James Cameron’s Avatar: Hands-on

Five minutes into this prequel to the forthcoming sci-fi flick and we feel like we’re in one of the year’s most generic games. As we step off our transport into the alien planet Pandora, all the elements are in place for a generic third-person shooter. Main character who's a stoic military type with a crew cut: check. NPCs we have to seek out for missions: Oh yeah. A 40 foot monster that looks like a mad scientist has forced a hammerhead shark and a feral peacock to mate: wait, what?

Contrary to initial impressions, then, Avatar is actually quite a unique shooter. Not only does Pandora impress with its extraterrestrial fauna that tower overhead like skyscrapers, but it’s also home to some of the most imaginative looking space beasties we’ve ever seen. All of which need we need to brutally shoot in the face. Of most interest is the fact Pandora is also home to the Avatar programme, which allows Ryder (the game’s hero) to turn himself into a 10 foot tall alien assassin.

The info bit

Set two years before the film, the game shows how the RDA (Resources Development Administration), which a shady Weyland Yutani-style organisation, starts to mine Pandora and how they first get into a right royal ruck with the Na’vi – that’s those blue alien assassin chaps in the above screenshot. With the conflict between these two factions set to make up much of the plot of the movie, it’s good the game provides further context and background info on why they first fell out.

It gives a sly wink to Far Cry 2

When we’re free of the base tutorial, the game surprises us by being quite similar to Ubisoft’s other jungle shooter from last year. Not only do you explore miles of dense, foliage-covered environments in both games, but Avatar also uses the same fancy fire technology from the ace African FPS. We use Ryder’s flamethrower briefly to burn the forest and the planet’s vicious Viperwolves (think ravenous alien mutts). The good news? The dynamic flame system is still brilliant fun to watch as it flame grills everything in sight.

And it gives Lost Planet 2 a long sloppy kiss

While it definitely shares elements with Far Cry, the game it currently reminds us most of is Capcom’s giant bug-blasting, mech-filled shooter. After playing the recent PSN demo of Lost Planet 2 it amazes us how similar both games are. Aside from the giant monsters, the feel of both game’s weapons are incredibly similar, with punchy shotguns and erratic machine guns. Couple this with Avatar’s controllable mechs and ammo pods and Cameron’s title feels like an almost identical (if slightly more Western take) on Capcom’s game.

But it%26rsquo;s arguably more varied than either of these games

After about an hour of RDA missions, which mainly involve the murder of aliens and the repair of perimeter fences, Ryder morphs into a Na’vi/human hybrid thanks to the Avatar initiative. And it’s these sections that really show off the game’s variety. Being tribal warriors, Na’vi Ryder is at peace with nature, which allows him to use spiritual moves such as Predator-style invisibility. These bits focus on melee combat and acrobatics and make for an enjoyable change of pace from the RDA missions.

3D or not 3D

Sadly, the game isn’t demoed to us in 3D and it’s a shame to miss out on Avatar’s most unique feature. We also worry the game’s fairly generic missions and weapons won’t hold the attention of those who’ve already caned the likes of Gears of War. It ain’t exactly a looker, either. Character models that are a bit 2007, some poor textures; after weeks of Uncharted 2’s beauty, Avatar comes off as the fat, ugly stepsister.

Still, its blend of open-world exploration and imaginative enemy design give us some hope that this might be more than just your average licensed game. But we’ll only know for sure when we get another chance to murder those shark/peacock abominations when the game is released in late November.

Nov 6, 2009

David Meikleham
Google AMP Stories Editor

David has worked for Future under many guises, including for GamesRadar+ and the Official Xbox Magazine. He is currently the Google Stories Editor for GamesRadar and PC Gamer, which sees him making daily video Stories content for both websites. David also regularly writes features, guides, and reviews for both brands too.