Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a game you shouldn’t be sleeping on
Recently, Ubisoft sat us down with a two-and-a-half-hour preview of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. The game is set to release later this year, but is it one that should be on your radar, or merely lost in space?
Avatar is one of the strangest franchises out there. The series itself has lots of out there elements that you wouldn’t necessarily think make it the blockbuster juggernaut it is. Strange blue cat-aliens as the central cast, hair that you can put in things from around the world to get connected, and a sequel 13 years after the first.
However, despite all that, and the general temperature of certain circles of the internet, it remains one of the most bankable movie franchises of all time. Both times an Avatar movie has come out, everyone thought it wouldn’t work, or it’d been too long, or the original success was a fluke. Yet, both Avatar 1 and Avatar 2 made over $2 Billion dollars at the box office.
The takeaway seems to be, despite all the “Pocahontas-in-space” reductions thrown at it, there’s a quiet (or at least one that’s not terminally online audience that loves the Avatar films.
That’s why, while some might have scoffed at the idea of an Avatar game when Ubisoft announced it in 2021, this has the makings of potentially one of the biggest games of the year. And I have to say, having spent time with it – it absolutely could be a very worthwhile entry into the impressive tome of excellent games from 2023.
So what is Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora? There was a decent-for-movie-tie-in game from 2009 that was a third-person action game where you were choosing between the Na’vi and the humans. This latest by Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment, which created the Division series, has made a first-person action game.
This story takes place slightly before the events of The Way of Water on a new continent on Pandora. While it obviously will have connections to the films, this seems to be an attempt by the development team to carve out their own little section of Pandora without messing up any of the upcoming story beats in the franchise.
You play an abducted Na’vi who has been in cryosleep for 15 years, and you;re trying to reintegrate into society, but also deal with the sudden reemergence of the RDA (these are the bad humans from the film.)
The comparison you’re going to hear a lot is Far Cry. This is a first-person game, where you use bows and guns, to take out camps in the wilderness. It’s a good referential touchstone for how the game plays.
You investigate disturbances in the wilderness, repel RDA forces, and even infiltrate bases and systematically take out the bad guys. That can be loud or quiet, but it will be familiar to anyone who has played the Far Cry games.
That said, it’s also a little bit of a cheap comparison. Far Cry is a game about big action, often and frequently. However, Frontiers of Pandora is doing something a little more nuanced, and something that is deeply, recognizably Avatar.
Na’vi-gating the world
While there was definitely a big action scene of me storming an RDA base, fighting helicopters and those big walking mechs, that was only one of the flavors of what Avatar had to offer.
Massive seems to know that while those big climactic moments are key to the series, so is its relentless focus on nature and the world of Pandora. It’s no secret Avatar is James Cameron’s attempt to bring environmental catastrophe, and the destructive qualities of the corporate and military expansions to an enormous audience.
That’s why it’s core that Fontiers of Pandora doesn’t feel like it focuses entirely on the violence. No, the first mission had me dropped into Pandora which had me exploring, using my senses and very gentle hints to find a nectar in order to perform a ritual in aid of a very important moth species.
The general area had a waypoint, but I had to use some instincts and information about the nectar from the Hunter’s Guide to deduce what would be the best place to find it. Then, once I did, I had to gently pull the nectar from the environment before bringing it back.
This mission really made me sit up and realize, “oh, Frontiers of Pandora gets it.” You could make an Avatar game where you’re just tearing through enemies the entire time. But the allure of Pandora, healing the environment, exploring, and taking a far more gentle approach to this world is equally important to the message of the franchise. This aspect is vital to the Avatar feeling like Avatar and it was at the forefront of my playthrough. Hopefully, this approach continues through the game’s runtime, because these slower moments, when I was exploring the world – that’s when my time with Frontiers felt most Avatar.
Wondering where your flight went? Ikran away
The other major aspect of the game I interacted with was the taming of an Ikran. These flying beasts are some of the most iconic from the franchise, and Jake Sully learning to fly one in the first movie is one of the more memorable scenes.
Indeed, Ubisoft is giving you the opportunity to find your own. In a fun mission that has you jumping through the floating mountains of Pandora, you follow an Ikran through the environment as it tries to fly away. Not to spoil too much, but you’re successful in your pursuit to tame one.
At this point, Frontiers of Pandora really opens up. I was able to fly my Ikran whenever I wanted, and it was at beck and call with just the touch of a button. Doing this, I immediately devised some harebrained schemes with flight. That included flying above attacking helicopters, jumping off my Ikran, and then as I was free-falling, trying to shoot pilots with my bow, before calling my companion again to catch me before I fell to my death. It was a delight.
Flying over the Pandorian landscape is a real joy, and this was perhaps the moment that I could see the vision for Frontiers of Pandora paying off. This has the potential to not just be a good Avatar tie-in – it has the potential to be a great game.
Never bet against Avatar
I suspect a lot of people have already written off Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. From the loud dismissal of the franchise to people thinking it will just be a typical Ubisoft open-world game, it feels like there’s some built-in apathy from commenters online. They aren’t wrong either. This is the Far Cry-like Avatar game many speculated it would be. However, that works. It’s a perfect marriage of genre and franchise, and even when it feels most like Ubisoft’s guerilla first-person games, this is doing that very competently.
However, there is an important spark in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora too. Something that alludes to a little more. The focus on the environment you’re in, the quiet exploration, and the beauty of this world suggests that there is something very unique and worthwhile waiting to be discovered. An important, fresh new blend to a known quantity making a fusion that’s really working for me.
If you’ve already mentally crossed out Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora from any potential game of the year surprises – I’m here to say, you may want to hold off on that. While 2023 has been stacked with excellent games, and it would take a lot for this to compete, the one thing that’s been true of the movies is true about this game – never bet against it.