By Neil Schneider
When Meant to be Seen was founded, we lived in a world where game developers couldn’t care less about stereoscopic 3D gaming, there was no such thing as native S-3D support, and there were only one or two active players in the market.
Three years later, the Blu-Ray standard has been established, there are several 3D displays on the horizon, and stereoscopic 3D gaming is very much available on PC and console.
That said, no industry can claim to be dependent on one individual, one product, or one body of work. However, similar to the way Eric Clapton earned his fortunes by being a great guitar player first, the stereoscopic 3D industry is dependent on credible artists to set the path for others to follow. James Cameron and Ubisoft are both artists first, and the industry has high hopes that their efforts will translate into a promising future for stereoscopic 3D entertainment.
While Blitz Games Studios’ Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao was the first modern S-3D game to support console, Avatar: The Game is being held under much higher scrutiny because it is tied to the Avatar movie and is backed by James Cameron himself.
Does the Cameron/Ubisoft duo pay off? What are the ramifications of all this? Let’s find out!
Avatar: The Game takes place on a distant moon called Pandora. Earth has run low on resources, and Pandora has what we desperately need to survive. The problem is that Pandora is cohabitated by Na’vi, the planet’s natives who are getting in the way.
You are “Able” Ryder, a signals specialist sent for active duty. Why are you so special? It turns out that you are genetically compatible to join RDA’s Avatar program. An Avatar is a Na’vi body that can be remote controlled through a special interface bed. Once connected, you live and breath as a Na’vi native, and take on all their abilities as though you are one of their own.
Played as a third person shooter, the first sequence in the game gets you quickly acquainted. You drive a dune buggy, you fight off wildlife, and you finish up some simple missions. Before you know it, you are faced with a critical decision: do you support your troops, or do you run off into the jungle and find yourself? Either decision requires a lot of shooting, so you can’t go back and say “I’m sorry, I changed my mind”.
Avatar: The Game is supposed to demonstrate that everything in life has shades of grey, but the story could have been stronger here. When you join the Na’vi, it’s very obvious that you are joining the good guys. You are one with the jungle, everybody likes you, and Greenpeace throws a parade every time you level up (Just kidding! Just kidding!).
When you stick with the RDA, you seem like a nice enough guy (or girl), but the top brass are all jerks who really don’t want you asking too many questions. The chief scientists are working under gunpoint, and while the jungle was all friendly and inviting to you as a Na’vi, you are now finger food for the man-eating plants, and there is never a weed whacker big enough.
If you are worried about questioning your conscience too long while playing as RDA, don’t worry! The game eventually alludes that maybe the top brass aren’t following orders, and you will again be faced with tough decisions. So, any way you look at it, you’re da man!
While the RDA are seemingly puny humans compared to the giant and graceful Na’Vi, both camps are equally destructive. The RDA are armed with a wide selection of guns and vehicles, while the Na’vi have spears and bows & arrows that grow fiercer as you level up. You don’t have gunboats or helicopters, but you can ride the local mammal or condor – and they do help you in battle. In case you were wondering, yes, you can destroy helicopters with a bow and arrow!
The environment is breathtaking. Every scene is lush with detail, and even though it’s mostly jungle, Ubisoft did a great job of finding ways to make each section unique. What I liked most was that even though it had the familiarity of what a jungle SHOULD look like, it was very alien, and had the quality of being both inviting and threatening at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest victory can only be appreciated after seeing the movie. The scenery in the game is so closely matched to the film, it’s uncanny. It doesn’t have the film’s advantage of five petabytes of animation data, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
I would have liked more indoor experiences too. For example, the science labs looked very cool, and it would have been interesting to have a chance to explore the place and go to different stations on a regular basis.
I know a lot of reviewers compare Avatar to Crysis-style gaming, but it’s definitely more than that. It’s not a case of just running through a jungle. Instead, you have to climb vines and walk along branches from place to place which makes things a bit more interesting.
While Avatar has a lot going for it, even as a traditional 2D game, there are some things that took away from its innovation. Highest on my list was the voice acting. The Na’vi performance and scripting was so cliché, it was very hard to take seriously. I kept thinking of an episode from the original Star Trek series where a native (a Caucasian actor PRETENDING to be native) would grunt “Free-DUM? You know this word?”
It would have been cooler if the Na’vi lost a bit of their innocence and spoke in more coherent English. Better yet, what if they said nothing at all? What if they are so connected with Pandora, you could hear their thoughts as twisted alien-speak in your mind? Now that would have blown me away!
The RDA could have used some work too. I’m sorry, but when I’m told my boss is rounding up scientists at gunpoint and friends are vanishing, I’d expect to hear concern in the voices! Avatar treats all situations with the same urgency as talking about the weather.
Finally, I’m surprised Avatar didn’t throw some puzzles in the mix. While they really delivered with the complex environments and some visually exciting ideas, a few head scratching challenges would have added more curiosity and interest to the game.
Setting these challenges aside, Avatar: The Game was intended to introduce gamers to the world of Pandora. That you should be able to play the game, enjoy it, and further appreciate the movie that followed. Ubisoft accomplished its mission, and this overshadows its shortcomings.
However, the big question is this…how was Avatar in stereoscopic 3D?
There is no denying that Avatar: The Game has received mixed reviews in the 2D press. It’s unfortunate, because they will have to wait until later to appreciate the artistic genius that sets Avatar apart.
Special thanks to Blackshark for creating this footage!
NOTE: The above footage can be viewed on the original YouTube page in stereoscopic 3D.
First, the PC version of Avatar supports DLP Checkerboard, RealD, Sensio, iZ3D, Interlaced, and NVIDIA GeForce 3D Vision output options. All are supported equally well with nearly identical results. I had hoped to have an S-3D television to test Avatar on our PS3, but they are very hard to come by. If any manufacturers are interested in a great PR opportunity, let me know. ;=)
While some game developers have taken the position of associating with specific brands, Ubisoft worked from strength and did what was best for themselves and their customers by supporting nearly everything possible. It should be noted that I have not separated this review into separate displays because the results are very consistent between them. This is the way things SHOULD be, and as S-3D gaming standards and industry-wide quality expectations come into play, it will happen much more often.
In all cases, Avatar: The Game is natively programmed, and the left and right images are passed directly to the display equipment without a third party infringing on the artist’s intentions.
Ubisoft did exactly what we have been asking from them: a combined depth and pop-out experience. Throughout the game, your character floats in front of the screen, with a natural depth that stretches in. In the game’s settings, you can customize the S-3D experience according to your screen’s size and your personal distance from the panel.
The cross-hair is easy to aim with, and the performance is nothing to complain about. The only times the game lags is when you walk into waterfalls. I would expect reasonable performance out of an AMD 4850 series or NVIDIA 9800 series or better.
The only flaw I noticed were occasionally flickering textures. I suspected that one of my GPUs was overheating, but this problem is consistent on both machines. Avatar was recently patched, and this greatly improved the problem – but there are still some imperfections.
Avatar proves that there is a difference between a driver based solution and a game natively programmed in S-3D, and this goes well beyond the confines of weeding out anomalies. While never distracting, the Ubisoft team took great care to make the S-3D experience both natural and immersive. It’s the little things you notice, like pollen flying out of the screen, or the way things protrude when you walk past them. They clearly worked hard to find the right balance.
While the 2D media have regularly given Avatar: The Game mixed reviews with the exception of its stereoscopic 3D features, it is clear that Ubisoft has accomplished something more. Traditional 2D and stereoscopic 3D games are very different experiences, and Avatar is proof that stereoscopic 3D technologies offer tangible benefits to the overall game enjoyment. While S-3D will never overcome the importance of a great story, it adds important elements that pushes the game forward.
The only gripe I had with the stereoscopic 3D experience was the inability to create screen shots. In the case of NVIDIA GeForce 3D Vision, the game is still flowing through their driver, so you can still use their driver features to capture images. The other solutions are more direct, and Ubisoft doesn’t give you the means to create stereoscopic 3D images. It would make a world of difference for viral marketing if this was made possible.
I have never been supportive of buying games for the sake of supporting the S-3D industry. Avatar: The Game is no different, and it needs to stand on its own merits. That said, I am certain that S-3D gamers will consider it money well spent, and traditional 2D gamers who enjoyed the film will be able to supplement their Pandora experience with the next best thing.
In a year or two when S-3D gaming is much more common, I really think Avatar: The Game will be a regularly cited example that demonstrates how things should be done, and what the artistic potential is behind stereoscopic 3D gaming.
Finally, separate from the Avatar game, Ubisoft should be commended for what they did with the FarCry 2 game engine to get it to work in stereoscopic 3D. If they keep putting out S-3D games and contribute to industry backed gaming standards, I am certain their investment in stereoscopic 3D gaming technologies will be well rewarded.
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