James Cameron's Avatar Hands On - Revisiting Pandora
Written Saturday, November 07, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
The last time we sat foot on Pandora was way back in August at GamesCom and this time instead of being given a vertical slice of the game showing off all of its features, we were thrown into the world right at the opening chapter. First, let’s recap. James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on one of Polythemis’ moons, Pandora, and tells the story of an escalating conflict between the humans; the RDA (Resource Development Administration), and Pandora’s natives, the Na’vi. You play the part of Abel Rider, a signal specialist, who is called into Pandora to help them find a sacred site that can help extend the existence of Earth and put to bed its resource shortage.
The first few scenes of this third person action-adventure title sees Abel landing on Pandora’s human military base camp and checking in with his contacts on the base. It’s a far cry from the luscious jungle environments of Pandora, but luckily you’re not based here too long and once you’ve been assigned your missions, off you go into the moon’s dangerous jungles. Last time we focused on the mechanics of the RDA and whilst you begin the first few missions performing as one of them, it all builds up to that initial choice where you choose your sides. This time, we backed the Na’vi.
If you’ve read our interview from yesterday, you will be more than aware that Avatar offers two completely unique experiences depending on which side you choose. The opening 20 to 30 minutes tries to give you both sides’ perspectives of this escalating conflict, before giving you the choice to choose your side. After a short cut-scene, with each party trying to reason with you, you are given the choice to attack either one of the RDA or a Na’vi native. Whoever you attack, suddenly becomes your enemy and you’ve effectively chosen your side. We are informed that these decisions crop up throughout, so don’t think you’re stuck with your choice until the end, oh no.
Unlike the RDA, the Na’vi’s gameplay rests mostly on close, hand to hand combat and is reminiscent of most hack n’ slash titles that we have come to know and love. Like the RDA, you are equipped with 4 weapons to start with; a bow and arrow with limited bows, a gun with limited bullets, a staff and dual swords. It’s clear that the emphasis here is on using the agile skills of the Na’vi to get stuck in and bash some skills. Similarly to the RDA, the Na’vi can take advantage of a series of special moves as well that include shockwave attacks, stealth skills, and more; these are unlocked as you level up RPG style.
The goals of the Na’vi are generally similar in scope to that of the RDA and we spent a good few hours disposing of the local troops and disarming demo charges placed by them. If you choose the Na’vi path, you’ll have to prove yourself to a few of the locals who are still unsure of your loyalty – namely the warrior, Beyda'amo, one of the Na’vi’s top dogs who gives you a simple fetch and retrieve mission in some hostile RDA territory. Thankfully, with the maps being so big in scale – 1km by 1km – the Na’vi can take advantage of the moon’s wildlife to get around the environment. This approach differs vastly from that of the RDA who will be forced to taking advantage of the mechs and vehicles dotted around Pandora.
After I had spent a good hour running around in the shoes of the Na’vi it became clear to me that I was going to be in for a much tougher time than I had experienced with the RDA. Whilst it was relatively easy to romp through as an RDA soldier, the challenge playing as a Na’vi is on a totally different level and it’s pretty damn brutal. It’s the classic cowboys vs. Indians conundrum, where gun-toting soldiers are pitted against melee obsessed and not as technologically advanced natives. It doesn’t really work... if you’re a Na’vi anyway. Sure you can do a fancy leg roll with the left trigger, but you’re still taking bullets faster than San Marino’s national football team are conceding goals. When I asked Kevin Shortt about it, “Someone else was saying that which is interesting,” he responded, confirming my concerns. Trying to alleviate them however, he stated, “My guess is the reason that it feels that way is because it’s kind of a different style of gameplay. So maybe you haven’t figured out, “what can I do with the Na’vi?” yet.” It certainly didn’t feel like I had not figured out what the Na’vi could and could not do... there really isn’t much to it. Shortt continued, “We were very careful to make sure that we balanced it. We didn’t want one more faction to be more powerful than the other faction, and with the Na’vi you have to rely more on the trees... it’s a different kind of attack. You sort of creep up on them, you’ve got the plants that you can use and the creatures – like a Thanator.”
Short continued, “I think once you get a little deeper into the game you have unique skills that you can call on and using the trees and the environment around you, it’s definitely an advantage. Personally I tend to go for the Na’vi side because I like that I don’t have to worry so much about the plants around me.” Something that never really became apparent to me.
As you delve further into the picturesque world of Pandora, the environments open up somewhat to present some multi-tiered expansive openings, but it brought with it nothing but problems. Figuring my way across a multi-tiered canyon was such a mind bender that I spent most of my time just trying to figure a way across, but to no avail. Shortt touched on my concerns with this aspect, “We’ve tried to make sure that we’ve got guidelines to tell you where to go, but again, we do want to leave it open for you to explore, so I guess it’s a bit of a trade-off.” He continues, “Instead of sending you down rails, where you go and grab your item, we want to make it feel open and part of the price of that is, you kind of have to be like “okay, check my mini map, where am I supposed to go?” I think once you orient yourself to how all those things work, it gets pretty straightforward.” Or so he says... a potential stumbling block if ever there was one from my perspective.
The problem with James Cameron’s Avatar at the moment for me, is its balance. Whilst it tries to tell two completely different stories, it’s going to be hard to tempt players down the path of the Na’vi after seeing how brutal and that much tougher it is compared to the RDA. There are still a few weeks left before Avatar hits the stores worldwide and we’re hoping that Ubisoft Montreal heeds these concerns and corrects them before it ships. I wasn’t alone in this concern... even Kevin Shortt told us that. On the whole though, Avatar does get the basics spot on; the action is fast, the world is fantastically realised – a dangerous paradise if ever there was one – and it sure is a lot of fun. With a bit of tweaking, Ubisoft Montreal’s Avatar could definitely score a few points this coming holiday season.
James Cameron's Avatar - The Video Game is out December 1st in North America and December 4th in Europe.