Avatar: The Game
Talking to a developer of a licensed game always feels like deja vu: they always insist they're not going to fall into the traditional pitfalls and that they'll definitely put out a quality product. Reading the previews, too, evokes similar feelings of sentences endlessly travelled - 'this title could break the mould', 'the developers really seem focused on creating a great game' and so on and so on. Everyone knows the ending to the story, too: the game comes out, receives average marks and languishes in an assortment of bargain bins for years to come.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game, then, is the latest contender to promise not to fall into the traditional pitfalls, and its developers are adamant they'll be putting out a quality product. It's based off the upcoming movie, obviously, but sports its own plot and characters - although they seem to be based almost entirely off the plot and characters of the movie: humanity establishes an outpost on aggressive utopian paradise Pandora, meet up with the indigenous population, the Na'vi, and proceed to tear up the planet so they can harvest shiny rocks that sell for a fortune back home.
The twist here is that the game will offer the players two radically different branching storylines. The humans have found some way to grow Na'vi with a mix of human DNA or somesuch, and by using a magical macguffin device certain select humans can live vicariously through their Na'vi clone thingy - hence the whole 'avatar' thing, you see. And after an hour or two with the game, where you sample the game as both a squaddie and a Na'vi, you're thrown a moral choice: who do you side with? This moment decisively changes the game, as your character either stays inside his Na'vi avatar, sticking with speed, agility and precise melee, or rescinds back to his regular boring human body and trudges around with an ever-increasing array of hulking weaponry.
It's an ambitious move, to say the least, and it's hard not to respect Ubisoft's ambition. Branching the narrative in two distinct directions is undoubtedly a logistical and developmental nightmare - which is why it's so rarely explored in games. Ubisoft are clear to point out it's more than the choice offered by the simple good/evil dichotomy - it's new levels, new gameplay mechanics and a different storyline. Deus Ex got close back in the year 2000, but Ion Storm rescinded about a third of the way into the story because of the inherent difficulties attached. It's just not done. The concept is certainly novel, and my interest in the game has been certainly been piqued, but there's always the possibility Ubisoft have bitten off more than they can chew. It's a tall order, to say the least.
Our hands-on session was limited to the game's opening and the level immediately after choosing a faction, so there's always the possibility of the radical level differences being front-loaded and that the game will homogenise towards the finale - Ubisoft were unable to comment on later levels, but was adamant that the diverging paths exist as more than character choices.
What will exist for both factions, however, is the world of Pandora. Described to me as lush, beautiful and dangerous, Pandora exists as an entity beyond setting: the planet's gorgeous vistas are a big part of the reason for the movie's use of 3D, after all. The game uses the Far Cry 2 engine, which is a fitting choice to render the intended spectacle of foliage and landscape desired by the developers, plus there's the added bonus of being able to set fire to almost anything. Pandora is stressed as an important part of the iconography of the imminent franchise, so the developers give it an introduction by contrasting it to the sterile, cliche-ridden futuristic human outpost - full of angular metallic pillars, vents, pipes and grates - which the player jaunts through on their brief tutorial.
It's also a fitting setting for a videogame, with an abundance of jagged cliff-faces, bumpy terrain and multi-levelled approaches. At heart Avatar is a third-person shooter, and one that follows more in the footsteps of Lost Planet than Gears of War. Simple enough, then, but Ubisoft attempt to expand on the genre, no doubt influenced by the open-world gameplay so prevalent in Far Cry 2, by adding in various 'sector challenges' - essentially MMO-esque grind-fests requiring you to slay a number of hostile creatures or analyse a certain amount of alien foliage. Accomplishing these feats fills in your horrendously-titled 'Pandorapedia', as well as no doubt earning a smattering of achievements.
Much of the early game feels routine in its execution. The player, ironically, selects an avatar for their avatar and then hoofs it about reporting to quest-giving officials and carrying out whatever menial tasks they see fit to lumber upon you. Climb a turret and shoot at some Viperwolves - some sort of spiky dog things - get in a car and drive to check in on some marine, fix the hash job someone's made of some vital task. And so on. And In typical videogame fashion the protagonist goes from a green-as-they-come marine with no combat experience to a versatile killing machine capable of using four weapons within about twenty minutes.
That's not to say it's no good, though - just that it's a very familiar experience in terms of design. There's plenty to like, such as the way the guns sound like they've been recorded from James Carmeron's own imagination, robot power armour, rocket launching missile boats and boss fights - we were shown a battle against a Hammerhead, which was dispatched by dodging its charge and firing into its soft, tender back. A recognisable trope, perhaps, but an effective confrontation.
Combat, whilst basic, tends to work well: weapons are selected with the d-pad and special skills can be activated by holding down the left trigger and then pressing a face button. Monsters are fast to attack, and there's no lock-on feature, so laying down pockets of suppressive fire with automatic weapons is the prime strategy for humans. Much of the life on Pandora is hostile, including the plants, and the densely packed foliage means you can rarely be too careful. Life is different as a Na'vi, the planet doesn't scorn their presence but they're flimsier creatures with rudimentary weapons and more complex skills. Both races have the ability to heal themselves, but the rest of the skills are different: Na'vi focus on turning themselves invisible and sneaking up on enemies, whereas humans take a more direct approach and shoot things in the face.
My focus always returns to the original faction choice offered at the beginning. It's certainly an interesting idea: Avatar's environment and narrative look more promising than its seemingly simplistic gameplay - although that could certainly pick up as the game progresses. Ubisoft seem to have a confident grasp of the game's universe, and have worked closely with the production team of the movie to integrate the lore into the game. But it's the branching options and what that could do to the game that ends up far more appealing than the licensed material - and the feature most likely to lift the game out of any typical rubbish licensed game stereotypes.
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game will be released for 360/PS3 on 4th December. A Wii version is also available.