Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora mostly captures the films’ spirit
9 mins read

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora mostly captures the films’ spirit

Has any movie franchise ever been a better fit for the open-world video game genre than Avatar? I mean, who doesn’t dream of exploring the rich forests and awe-inspiring sky mountains of Pandora? The film franchise’s world is so captivating that it famously led to “post-Avatar depression” from viewers who were pained to return to our comparatively gray world. Though we’ll never get to explore the filmic world, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora could be the next best thing.

Following a forgettable adaptation in 2009, the upcoming Avatar video game looks like a high-effort attempt to revitalize the series’ interactive potential. It’s a big-budget open-world adventure developed by The Division studio Massive Entertainment and published by Ubisoft. It certainly looks the part, bringing the world of Pandora to life with lush environments and vibrant colors, but Avatar is more than its setting. Could the same open-world formula used in games like Far Cry really match the unique feel of James Cameron’s universe?

After playing two hours of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, I’m sure that answer may leave fans split. The upcoming release undoubtedly captures much of Avatar’s spirit thanks to an inviting open world that’s a joy to hop around. What’s a little less clear is how well its action–packed battles will fit with an otherwise gentle game about respecting life.

Open-world platforming

My demo would drop me into a small slice of Pandora, an already massive open-world map made bigger with the inclusion of sky islands (just like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom). From the moment I loaded in, I was in awe of my surroundings. Every inch of ground is lined with some kind of plant, whether it be colorful flowers or thick patches of grass. It’s one of the most richly detailed open worlds I’ve ever seen. It’s not a flat land full of obvious paths for players to follow, but a true natural wilderness that naturally sprawls out in every direction.

My first real mission would quickly prove that the impressive design isn’t just for show. After exploring a bit, I’d set out on a mission to tame an Ikran, which I hoped to use as a flying mount. I’d be thrown into a long, combat-less mission where I had to move through a platforming gauntlet up the side of a mountain. As I moved, I’d bounce on mushrooms, grab vines in midair to pull myself up and balance across thick tree roots to cross connected islands.

An Ikran flies over Pandora in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.Ubisoft

There’s not a moment of traditional action during the sequence, but it’s a thrilling experience. It almost feels like I’m playing a classic 3D platformer mixed with Horizon: Call of the Mountain. Traversal. I smoothly traverse an intricately detailed environment, mastering the nuances of Pandora’s unique architecture like a true Na’vi. It’s that mission where I immediately feel like Massive Entertainment has something special on its hands, turning one of cinema’s most striking worlds into a worthy interactive playground.

That sense of awe doubles once I actually befriend an Ikran. I jump from the side of the mountain and press up on the D-pad to call my new pal to me. It swoops in and grabs me out of midair, giving me a moment to admire the vast world ahead of me with all its vertical space to explore. Ikran riding is an immediate joy, though it takes getting used to. Flight revolves around maintaining momentum through dives and boosts. It’s not easy to pull off right out of the gate, which can make flying feel a little slower than expected. I imagine that’ll just take some getting used to; after all, I’m new in town.

Lights, camera, action

That Ikran flight would gradually lead me into some of the adventure’s more action-focused elements. When I spot some mechanical rigs in the sky, I land on them and complete a scanner minigame to reveal some explosive batteries on board. Before I can detonate them, a few drones take aim at me. I break out some arrows and knock them out of the sky with ease before firing at the batteries, jumping on my Ikran, and sailing away from the explosion. It’s a true Hollywood moment.

Combat would become more of an emphasis as I launched into my next missions — and that’s where cognitive dissonance would start to creep in. The big set piece of my two-hour session came when I was tasked with sabotaging a mechanical outpost in the forest. After a failed first attempt to run in with arrows blazing, I’d get a feel for Frontiers of Pandora on a stealthier approach. I snuck through a complex structure, hiding from guards and mechs alike as I shut down drills. I got to do more strong 3D platforming here as I scaled the side of a massive metal structure. Like the previous mission, it’s a spectacular blockbuster spectacle as I quickly move between valves and leave explosions in my wake.

An Ikran flies towards a ship in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.Ubisoft

All that noise would eventually alert local soldiers, which would give me a chance to use my arsenal. The protagonist is unique in that they were trained as a soldier by the RDA before escaping and embracing their Na’vi heritage. That means they can use both Na’vi weapons and realistic guns. As crap hit the fan, I started picking weapons off of mechs like I was Horizon’s Aloy and gunning down human soldiers with a machine gun. My favorite tool would let me lob grenades at enemies as if I were throwing them from a lacrosse stick. It’s all as slick and responsive as you’d expect from a modern first-person shooter.

Therein lies the complication. When I’m not in battle, Frontiers of Pandora is a peaceful experience that honors the fictional Na’vi’s traditions. When I pick a resource off a tree, I have to carefully complete a minigame to protect the precious material. Grabbing resources from an animal isn’t as simple as pressing a button over its corpse. If I kill a critter and strip it for parts, I kneel for a moment and offer a quick thank you to its spirit for helping me on my journey. It’s a unique subversion of the usual open-world gluttony and one that entirely fits with the tone of the Avatar films.

And so it’s a little odd when I violently gun down a pipsqueak alien with several machine gun rounds before giving thanks. During my outpost operation, I lobbed an arrow at a pipe, causing it to spew fire. I then watched as a human soldier that was under it ran around engulfed in flames, screaming as they died. It all feels weirdly at odds with the more gentle moments that had drawn me in up to that point — though I’d be lying if I said those high-octane moments didn’t feel thrilling.

A Na'vi draws their bow at a mech in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.Ubisoft

There’s a good chance those complicated feelings are simply a side effect of seeing disconnected chunks of a sprawling story out of context. The duality seems intentional, as this is a story about a character torn between worlds. It narratively makes sense that they’d bounce between peaceful Na’vi routine and human violence. Massive Entertainment has a delicate job on its hands in how it links those two stories together, lest it ends up with a game that struggles to have its guns and shoot them too.

Two hours was enough to give me a feel for Frontiers of Pandora’s broad strokes, but there’s still plenty more to explore. I hardly messed with its multiple skill trees, crafting, or gear mod systems. I only got a quick glimpse at some open-world side activities too as I hunted down photo locations and solved a mystery at a helicopter crash site by linking together clues. The best moments draw on my heightened senses as I track down a lost electronic device by following its sound in the quiet night. I once again feel like a Na’vi in those sequences, tuning into their home world to gain a deeper connection with it. Hopefully, the story will mirror that growth too, weaning me away from my violent video game instincts so I can find peace in Pandora.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora launches on December 7 for PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Amazon Luna.

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