- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

James Cameron’s new movie, “Avatar,” attacks theaters this week, and for select members of the family that means play opportunities, both real and virtual, based on the sci-fi epic.

First, for the emerging teen, Avatar: The Video Game (Ubisoft, $59, rated T for teen, reviewed for Xbox 360) provides a violent but not very challenging third-person adventure.

A player controls RDA Corp.’s signals specialist, “Able” Ryder, who was hand-picked for the Avatar program and sent to the toxic moon of Pandora where a war is brewing between humans and Pandorians.

Early missions involve exploring the RDA facilities, getting familiar with weapons and learning how Able’s consciousness is shared with a 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned hybrid from the indigenous Na’vi species.

Almost immediately, a pivotal plot point occurs in this prequel to the film. There is a traitor in the RDA’s ranks and a moral question is dropped in the player’s lap. He can remain an Avatar Na’vi and fight alongside his brethren for their homeland or kill the traitor and go back to waging war as a human.

The extended replayability here is obvious and welcome. A player can enjoy the game twice from different perspectives.

As human Able, the RDA offers a brutal selection of guns to wipe out nearly every form of life on the planet, including packs of viperwolves, giant poison-spitting plants and the feisty Na’vi. He also can pilot a C-21 Dragon Gunship or drive an ATV.

Being a Na’vi is a much more rewarding and distinctive campaign, featuring acrobatic and speedy attacks using dual blades and bows. Na’vi can ride a massive type of flying dragon creature or a strange horse.

However, I’ll admit that the steady stream of slaughter — from either side — got to me, even though all enemies and creatures dissolve into a creeping puff of black smoke at their demise.

Features for the main campaign include on-the-fly use of powerups such as airstrikes for the RDA and lighting speed boosts for the Na’vi; a constantly increasing experience bar to upgrade weapons and armor; and plenty of mapping and teleporting to help get around.

Those tired of the campaign romp can choose from among three extensions to the Avatar gaming experience.

A massive wiki called a Pandorapedia begins to take shape as missions are completed, offering reams of information on the Avatar universe. It covers most flora, creatures, geography, RDA research and personnel files with detail down to Na’vi mating rituals (don’t worry, it’s not graphic).

Next, an odd Risk-type game offers turn-based action that requires a player to stake out chunks of a planet, amass troops and facilities, and attempt to fight and dominate Pandora. It’s shallow, but it’s certainly a diversion.

Last, a multiplayer component offers up to 16 gamers a selection of five mode types to fight on human or Na’vi teams with a capture-the-flag battle or the familiar death match, among others, available.

Can the Avatar adventure compete with Modern Warfare, Gears of War or Halo 3: ODST? Of course not, but it gives fans a deep look at the movie’s mythology along with an occasional shot of visual adrenaline.

By the way, I do not own a 3-D television, but the game is compatible for those who have invested in that currently pricey technology.

Tsu’Tey, Thanator, AMP Suit, RDA Gunship and Direhorse figures ($8.99 to $19.99 from Mattel, requires PC or Mac) — I remember the days when playing war on the bedroom floor with a bunch of olive-green plastic soldiers was a treat. Times really have changed.

Now, there’s an exhaustive line of 3¾-inch action figures and in-scale creatures and vehicles based on the Avatar universe that deliver a magical, high-tech upgrade for those with a computer, webcam and broadband Internet connection.

Junior first must make purchasing decisions based on a wide assortment of characters from the PG-13-rated movie. The figures have limited articulation and the occasional accessory, such as Pandorian Tsu’Tey with his double bow or human Col. Mile Quaritch, who packs a pistol.

Parents may find themselves involved in the assembly process for the vehicles and creatures, including building the AMP Suit, six-legged Thanator and butterfly-winged Leonopteryx. (That exercise might lead to some unavoidable loose joints and frustrated offspring. At least there are no stickers to apply.)

Following some real playtime, children will want to visit the Avatar i-Tag Web site (www.avataritag.com). After downloading and installing the Total Immersion D’Fusion Web plug-in, they now can match a plaque (which is included with all toys and doubles as a display base for the figures) with one of 40 on-screen entries.

Once a Web page showing live visuals from the user’s webcam is online, a user takes the corresponding plaque and holds it in front of the camera. A three-dimensional, animated representation of the figure will appear above the plaque on the screen.

As the owner shifts the base or moves it farther from the camera, the size and perspective of the virtual entity also changes.

Adding to the experience, when a child covers one of the icons printed on the plaque, more information is revealed, or the elaborate onscreen creation is set in motion. For example, the Thanator rears back and then jumps forward with a ferocious growl and owners learn in a pop-up fact card that the creature has a massive, distensible armored jaw.

The character figures offer 3-D imagery such as maps of Pandora or a C-21 Dragon Dropship or an irritable Viperwolf.

The great news is the concept is amazing, works every time and requires no lengthy registration or computer-befuddling installations. The not so good news is it’s a one-trick pony. There is no way to get multiple plaques to interact, no way to download vital information to use in some type of online multiplayer fighting game (take a look at Mattel’s Xtractaurs) and they must exit the program and choose another toy icon for the second toy to appear.

Maybe some of these possibilities will be incorporated into the next licensed property, but for the time being, it still is an impressive visual that extends the fun for a youngster playing with a traditional action figure.

Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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