I’m struggling to come to terms with the truth here, but it has in fact been 14 years since Avatar originally hit cinemas in 2009. The digitally generated visuals were mind-blowing at the time and, having recently gone back for a rewatch, are still impressive over a decade later. James Cameron’s insane ambition was admirable, but I, along with many others, had doubts that the 2022 sequel could recapture the interest after so much time had passed. The joke was on the naysayers in the end, as Way of Water now sits only two spots below the original as the third highest grossing film in history, proving that the Avatar IP is a true giant.
Considering this outlandish success, it’s wild that we’ve seen so few video game adaptations, outside of a middling movie tie-in game that released alongside the first film. Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment is looking to correct this with the first game set in this universe since 2009, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Coming from the team behind The Division, Frontiers of Pandora is a first-person action title with an original story and a huge fanbase to appease. Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the Ubisoft Sydney Office to go hands-on with Frontiers of Pandora for around three hours, completing a handful of missions, combating the RDA (Resources Development Administration for you non blue folk), and exploring the world of Pandora.
Set just prior to the events of Way of Water, Frontiers of Pandora takes place in the previously unexplored continent of the Western Frontier.
The player character, a fully customisable Na’vi, was abducted by the RDA and raised by the invading human settles in an Avatar fashioned mirroring of the real world attroscities committed by colonisers, including here in Australia.
The AMPs (Amplified Mobility Platform) are formidable, but it’s nothing a few exploding arrows can’t fix
It’s due to this upbringing that the protagonist lives with one huge blue foot in either world, speaking fluent English with no hint of Na’vi accent and willing and able to wield human firearms, while also possessing the strength, speed, and natural abilities of the native people.
My hands-on time opened with a basic mission that introduced me to the jungles of the Western Frontier. Tasked with collecting a particular kind of nectar that was necessary to heal a native creature, I was set loose. Absolutely teeming with flora and fauna, the open world of Pandora is lush and vibrant. Glowing fungi, constricting vines, aggressive ferns, and other kinds of alien plant life can be found in every direction. I wasted heaps of time messing with the retracting orange plant that Jake Sully is amused by in the original movie, listening as they made movie-accurate sounds and retreated from my touch.
I learned that these satisfying shrubs are called Helicoradian Coils by scanning them with my Na’vi Sense, an ability similar to Assassin’s Creed’s Eagle Vision. Wandering around, scanning plants and creatures, I eventually happened upon the all-important nectar, harvesting it by moving the thumbstick and holding a face button. While I didn’t have time to invest in crafting, I understand that by taking extra time to properly gather resources, they’ll yield better combined results, with rarer resources being harder to harvest.
Your height is put into perspective when you stand next to a puny human
Having delivered the nectar to Etuwa and Nefika, two Na’vi central to the game’s plot, I was whisked away to my next adventure: taming my own Ikran. Those in the know will be aware that the Na’vi’s flying companions (known as Banshees to us human folk) don’t just relax on the forest floor, they live in rookeries, located high in the floating islands. Reaching my Ikran demanded some precise platforming, something I was a bit nervous about with the first-person perspective.
While I still think being able to see my nine-foot blue alien run, jump and fight in third person would be amazing, the first-person view does work. Thanks to feedback on the controller and some clever camera effects, I did feel like a towering extraterrestrial, which was only heightened when I encountered human enemies later in the preview. Climbing vines and running across tree limbs was what you would expect, but the Na’vi’s biology allow for a few extra tricks, such as a charged leap and a mid-air boost that aided in the climb.
After a few tense encounters with a particularly feisty Ikran, a bond was made, giving me the opportunity to name my mount from a list of human and native Na’vi options. The fact that I could name this beautiful beast Carol was a preview highlight. With my Banshee claimed, the inaugural flight commenced. Tearing though the Pandoran sky, the Ikran controls were smooth and responsive, allowing for fairly precise movements, including a barrel roll that I unlocked through the game’s skill tree.
Taking it to RDA choppers on the back of your Ikran is a blast
With no chance to take a breath, the next mission was upon me, thrusting my newly acquainted Ikran and I into aerial combat against RDA choppers. Using a longbow, with regular and explosive tips, I was dodging incoming fire and retaliating with my own. Switching to an assault rifle to pepper another incoming aircraft I quickly became confident in my in-air offense. The short encounter led into the final mission, which featured a healthy dose of on-foot fighting, but on the back of a Banshee is where the battles were best.
My time with Frontiers of Pandora culminated in an action-focused assault on an RDA base. Several levers needed to be pulled and wheels turned to take down the outpost, and I was given free reign to go in loud with the human machines of war or rely on my Na’vi bows and Staffsling to lay traps and stealthily snuff out my foes. This final objective felt very familiar, not unlike another Ubisoft franchise that cries far and wide every few years, but it was enjoyable, nonetheless.
The majority of the Na’vi weapons are bows, which are well-worn in games nowadays, but pulling back the string on an alien-sized rendition of the familiar weapon, you can feel the size and weight. The human weapons feel, well, they feel like human weapons, so I tended to reach for them less often, but they certainly did the job.
Liberating the outpost, my four missions were complete, so I was let loose to roam the preview area. I took on two short side missions that boiled down to go here, find this, and encountered a trapped animal that was guarded by RDA soldiers. It didn’t stay trapped for long. The open world activities, along with the game’s general rhythm, also felt decidedly Ubisoft and all too familiar at times. Which isn’t inherently a negative, but I’m curious to see if the formula can retain interest over the course of the game, especially given how well the setting and sound design already managed to cut through the familiarity.
The aerial combat was a highlight, and the feeling of being a huge, nimble alien had its own appeal, so I’ll be heading back to Pandora when the game releases to see if the full package can do the franchise justice.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora launches on PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC on December 7.