James Cameron's upcoming science fiction flick looks pretty nifty, but how does it hold up on its "the video game will be just like it" promise on the Wii?
Answer: It denies it ever made that promise.
Unlike the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, the Wii version of Avatar deliberately avoids the main plot of the movie and puts players in the shoes – or sandals as the case may be – of the story's antagonistic alien race. Also, it seems a little more kid-friendly than Cameron's film (although Avatar hasn't been rated yet).
What Is It? Avatar on the Wii has players taking the role of the alien Ryuk, out to recover artifacts stolen from his people and rescue natives of his planet held by Earthling military types. The game has optional Wii Motion Plus and Balance Board functionality and features drop-in/drop-out cooperative play where Ryuk's sister joins the fight.
What We Saw I played the tutorial level, level two in co-op mode and a flying level from a little later in the game.
How Far Along Is It? The build I saw was pretty early days, but Ubisoft says the game is on track to come out a couple of weeks before the film's release in December.
What Needs Improvement? Co-op Is Painful On The Ground: Rather than splitting the screen, the co-op in Avatar orients to one player and keeps both on the screen at all times. In ground-based levels, this is tedious if your partner keeps messing up jumping puzzles, or if you're trying to aim a ranged weapon somewhere farther along the path of the linear level. Also, there's an unfortunately bug where the camera gets confused about which player is the leader made it even worse.
Avatar Film Spoiler Warning
Oversimplified Plot Leads To Uncomfortable Implications: Cameron says his film is delivering a profound message and from what I saw of the Wii cut scenes based on plot points from the film, I gather that message is one of pro-environmentalist/anti-racism. Kind of like Fern Gully, only with aliens instead of pixies. The problem with the Wii game is that it has to oversimplify that message to create viable gameplay. So rather than exploring both sides of the "Hi, we need your planet" equation, the game just drops a bunch of humans into levels and tells the player "These guys suck, kill them all." On a surface level, this comes off as clumsy and boring – but if you're approaching it with an understanding of the message Cameron's film is trying to get across, I imagine it's just uncomfortable and sad.
What Should Stay The Same? Co-op Is Awesome In The Air: There are several flying levels in the game that allow you to hook up the Wii Balance Board and wing it or just sit back and point your Wiimote at the screen. Either way, you're expected to manoeuvre past obstacles, score pickups and shoot at stuff. On the Balance Board, this is more complicated because the flying creature responds to shifts in your weight to go forward, back or tilt for hard turns – meanwhile, you're still pointing at the screen with the Wiimote and mashing buttons to shoot or perform quick time events. The whole experience is a little overwhelming, which is why having a second player in co-op to handle the shooting is awesome. Bonus, you don't get any of those pesky camera issues from ground co-op.
It Feels Like Assassin's Creed: The combat in Avatar follows the three basic principle of Assassin's Creed – stalk, attack, evade. The only difference in Avatar is that you don't have a little meter to tell you when your cover is blown; instead you get little icons above the heads of the humans that may or may not be on to you. Using talk grass or high vantage points, you sneak up on them one by one and get the drop on them with quick one-hit kills. Then you slink back into the shadows to evade anybody who might've noticed you. It's old hat for Assassin's Creed fans and totally in keeping with the environmentalist commando them of Avatar. Bonus – if your stealth attack goes tits-up, you can pull off combo melee attacks with rhythmic swings of the Wii Remote.
Auto-Stealth: You don't have to press any buttons to pull off stealth – just walk into an area of shadow or tall grass, or spring up into a tree. Humans on this planet are cursed with poor eyesight and a limited range of neck motion apparently.
Final Thoughts I haven't seen the 360 or PS3 version of Avatar, so I'm not sure how the Wii version stacks up in comparison. On its own, though, it's an ambitious game with some good ideas. But it still needs a lot fine tuning and polish to pull it all off.
Note: This image appears to be from either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 version — but it shows off both the bird you'll be flying and the helicopter at which you'll be shooting.