Games can sometimes get away with being confusing, short, or easy if they’re relatively inexpensive, but no matter what the price, a game isn’t worth buying if it’s boring. That’s the core problem with Gameloft’s unfortunately titled James Cameron’s Avatar ($10), which simultaneously evokes the names of one of the world’s greatest directors, one of the App Store’s best game development companies, and what may turn out to be one of the most important movies in the history of cinema. Avatar the film is the culmination of Cameron’s years of research into 3-D optics and computer-generated imagery – the evolution of his award-winning work in films such as Terminator 2 – and has pushed theaters to adopt new technology to match the director’s vision. By contrast, Avatar the game is in no way so noteworthy, a colorful and occasionally beautiful but bland action title with little of the charm it could have stolen from its obvious inspirations.
Though we only gathered as much from the App Store description rather than the game itself, Avatar precedes the events of the movie by two decades, and as it similarly precedes the official release of the movie by days, it has the challenge of telling its own story and introducing players to what can only be called an alien collection of plot and visual elements. For whatever reason—pacing, limitations on what Gameloft could say without giving away parts of the film, or just poor writing—the game does a pretty shoddy job of explaining what exactly is going on, save to introduce you to a human character named Ryan who is transformed into a lanky blue alien “avatar,” seemingly an artificial creature who needs to make his way through fifteen different levels.
This is accomplished through an on-screen joystick and two primary context-sensitive buttons that change from jump and attack to jump and climb down, or jump and interact with an object, depending on where you are; additional buttons are added later for weapon-switching and other purposes. Your avatar moves from a distant third-person perspective through backdrops that have been modeled with 3-D polygons to include platforms, cliffs, boxes, and other terrain that can be walked, climbed, and occasionally ridden on, all using gently shifting camera angles to provide you with side-scrolling, “walk into the screen,” or diagonal hybrid perspectives. After training at a military facility, the avatar goes a-wandering on an alien planet, some non-sequitur references are made to happy and unhappy creatures on the planet, and things start to attack you.
Those things look a lot like plants and dogs, and thus for level after level, you’re either shooting or slicing little dogs, big dogs, and crazy plants. ‘Uh-oh,’ you might think when you see a really big alien dog with a peacock plumed head, ‘this one’s going to have a huge, boss-like lifebar and some surprising weak spot that I need to whack with the staff I found in that field.’ But no lifebar appears, and all that dog’s actually looking for are ten or fifteen extra whacks with the staff. At that point, he collapses, and dispenses some floating blue stuff that you collect like experience points. Your machine gun, which seemed incongruous in a world devoid of people but full of energy-shooting plants and angry dogs, is somewhat more fun to use until it is taken away; several levels in, you manage to score a bow and arrow as a not-so-exciting replacement. Additional limited use special weapons, like an energy pulse that hurts three or four of the dogs at once, are issued on occasion and usable all too seldom as they recharge.
With shooting and slashing offering only modest entertainment value, much of Avatar’s action comes in the form of platforming, and it’s here that the title bears great resemblance to titles such as Assassin’s Creed, without as much flair. Aside from walking and jumping, portions of the game see you dangling from tree limbs and gratings, scaling sheer walls, and surfing down slippery and watery surfaces. The actions—vaulting from cliff to cliff, or hanging by fingers from platforms—are all familiar from these other titles, but there’s nothing especially dynamic or exciting in the Avatar presentation: where it might have been helpful, the so-so music actually cuts out, leaving you in awkward silence as you make attempt number 15 to move past a waterfall. Gameloft gives you an unlimited number of extra men, and based on how little guidance you receive at times, you’ll need them just for trial and error to move on. There are exceptions to the monotony, such as moments when didgeridoos pop into the soundtrack, and when the flare-like helper stars you can throw actually do guide you in the right direction, but much of the time, the game feels empty. Flying and alien-horse riding sections are included to break up the platforming.
Though Avatar’s gameplay and music aren’t much to write home about, Gameloft has once again done a good enough job with the graphics engine to pass muster: the edges of polygons and textures are almost always visible, but on occasion, the colors or effects in a backdrop will just grab you: the only thing that made one stage tolerable was a set of beautiful waterfall graphics that we didn’t mind having to go past and work around again and again. On the other hand, it’s hard to know whether to blame the Avatar character designers or the limitations of Apple’s devices for the way that the game’s various character models look: they have plenty of detail, smooth enough textures, and generally fluid animations – your character’s are occasionally quite good – but the models are just ugly, like less cartoony versions of the characters seen in some Pangea Software games. We’re hoping and expecting that they’ll be a lot more compelling in theaters.
To the extent that you’re looking for a 3-D action and platforming game that is professionally developed and long enough to keep you playing for more than just a few hours, Avatar isn’t a bad title: it’s even possible that it’ll make more sense and become more engaging once the movie is out and can provide context for whatever’s supposed to be going on in the game. But maybe not. In our view, it doesn’t stand on its own as worth the $10 asking price, due mostly to the repetitive platforming gameplay and the inconsistently interesting aesthetics. At half the price, it would still be boring, but at least it wouldn’t feel expensive. In any case, it’s yet another title that feels as if it could have been good with some extra development time, but unlike the many Gameloft titles that have received post-release polish, it’s hard to imagine this one will see anything other than an eventual price drop to make it more compelling. Until that point, it’ll be hard to recommend.
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Title: James Cameron’s Avatar
Compatible: iPod touch 1G/2G, iPhone/3G/3GS