James Cameron's Avatar: The Game Review
Xbox 360 | PS3 | PC | Wii | PSP | DS
James Cameron's Avatar: The Game box art
System: X360, PS3, PC, PS2, Wii, PSP, DS Review Rating Legend
Dev: Ubisoft 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: Ubisoft 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Release: Dec. 1, 2009 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
Hyrule Becomes Pandora
by Robert VerBruggen

James Cameron's Avatar, the superstar director's first movie since Titanic, promises a jaw-dropping visual spectacle, a gripping story, and a frenetic pace. Some early reviewers have accused Cameron of being too preachy with his tale of environmentalism and war, but even they have agreed that in most ways, Avatar is a true revolution in filmmaking.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game screenshot

Unfortunately, the DS game that shares the movie's name is something less than a revolution. It's merely a knockoff of top-down Zelda games; it's well-made, but it was released only six days before the latest DS outing of the franchise it steals from. Gamers who finish Zelda: Spirit Tracks and still hunger for that classic puzzle-solving, boss-battling gameplay might want to give Avatar a shot, but it's nowhere near as much a must-play as the movie is a must-see.

This handheld title makes no attempt to ape the gameplay of its big-console brethren. Players will find no third-person shooting, no intense melee combat, and no 3D capabilities, and they won't have the option to play as a human.

Instead, they'll play solely as Nok, a young, Link-like member of the Na'vi tribe on the planet Pandora. The "sky people" - humans who belong to the military group RDA - are invading Pandora for the purpose of mining the metal unobtainium. The sky people are disguising themselves as Na'vi through the use of human-Na'vi genetic hybrid "avatars," and gradually it becomes clear that Nok is destined to fight them off.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game screenshot

We haven't seen the movie yet, but from the information available online, it appears the developers took a good deal of license with the story. As presented here, the lengthy tale is full of twists and turns but is far from interesting or compelling, which is probably not the case with the plot of the film. Nonetheless, we suggest seeing the movie first so the game doesn't spoil anything.

As Nok, you have to explore Pandora's various continents, acquiring information to pass on to the Na'vi deity, Eywa, who in turn helps Nok in his quest. As you'd expect, you acquire useful items along the way that help you explore previously out-of-reach places, and you fight bosses with unique weaknesses.

The control setup will be familiar to anyone who's played a DS Zelda game. Virtually everything is done with the stylus, and there's no option to use traditional controls. Fortunately, the Zelda franchise more or less perfected this setup, and it's rarely frustrating here. You move by touching your character's destination, attack with your (sword-like) staff by touching an enemy or moving the stylus in a swing pattern, and use items you collect by navigating a menu. Our one complaint is that after selecting an item from the menu, you have to select it again to use it; we can't tell you how many times we picked an item, tapped the location on the screen where we wanted to aim it, and promptly walked off a cliff instead.

James Cameron's Avatar: The Game screenshot

The gameplay here is surprisingly compelling, especially for a licensed game. Many of the puzzles are extremely simple time-wasters (push this block, flip this switch, find that key card), as is to be expected from the Zelda style, but there are some real doozies here, especially later in the game. They get complicated in part because of the items you have to use, which include various projectiles and even a monkey-like creature that can fit into small openings. Even the easy sections are arranged in ingenious ways that keep you moving back and forth across the game's territories without feeling bored, and there is almost no needless backtracking, at least until one later mission that sends you scouring the areas you've already explored for glow worms.

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