Written by: Kevin DeStefan, Special to CC2K
Perhaps it's just a subconscious desire to justify earning a degree in philosophy, but there is something about a game version of Avatar that stands up and begs for postmodernist deconstruction. We could wax philosophical about Baudrillard, The Simulacra, imitations of reality and other polysyllabic terms that show off our liberal arts acumen. But damn it all, we are gamers and we are here to talk about games, not impress some bearded ponce at a coffee shop. Let us stay true to our roots with a geek-friendly thought experiment. Answer me this: why would a Left 4 Dead movie seem like a ludicrous idea? Yes, it would probably earn money, but what might irk the non-mouth breathers among us is that L4D is, at its core, a game inspired by movies. Its hard to conceive of a copy of a copy not coming out stale, offering nothing novel beyond its zombie flick roots. You end up with an imitation of an imitation.
To be fair, at the time of writing this, the movie Avatar has not yet been released, but we have seen enough sneak previews, trailers, and clips of James Cameron blathering about how this movie will revolutionize this or that, destroy the foundations of all we believed in film and rebuild them up in the image of James Cameron, cure the blind, etc. Maybe it will, considering his track record, I am willing to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt. But apropos our little thought experiment there is no denying this: Avatar draws some weighty inspiration from video game aesthetic to plot convention. When we hear things like 'space marines', battle mechs, and agile, blue, elf-people with pointy ears and affinity for all things verdant (Night Elves, anyone?) there is no denying that a debt of gratitude is owed to gaming conventions. This is not a bad thing, but here's the rub: what happens when we get a game of the movie inspired by games? Not much.
The plot of the Avatar game is thin to say the least. You arrive on the planet Pandora in typical space marine fashion: after five years of 'cryo-sleep' in order to be magically mind-melded into one of the planet's indigenous Na'vi. You are immediately thrust into typical expository missions that will introduce you to some of the characters you will be dealing with. Your marine will then be sent on quests so intensely cliché, it feels like a parody of a video game. One of your first quests is to go fetch a certain number of flowers and return them to the quest giver to further the plot. Soon you will have the choice of joining either the Na'vi and playing the game in that form or staying loyal to your human brethren. However, there is no moral gray area here, your human counterparts have made it clear that they are the bad guys here to exterminate the natives and harvest Pandora's resources. Though I have a soft spot for humans (some of my best friends are human), I figured the plot was compelling me to play the role of the good guy and I chose to play as the Na'vi. This was a poor life decision on my part, as the Na'vi gameplay is frustrating and dull. The first Na'vi quest I was given had me laughing – I had to go find more flowers to move the plot forward. Replaying the game as a human was slightly less tedious, I could actually see my enemies and had more interesting weapons and machines at my disposal, but the missions were just repetitive.
The combat in Avatar is rather underwhelming. As a ten-foot tall Na'vi, your human enemies are nearly impossible to see and more often then not you will merely be attacking the life bars above -where you imagine- their heads might be. You have laughably primitive weapons like a bow and arrow, swords, and spears at your disposal and it frustrating to feel so underpowered the entire time. The human experience is just as lackluster, while you feel exponentially more powerful than your Na'vi counterpart, with your arsenal of high powered weapons, you spend the majority of your time running in circles and firing wildly. The game gives your characters a number of special abilities, but I found the only abilities I ever utilized were healing myself and doing my best to get out of combat as quickly as possible. This is all made difficult by a cumbersome control scheme, where moving and aiming are difficult enough, but make it nearly impossible to utilize your special abilities without stopping what you are doing. Controlling a vehicle takes these frustrations to a near maddening level.
It feels like the designers had intended to make playing as a Na'vi a more stealthy experience, but attempting to engage the enemy this way continually failed, as the second you expose yourself the near invisible humans would lay waste to you from every direction. A bit more time dedicated to making the Na'vi gameplay more fluid and stealth based might have improved the experience. One redeeming quality is the upgrades to your character, armor, and weapons you receive as you play through and earn experience points. However, the combat still feels fundamentally flawed and unengaging regardless of how buffed your character gets.
If there is one feature that stands out its the look and sounds of Pandora itself. The designers utilized the Farcry 2 engine to create an alien jungle that feels realistic and teeming with life, with plants that react to our presence. The ambient sounds create a realistic experience that can only be appreciated on surround sound, with the calls of wild animals and the buzzing of insects creating a realistic jungle backdrop (from what I imagine -the closest I have ever come to a jungle is The Rainforest Cafe). While the exotic flora and fauna look fantastic, the design of the characters themselves is lackluster to say the least. The juxtaposition of the humans against this vibrant background makes it look like character models and textures from a last-gen system were dropped into a next-gen game and they stand out like a sore thumb. The first time you see the face of Sigourney Weaver's character you will wonder if the designers were working from someone (who hates her) describing what she looks like rather than ever actually seeing her.
While the levels may look beautiful, they are painfully linear. It may give the illusion of being in an immense jungle, but you will quickly realize that you are only on tiny tracts of levels and your ability to explore, even when in a vehicle is frustratingly limited. Ultimately, the majority of your game time will be spent looking for dots on a map to complete one of the aforementioned dull quests.
This game suffers first and foremost from to a lack of ingenuity due to the nature of the source material. We are dealing with an imitation of an imitation and because of that we get nothing novel in this experience. Almost everything in this game has been done before, from the story to the characters and tedious quests. Yet, even with such derivative source material, Avatar suffers from a number of shortcomings that fall squarely in the lap of designers. More time could have been spent on controls, combat, and character design, but presumably the game was rushed to ship out before the movie. For the amount of money you would waste on this game, you could treat yourself and two friends to an IMAX showing of Avatar the movie. In the end, we have another weak game based on a movie, full of sound and fury signifying some ham-fisted environmental allegory.