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Impressions: James Cameron's Avatar


Today being "Avatar Day" (what, didn't your calendar tell you?), we figured it's the perfect time to fill you in on what we've seen of the gaming side of James Cameron's much-talked-about mega-project, James Cameron's Avatar. The Game, as it's subtitled, is split into two distinct products on consoles. (Additionally, there will be portable versions for DS and PSP.) The games aren't typical movie-license rehashes and tell their own stories, separate in plot from the movie, in turn contributing unique elements to the Avatar universe.

Ubisoft likens Avatar to Harry Potter, "an incredible entertainment phenomenon." Understandably, you might not have made the same connection, but then, the marketing push is only now beginning to rev up (did you catch the movie trailer yet?). Excuse us then, if we prematurely deflate some air out of the tires:
Xbox 360

Jump to a platform-specific preview above or read both after the break.

Xbox 360
(Also available on: PS3 & PC)

Ubisoft compares Avatar's 3-D display option (not available in the PC version; HDMI required) to digital surround sound. It enhances the gameplay experience, but isn't required -- good thing, since chances are you don't own a 3-D stereoscopic television. Of course, Ubisoft does have a few of the newfangled sets in its possession and sat me down in front of one, passing over a pair of 3-D glasses (also required, but not bundled with the game) as a developer plodded through a few short in-game scenarios. The immediate 3-D effect is exciting -- it's both retro and futuristic -- but by the end of the preview, I did feel a tinge of dizziness. It's not so much that the game is constantly propelling objects out of the screen than it is creating layers in the environment that your character appears to be ever progressing into.

The world, the fictional planet Pandora, is jungle-like, and the green-green foliage is rendered in captivating three dimensions, albeit more pixelated than I imagine the standard, flat display appears. At several points I was compelled to reach out and swat at the objects that seemingly filled the space between the screen and where I was sitting. The color palette has the vibrancy of the Halo games, cartoonish, yet mature-themed. This version of The Game is actually two, where one chooses to play either a third-person shooter (as a human) or a third-person action-adventure (as a Pandora native Na'vi).

Along the human path, I witnessed a conventional, open-environment level in which the character, an employee of the Resource Development Administration (read: greedy military-industrial organization), stormed about with a machine gun, activating relay beacons for a security grid and blasting alien critters, big and small, which were clearly threatened by the RDA invasion. At a later point, I was told, the character would be able to realize the error of his ways. Of course, that's a decision left up to the player.

A helpful conceptual comparison is to imagine Lost Planet ... in the tropics. Further into the Avatar demo a mech suit was commandeered and used to put down Pandora's most dangerous protector, the Na'vi (not pictured above). Still, in the absence of proper immersion into the game's narrative -- again distinct from the film's following of Jake Sully (who will not appear in the game) -- my attention waned from the chaotic on-screen battle that ensued as a group of Na'vi stormed the RDA outpost. Beneath the polished (and popping) visuals, this was any, old shooter.

Perhaps sensing my disinterest, Ubisoft segued into the more compelling path in The Game. While the preview of the Na'vi hunter's campaign was exceedingly short (a few twirls of the bow staff and a brief, soaring canyon ride atop a winged beast), it was enough to make my decision: If and when I play the retail game, I'm going in as a ten-foot-tall, glistening-blue warrior. Wouldn't you?

Gallery: James Cameron's Avatar (Xbox 360/PS3/PC) | 8 Photos


Shall we debunk the rumor once and for all? The Wii can't do 3-D (at least, not the effect that requires native 1080p output). What the Wii can do is casual, action-adventure. Ubisoft has taken a laid back approach to the Wii's Avatar entry, wisely choosing against down-porting the version designed for the other consoles. What I saw was a straightforward action game, sprinkled with optional MotionPlus minigames (1:1 control of a tiny insect!) and wrapped in Avatar lore.

Unlike the other console version, the Wii game is played from only one perspective, as a Na'vi hunter (a native of the planet Pandora featured in the Avatar universe) avenging the destruction of his village by the hands of the human Resource Development Administration. He's not technically alone, however, as a drop-in/drop-out co-op feature allows a second player to control the main character's sister, who is equally tall, blue-skinned and lethal. Combinations of stealth and pure force can be employed to take down the RDA troops, plus bait-and-flank tactics can be used when playing as a pair.

I watched as the Na'vi hunter infiltrated a disruptive RDA structure, a damn cutting off water supplies to Pandora, taking out puny humans here and there and solving simple environmental puzzles. Remember that Wiimote-controller insect I mentioned? If you've got MotionPlus attached, you can steer a bee into a power grid and knock out an electrified obstacle (otherwise you'll have to take a perilous, platforming path around the side). The demo ended rather abruptly as the hunter triggered a conveniently (or really idiotically) placed explosive barrel that simultaneously blew apart the damn, destroyed a pesky, pursuing assault chopper, and launched a level-ending cut scene. (Note: This image shows the Na'vi hunter in a segment we saw in the Wii game, though Ubisoft has -- perhaps mistakenly -- designated this particular asset as one from the Xbox 360/PS3/PC version.)

Avatar is very much a visually inspired project, and new 3-D technology is a big part of the film's draw. Even putting that dimension aside, though, the Wii version doesn't do much to enhance the visual imagination of this world. Admittedly, I was shown the Wii game after viewing a 3-D-enabled build of the Xbox 360 project, which only served to dull my impression. Still, the Wii version appeared to be a competent, if not generic companion piece to what will surely be a blockbuster movie, and struck me as a promising prospect for a kid, stepping out of the theater and eager to continue the adventure, to explore. Did you hear? There's going to be a toy line, too.

Gallery: James Cameron's Avatar (Wii) | 2 Photos

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