James Cameron’s Avatar franchise has always felt like a very natural fit for the realm of video games – honestly, the movies already kind of feel like games – and yet, It’s never really worked out. Ubisoft made a weak attempt at making an Avatar game back in 2009 and, until now, that’s been about it. Well, Ubisoft is taking another crack at it with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, a new large-scale open-world adventure from The Division developer Massive Entertainment set to launch in December.
I recently had the opportunity to go hands-on with the PC version of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, playing through four interconnected missions amounting to a little over two hours of gameplay. This hands-on session was conducted remotely via the cloud, but Ubisoft’s streaming tech was up to snuff, as I didn’t detect any serious input lag or artifacts. So, does Massive deliver the goods, or is a quality Avatar game a piece of onobtainium we’ll never quite grasp? Scroll on for my initial impressions.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora casts players as a Na’vi orphan who was taken and trained by the RDA but eventually reintegrates into Na’vi society after awakening from suspended animation. While players will, appropriately, be able to fully customize their avatar, I was provided with a premade one for my demo session. The quest chain I made my way through began simply enough, as the Kinglor (moth-like creatures important to your tribe) are being disturbed by something the RDA is doing. Of course, It’s up to the player to find out what’s up.
My first objective was to find a specific type of nectar to help the Kinglor, which was your typical Ubisoft “run in the direction of the map marker” quest. That said, the quest gave me a good opportunity to explore the world of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. My demo took place in and around Kinglor Forest, a vegetation-rich region of the wider Western Frontier in which the game is set.
Kinglor Forest is home to all manner of otherwordly flora and fauna, floating cliffs, waterfalls, giant tree roots, and the occasional patrolling RDA squad. There’s certainly a lot going on visually, with every inch of the screen being packed with strange plants that react in sometimes unpredictable ways, but at times it starts to feel a bit much. A bit cluttered. Look past the sheer amount of things on screen and you’ll also notice some grubby textures and odd-looking shadow and water effects. Don’t get me wrong, the scope is impressive, and the game certainly has its visual moments, but those are balanced by some not-so-stunning moments.
After retrieving the nectar, it was time for a more meaningful moment, as I was sent off to bond with my first Ikran (the Avatar series’ trademark flying pterodactyl things). Bonding with my Ikran meant trailing it all the way to the top of the rookery, a lengthy platforming puzzle that brought to mind memorable moments from the Metroid Prime series. While the game’s platforming controls felt a bit unwieldy at first, I quickly got used to them, as well as interactive elements like the springy leaves that send you hurtling over gaps and dangling orange vines you can scramble up. The trip to the top of the rookery was surprisingly long and challenging, but I didn’t mind, as this was easily the most entertaining part of my demo. The game also looked the best during these moments, with high vantage points providing various impressive views of Frontier of Pandora’s verdant world.
Once I finally calmed my Ikran, I assigned it a name from a pre-determined list (I chose “Floof,” naturally) and was able to take it to the sky. Soaring through the air was more relaxing than heart-pounding and controlling my scaly mount was easy enough – just point the camera in the direction you want to go and flap your wings to go faster. Finding where to go amongst various floating islands was somewhat confusing, but eventually I found myself on a mission that tasked me with hacking and destroying a series of RDA aerial communication platforms. A small squad of drones appeared to protect these platforms, but I was able to take them out easily enough as aerial combat is simple yet effective.
My final objective was to shut down an RDA mining outpost, which was the section of my demo that raised the most concerns. Disabling the outpost meant completing a number of sub-objectives – basically, a series of four levers/switches I needed to pull before I could solve a final puzzle. Given your character’s unique background, you can wield either RDA weapons (assault rifles, etc.) or Na’vi weapons (a variety of bows) and I was assured I could take a direct or more stealthy approach. I tried the frontal assault first and, frankly, didn’t have a good time. RDA weapons felt underpowered, the Na’vi bows were too slow, and I quickly found myself swarmed with soldiers and mechs. Of course, there’s the possibility I just didn’t have a hang of the combat yet, but I wasn’t even making a dent.
Thus I opted for stealth, although that didn’t go much better. I quickly realized that, aside from being able to crouch, I didn’t actually have any stealth abilities. I couldn’t hide in the shadows, distract enemies, pull off quick kills, or any of the other basic stuff you expect from a stealth game. I tried to take out enemies from afar with my bow, but if I didn’t instantly kill them, they alerted all the baddies in the area, even in situations when they couldn’t have seen me.
So, stealth was out, too. Ultimately, my “solution” was to bring up the objective markers with my Na’vi senses, scramble over the outpost’s outer wall, beeline for whatever switch I needed to pull, then scurry back over the wall with half-a-dozen enemies on my tail. Thankfully, as soon as I got over the wall, my pursuers immediately forgot me so I was able to pull off the same cheap tactic for all the outpost’s objectives. I take no pride in cheesing the mission. I’d prefer functional stealth and/or empowering combat, but it simply worked much better than anything else I was trying.
My Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora demo ended with a visit to the Hometree, which had a warm, cozy, communal feeling to it, with plenty of Na’vi NPCs to interact with. This hinted at a more social, story-driven side to the game I didn’t really get to experience during my demo. The Avatar movies deftly use character-based drama to hold their big set pieces and action scenes together, but I’ll need more time to find out if that’s the case with this game.
Current Thoughts on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
During my hands-on time, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora soared to some lofty heights, although it didn’t always manage to stay in the clouds. The scope of the game’s world is impressive, but the fine details don’t always hold up to closer scrutiny. Exploration, platforming, and flying are fun and exhilarating, but anything involving combat is somewhat worrisome. Clearly, I’ve only scratched the surface of Ubisoft and Massive’s new world and certain things I didn’t love about the demo may click with time. I’m still keen to further explore the Western Frontier and find out if this is the true-blue Avatar adventure the franchise has always felt like it deserved.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora launches on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and PS5 on December 7. Expect a review from Wccftech prior to launch.