2009. At the end of that day, our senior editor Eric Layman (eric@digitalchumps.com) came away generally impressed about it. The focus was more on the actual looks and feel of the title. The developers at Ubisoft wanted to develop a game that was very close to the upcoming James Cameron movie. They wanted to make it so accurate that they brought in Cameron as a consultant; that’s dedication.

The end result of that effort comes two-fold. Visually, Avatar is one of the more gorgeous games of this year. It’s not going to beat out Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Assassin’s Creed 2, but it’s very detailed for a movie title. The environments are huge and ever expanding when you get to certain points. The width of the land is just as big when it comes to height. You get some really large X/Y axis to run around in. The environments are lush with plant and animal life. Randomly appearing here and there and just as active as if they had some solid connection to the overall story. Truly, Ubisoft has created a very active, alive planet that will bring you closer, and lonelier, to the storyline of the movie.

The details of the Na’vi are quite good. Every detail you see int he movie is brought in spectacular fashion into the game itself. You see their tails, their active eyelids, their unique skin patterns; you basically get every little wonderful detail of the natives. Just as impressive are the marines that are hunting the poor Na’vi down. You get brutish soldiers that are unique to one another. They simply didn’t make three of these guys/gals and print them over and over again. There is a unique pattern in the modeling process. The models don’t stop there, you’ll find even better-looking details in the horses, animals, machines and other things you can control in the game.

All of these things make up for a visual treat.

To make the presentation even better, you get a fantastic soundtrack and really solid voice acting. The presentation factor of this game is enormous and Ubisoft seemed to leave no stone unturned when bringing you into the actual movie. They very much wanted players to be a part of it.

Regretfully, that’s where the excitement sort of takes a dip.

When the gameplay begins you start as a marine and take a few missions getting to know the your surroundings, which mainly include enemies. For the first hour, you’ll be completely lost on where you should be and what you should be doing. To make matters worse, the small map that is located in the lower right-hand side of the screen only burdens your progress. I tried this on a 51″ and 22″ screen and I can’t make very much sense on what the heck I’m looking at and where I should be. The map stands about 2-3″ high on the screen. It’s filled with a darker/lighter shades of color to give you an indication of where you are and where you should be. Your icon on the map is a dark blue triangle. The icon where you should be is a yellow triangle. These triangles are not easy to find or read, so prepare yourself to do two things:

1. Explore the land taking a stab at where you think you should be.

2. Access the bigger map and stop/start the gameplay.

Both options are horrible and they hinder the fun and progress that the game is dying to give the gamer. This problem can only be compared to stop/start commercial breaks with CBS Sports when it’s hosting the NFL on Sundays. There are so many damn breaks in the action that it’s tough to get into a flow with the NFL game; it’s the same problem with this game. The map is so hard to read that the constant stop and start of figuring it out really does put the gameplay into a sluggish category. You might think after reading this that this isn’t a big deal, but believe me it’s a big deal. If you don’t know where you are going or if you guess wrong and find out that you needed to be one level up in a tree after spending 20 minutes getting to where you are currently, that’s a frustrating situation.

This is the biggest issue with Avatar because it murders the flow of the game.

With that said, during a fight, when you find one, you’ll find many wonderful weapons of choice to use. All of this depends on which side of the coin you decided to choose in the story. Somewhere at the beginning (won’t ruin it for you) you’re given the choice to join the Na’vi or to help fight them with the Marines. If you choose to stay with the marines then you have a good selection of guns and vehicles you can use. If you choose to go the Na’vi route then you have bow/arrows, some nasty swords and an M30. Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be very well equipped to take care of business. For me, I couldn’t resist going the Na’vi route. The bow/arrow, while limited (which is great because you have to make a choice of what you want to do) is a delightful weapon of choice. You’ll be able to take people out from afar and stay out of the line of fire. The bow and arrow are fun to use, even more so than the M30. The plus to this plus is that you can switch weapons pretty rapidly with the directional pad. I can’t remember which action game started that, but it’s a wonderful way of doing things.

Anyway, despite the nice variety of weapons you can sport, the game has some contact issues when it comes to using them. With the God of War game in mind, if you choose the Na’vi route and sport the swords as weapons, prepare yourself to one-on-one combat always. For example, there was a stage in the game where marines were attacking my village and I was right in the middle of a group of them. I whipped out the swords and started to swing away in this tightly knit group. Despite the fact that they were less than one-foot away from each other, my Na’vi would only attack the guy targeted. You might think that makes sense, but my sword was literally going through multiple marines to get to this one targeted guy. That’s a bit quirky.

Another quirky problem is the A.I. I’m not completely sure that this is my fault or the game’s but there were two instances where the computer characters didn’t move out of a small path that I had to go through. The first instance is when I became a Na’vi for the first time and was riding a horse. The horse and I came up on a small opening, which I had to get through, so I decided to jump off the horse and walk (the horse couldn’t get through the opening and it was the only entrance). I hop off the horse and wait patiently for it to move. I wait. I wait. I wait. Get the picture? Sure I could have gotten back on the horse and moved them out of the way like a parked car, but instead I took Barbaro out to pasture right there and then. The second instance is when I was trying to get back into the original village I had started in when I first became a Na’vi. I went one way, lost again because of the map, and decided to back track. A group of nasty Na’vi decided to stand as a group in front of the only entrance back into the original village. I couldn’t move them or persuade them to move with my swords/gun/bow. I had to restart the mission and try it again. These two examples are very frustrating moments of the game.

As for the missions of the game, they are broken into side quests and linear mission. You’re sent into the main storyline of the game, which is us versus them. It’s pretty straightforward and not terrible. The side quests, which are forced upon you here and there, are a bit daunting. As much fun as it is to collect cell samples from plants it’s not really adding to the ‘war’ part of the story. Going into the Avatar review I was expecting action, something along the lines of Lost Planet. I didn’t expect to collect cells or pick up fire weed (don’t laugh) or kill infected giant beasts of this strange planet. Much like my expectations of Terminator 2, I wanted an all out war. Much like what I got in Terminator 2 was a bit of frustration and boredom in quests that seemed worthless, if not completely pointless. Adding these type of quests to the constant frustration of translating the tiny map really made me not want to play this game for a long period of time.

One of the more redeeming values of the game is the upgrade system. Throughout the game you earn XP for completing tasks and missions. You are ‘leveled up’ throughout the game at certain points. You obtain certain special abilities and are encouraged to do more, find more and complete more thanks to this system. Obtaining new abilities to fight with really does motivate gamers in the right way. It’s a good way to do this type of game and, had the gameplay already not been riddled with frustration, it certainly would have been a huge driving point.

Finally, the multiplayer portion of the game is actually pretty good. Much like the main game, the environments are enormous and the fighting is pretty solid. If I weren’t so sure, I would say that the multiplayer portion of the game was the selling point. They have different modes, most typical, in the multiplayer that give an element of flair to the experience. One of the cooler multiplayer modes is you playing as an RDA soldier trying to deliver bombs to a certain spot. You have to deliver them as you’re fighting against the Na’vi. Sure it sounds like a modified version of capture the flag (which is also in there), but it’s still nice to know they were trying to do something different. Anyway, the multiplayer was an impressive part of the game.

At the end of the day it was difficult to justify a $59.99 purchase of this game as it certainly has some issues and causes some frustration. I think that if you can move beyond the frustrating points you’ll find some good gameplay there, but it’s too difficult for this reviewer to excuse such things. It’s a really gorgeous game, but it does have some very noticeable issues.