Much has been said of James Cameron's Avatar that you could practically go blue in the face talking about it. Then again, that might be the point. There's so much going on in this ambitious game that it has a hard time doing any one thing particularly well, even if its variety is a breath of fresh air.
Avatar actually doesn't parallel the events of James Cameron's film, instead predating the movie by two decades with the story of Corporal Ryan Lorenz. In control of the first human-Na'vi hybrid, you play as Lorenz who himself manipulates the avatar in an effort to explore the bizarre Na'vi home world Pandora.
Through the course of the surprisingly lengthy adventure, however, he finds himself sympathetic to the tribal Na'vi and increasingly at odds with his human compatriots.
Platform challenges are at the game's core, even as combat becomes increasingly central. Between jumps and swinging on vines it's bursts of machine gun fire, after sliding down tree branches you're battling mechanised marines, and clambering up cliffs always precedes a bit of action.
The spice of (alien) life
Variety is definitely the game's strongest suit – right behind the dazzling graphics – yet this multi-hued approach means no single element is particularly bright. In other words, Avatar is a jack of all trades and master of none.
Clunky controls prevent fluid movement, which in turn gives the game an unpolished feel. Distance is often difficult to gauge when jumping, leading to slips and occasional fatal falls. Hopping across platforms becomes a tense effort in hoping that you don't jump too far by pressing the virtual analogue stick too much. Conversely, jumps come up short when you try countering that concern by timidly nicking the analogue stick.
Other platform challenges are just poorly designed or not fun. For example, springy mushrooms situated on a jungle ledge have to be bounced upon in succession to reach the top. The camera doesn't pan out to let you see where the mushrooms sit on the cliff, though, so you're liable to fall all the way back down to the ground and lose a chunk of health – if not a life – guessing where they're situated.
Putting Azrael down
Ultimately, such issues are just annoyances. Tasks are never too tricky that you can't overcome them and generous checkpoints guarantee painless retries. As such, it's not enough to break the game.
The same can be said of combat, where dynamic action is relinquished for the sake of accessibility. Staff, bow, and rifle – all three are used by pressing a virtual attack button in the lower-right corner. Together with timed presses of the adjacent jump button, tapping to attack executes aggressive combos.
Such moves are moot, though, when you can just hold down the button for safer defensive attacks. This brings variety to a screeching halt as combat devolves into a waiting game with your thumb pressed to the screen. Similar to the platforming sequences, such an issue doesn't ruin the experience, rather just leaves it feeling unfinished.
Great by proxy
Yet much has been done well in Avatar and enough moments gratify to overtake its shortcomings. Take, for example, Ryan's special spirit of Eywa power that can be upgraded by collecting wisps. It's a good set-up, though one to be made better by granting freedom over what kinds of enhancements are unlocked.
The game's most entertaining sections correspond with quests completed in a vast free-roaming stage. Leveraging this concept more would serve the game well. It's interesting, clever, and impressive.
Such bold design gives Avatar strength in the face of straightforward combat and imperfect platforming. No doubt it's epic – it just needs some polishing up for that ambition to shine through.