Until I saw James Cameron at the Ubisoft press conference in this year's E3, I had not heard of his movie nor the game based on it. And until I had played the game, I hadn't seen a single piece of marketing dedicated to either. So I was pretty much going in with a blank slate of what to expect, except for the usual mild form of pessimism that results from playing as many movie-to-videogames that I have. Avatar actually surprised me somewhat, and more than once I remarked to the person watching me play that, had I not known that this game was based on a movie, I would merely think the missing plot elements were due to bad writing, and not because playing a movie-based-game means assumptions about what you know from the film.
Anyway, where was I?
Right, the game.
Avatar begins with you, a nameless rookie (well, your last name is Ryder, but your first name is up to you), entering the world of Pandora as a Signals Specialist, which I assume means you're good with signals. And combat, apparently. Pandora is not what one would call a friendly planet, and everything from the flora to the fauna to even some denizens (the native inhabitants are tall, blue humanoids known as Na'vi) are more than a little hostile towards you.
So the game begins with you walking around areas, performing mundane tasks, shooting things, and exploring the area in general. Doing things such as shooting things and completing objectives earns you experience. When you earn enough, you unlock new abilities, weaponry, and armor to equip. It's all very linear, and you don't get any say in what you earn, but it's a decent form of progression that makes you feel like you're getting stronger. I wouldn't have minded some choice though.
Each area of the game presents you with a number of 'sector challenges', area-wide objectives to complete for bonus experience. These range from constant things like activating all the fast-travel devices, exploring 100% of the map, culling a number of a species of hostile enemies, and so forth. I liked these, which gave you an actual reason to run around the map, guns blazing, beyond just getting bored with the storyline tasks presented to you.
Early in the game you're presented with a choice, and if you know anything about the movie, you'll know what - okay you know what I'm just going to say it: before even completing the first area of the game, you're given a choice of siding with the Na'vi or the RDA, the humans. The choice doesn't make that great of a difference, however - playing as the Navi or the humans doesn't really make a difference. They share many of the same skills, and the only real difference is the Na'vi's preference for melee weaponry. Objectives and story elements change, of course, but the core gameplay doesn't.
The world of Pandora is presented beautifully, I must say. The wildlife is bright and vibrant, and full of color. This can actually be a problem, however, because everything is bright and vibrant. It can be a little disorienting to constantly be bombarded without any kind of visual focus, and making out things like creatures and objectives in the world can be hard to do.
The game comes with multiplayer and all the standard modes: team deathmatch, king of the hill, capture and hold, the standard retinue. But multiplayer dones't really work in this game. The Na'vi and the humans are so much alike in skills and really only differ in attack types that the each battle tends to resolve itself in one way: the human player running backwards or in circles while firing his gun, and the Na'vi player charging forward while rapidly tapping the attack button.
Though it wouldn't be so bad if the online community wasn't so barren. Basically, if you're planning to play some multiplayer, especially anything that isn't team deathmatch (which is generally the only mode that will have more than a few players on at once), then you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Avatar certainly avoids a lot of problems associated with being a movie tie-in. A relatively independent story, competent gameplay, and a relatively non-linear experience make for a game that is actually pretty fun. Some of the gameplay can get a little repetitive, however, and levelling up kind of loses its purpose when you can't choose what you gain from it. Then there's the lack of variety in the weaponry, and the too-similar humans and Na'vi. Overall, it's certainly not a bad game, but leaves far too many things to be desired.