It’s no surprise that James Cameron’s Avatar has clawed back into relevance in recent years. Not only did a sequel to the highly successful original movie come out in 2022, but a very impressive theme park world based on Pandora opened in Disney’s Animal Kingdom back in 2016. With the flora and fauna of Pandora being so vibrant and interesting in the films, the switch to a modern video game only makes sense. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora takes a lot of inspiration from some of our favorite open-world games and uses the exciting environments of an alien world as a vibrant backdrop to explore.
We had the chance to spend two hours hands-on with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora before the launch and are incredibly excited to record some of our experiences here for you. There is a lot to explore in the world of Pandora and it really feels like we have only scratched the surface of what this alien planet has to offer.
Our gameplay experience with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was broken up into a few sections of the main storyline with several missions cut out in the middle to save time and ensure we got to see all of the best parts the game had to offer. There was a lot of variety between each leg of the story, so we got a chance to try a little bit of everything there is to do on Pandora.
“There is a lot to love about exploring Pandora…”
The first objective was to locate and then collect mangrove hive nectar, something that can be used in a ritual to help revive the queen of the Kinglor, a species of large moths that are incredibly important to the Na’vi and have been sick for some time with no signs of improvement. Exploring the wilds of Pandora is the key element of the game, and while trying to find the nectar for this mission there is a good amount of time spent getting used to the controls, the world and the way different flora affects your character.
As a whole, the game controls more similarly to Horizon Zero Dawn than any of the Assassin’s Creed games (the inclusion of bows as weapons definitely enhances this) even though the game is played in first person instead of third. It is a little upsetting that you don’t get to see too much of your Na’vi character while playing, especially since the final game will boast a character creator. The occasional glimpse of blue hands while running and climbing just isn’t quite enough to evoke the feeling of playing as a completely different species, even if the movement is fluid and enjoyable.
There is a lot to love about exploring Pandora, there are so many gorgeous, alien and often bio-luminescent plants to see. Each of them makes strange sounds if someone comes too close, and while some of the plants might explode on contact, or poison those nearby, others offer benefits like a boost of speed. It’s a lot of fun experimenting with different plants and finding out what they do, and the more time spend in the world, the easier it is to recognise what plants you are nearby sound alone.
There’s even more exploring to do in the next mission where players scale the top of the Ikran rookery with the hopes of being chosen by one of them, unlocking the ability to fly around the map on its back. There was a lot of joy to be found in climbing the structure, the area felt very well designed and showed off the floating mountains of Pandora exceptionally, which is one of the most memorable elements of the world for certain.
Reaching the top also means getting your very own Ikran, which you can then call at any time with the push of a button and take off into the sky. The flying controls were very easy to pick up, and a lot of games struggle with full 3D movement, so that is a blessing. I personally still preferred walking, as I found the scenery on the ground more interesting than in the sky, but flying is a lot faster and it’s still possible to use weapons while on the back of your Ikran which is incredibly badass.
The next big portion of our Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora preview was where the game let me down a little. It takes place largely in a plant being run by the RDA (a human military group based on Pandora) where the goal is to disable some of the large machines around to prevent them from further harming the Kinglor population.
While it does play well, it just felt the same as stealth missions in many other open-world games I’ve played, and I was hoping that playing as a Na’vi would feel different, that I would feel larger, more agile, but for the most part it never even felt like I was 10 feet tall.
Something about playing as a ten-foot-tall blue alien, and walking around in a crouch walk that would barely even make them the height of an average human as if that would keep them from being seen, felt silly. However, this was also the area where I discovered the slide, and how jumping off a ramp, hitting the ground and moving into a slide sends you slipping incredibly far and fast as long as the surface you are on angles downward. This was so fun that the second I had access to the open world again, this was all I wanted to do.
The rest of the time was spent in the open world, hunting for whatever interesting plants I could find, freeing animals captured by the RDA and just getting lost in the world of Pandora. There is a lot to admire in the environment design of this game, everything feels incredibly alien and beautiful, regardless of what you are doing. Personally, my favorite area was the Ikran rookery, I loved the more curated experience of climbing to the top of the structure where all the most gorgeous elements of the environment were used to create a cohesive platforming experience, because as visually delicious as the flora and fauna are I’m not sure how long the novelty would last in an open world.
Though I guess we will find out how well it holds up in the full release of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora on 7 December for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, and Microsoft Windows.
Ubisoft flew the journalist to Sydney for this hands-on preview.