It’s hard to believe that James Cameron’s last film was the three-hour drudgefest Titanic, released way back in 1998. Not that the guy’s spent the last decade drinking cups of tea and watching Jeremy Kyle repeats. He’s actually been hard at work on his latest motion picture film project, Avatar, which is reportedly the most expensive film ever made (like T2 before it) with an eye-watering budget of $237 million. The movie enjoyed a massive world première last week in London and was promptly swept away in a hype-storm of epic proportions. Meanwhile, Avatar: The Game, its less popular sibling, pretty much tiptoed into stores, quietly cleared its throat and waited for someone to actually notice.
Avatar: The Game (or ‘James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game’ to give its full ego-stroking title) is set before the events of the film, so there’s no Sam Worthington or Sigourney Weaver in sight. The human race has finally muffed up Earth for good, and is forced to spread to the distant planet of Pandora to begin all over again. You play as a marine who has just been shipped out there, charged with quashing any bad feelings between the colonists and the suspicious indigenous race, known as the Na’vi. Of course it can’t be overlooked that Avatar: The Game is one of those evil film tie-in games. The genre’s track record is abysmal, and this year’s efforts have been no exception - Wanted: Weapons Of Fate was just a huge pile of suck, while Watchmen was so bad I actually carved out my own eyeballs and fed them to the cat. However, Cameron and crew were quick to point out their involvement in the making of Avatar: The Game, which extended to the director himself assisting Ubisoft to replicate the movie’s atmosphere. So, could this be one of those rare entities - a film game that doesn’t conjure up violent bursts of projectile vomiting?
The first fifteen minutes certainly don’t bode well. You take control of your marine (male or female, depending on personal preference) and are basically sent on a series of dull errands, most of which involve speaking to vacuous characters. Thankfully the pace rapidly picks up with an expedition to a jungle complex. You arrive just as a pack of carnivorous viperwolves (a hybrid of wolf and velociraptor) tear into a bunch of your army buddies just beyond the perimeter. You take to a turret to help them out, and as soon as that’s done, you’re ordered to take a buggy out of the base and rescue the final man who's still missing. The action comes thick and fast, and it’s a heady rush of frantic escapes and giddy gunfire.
As soon as you tear through the gates in search of your lost comrade, the cinematic influence becomes startlingly clear. Chance Thomas’ sweeping orchestral fanfare reaches a crescendo as you plunge into an enormous, lush jungle, with the panicked voices of the other soldiers ringing out all around you. The acting is superb throughout, so you can actually hear the desperation of your buddies as they scream for covering fire, or curse as they run out of ammo. The level of detail in the environments, from the cascading terrain to the sheer variety of animal and plant-life that covers Pandora’s surface, is mesmerising. I haven’t spent this long admiring the scenery since the Far Cry games.
Before you’re even two hours into Avatar: The Game’s plot, you have to choose whether to stay loyal to your race or join with the Na’vi. In terms of morals it’s a rather obvious one. Imagine you come across a badger with its head stuck in a plastic bag. Would you A) help to free the poor creature, and send it merrily on its way, or B) laugh at the stupid furry git and pelt it with conkers. Those who choose the former option would definitely feel a little uncomfortable siding with the humans. Morals aside, the differences between the two factions aren’t purely aesthetic. Humans rely on technology for their survival, charging into combat with immense fire-power and an array of vehicles, from land-based buggies to the Terminator-esque aerial craft. The Na’vi, however, can only use nature against their foes. Their weapons are blades and arrows manufactured from their surroundings, and for transport they tame and ride the planet's creatures across both land and sky.
The difference in fire-power between the two sides is instantly noticeable, and as a result siding with the Na’vi provides the greater challenge. You'll be relying more on stealth to survive, picking off foes from afar with the bow, and making full use of your powers. Both humans and the Na'vi have near-identical powers they can call on at any time, such as temporary invisibility and calling in an aerial attack. Playing as a human, the only power you'll ever need is heal, but if you side with the Na'vi then invisibility and reduced damage are almost essential to make it to the end. Both powers and weapons are upgraded as you earn experience through killing enemies and completing missions, although sadly you have no control over which upgrades you receive.
Avatar: The Game’s combat is usually frantic and fun, with some impressively scaled battles taking place seemingly at random as you navigate the environment. However, there are some little quirks that do detract from the overall experience. For a start, there's a lack of basic duck and cover controls, which all too often leaves you an open target - especially if you're playing as a bulky Na'vi. There is a dodge move thankfully, and you can fire over your shoulder while running which is a lifesaver against the sprightly viperwolves. Also included is a 'revive' option that allows you to cheat death if you've collected enough organic samples from the environment. This makes the game a hell of a lot easier to beat - the only time I actually died was when I accidentally drove off a cliff - and at least it's only an option, so hardcore players can choose to resume at a checkpoint instead.
If there’s a major fault with Avatar: The Game, it’s sadly - and surprisingly - to do with the plot. As in, there’s very little of it. You arrive on Pandora, you choose a side, and then the rest of the game is basically a linear series of simple missions (find a lost commander, blow up some machinery) as you square off against the opposition. I was expecting to be swept up in a complex and suspenseful narrative, but at no point did I actually care about what happened next. It’s admirable that Ubisoft fitted in two completely separate ten-hour experiences depending on which race you fight for, complete with individual missions and goals, but sadly Avatar: The Game is pure eye-candy and adrenaline. If the film’s plot is this vacuous, no wonder Mr Cameron has spent so much money on the 3D visuals.
Speaking of those visuals, rich gamers with high-tech sets can actually play Avatar: The Game in full 3D. I’m not a rich gamer, so I can’t comment on how well this works, or if it’s simply a gimmick to steal headlines. However, I can tell you that Avatar: The Game has fairly steep system requirements. A powerful dual-core processor with an absolute minimum of 2GB RAM is recommended for a smooth experience. Still, those with a lesser system should probably ask Santa for an upgrade this year - after all, with the exception of Ghostbusters and Batman:Arkham Asylum, this is arguably the only decent film tie-in of 2009.