Video games based on movies are often pushed through as afterthoughts, so word that director James Cameron and Ubisoft have been collaborating for years on his sci-fi epic, "Avatar," offered hope to gamers longing to explore the lush, brightly colored jungles of Pandora.
"James Cameron's Avatar: The Game" ($59.99 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $49.99 for the Wii and PC) does nail the visuals, but it falls a bit short on gameplay as just an average third-person shooter.
The story line is a prequel to the movie, which opens in theaters next week.
Your character, "Able" Ryder, arrives on Pandora as a solider working for the RDA Corp., which is mining the picturesque moon for rare minerals.
The corporation is engaged deep in a scientific experiment that allows Ryder and other soldiers to take the shape of their avatars — hybrid blends of human DNA and that of Pandora's indigenous species, the 10-foot-tall blue Na'vi.
Early in the quest, Ryder must choose to fight alongside the Na'vi to push back the military onslaught or lock and load as an RDA soldier battling the native inhabitants. This decision not only has moral implications, it also branches the player off on one of two completely different game experiences.
The military path offers Ryder a healthy arsenal of handguns, rifles and shotguns, and he can earn experience points throughout the quests to unlock upgrades and new weapons and armor. Buggy vehicles, Gator riverboats and Scorpion attack helicopters allow the soldier to cover more ground, and his ammo can be replenished at A-POD stations placed throughout the landscape.
There's no "Gears of War"-style cover system, so Ryder must move and target or charge in with guns blazing.
Fighting as a Na'vi arms Ryder's avatar with seemingly primitive yet effective weapons such as fighting staffs, dual blades and a bow and arrow. The staffs and blades are effective for up-close melees, but he'll often need to rely on his bows, an occasional machine gun or special powers.
The Na'vis can't jump into vehicles, but their towering size and agility allow them to traverse Pandora with ease. They can also jump on Direhorses to gallop or take control of the dragonlike flying Banshees for air strikes.
I enjoyed playing from this perspective, but the camera angles often proved frustrating during battle. And when your character is 10 feet tall, the puny humans disappear into the colorful scenery, making them tough to spot and target.
The game is visually stunning, and the chromatic landscape is filled with myriad plants and creatures to encounter and identify.
But the linear quests grow tedious, and the story doesn't draw you in enough to make you feel engaged while gathering a list of objects or killing multiple enemies.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four.