Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is the first time I’m interested in Avatar

I still have some questions about the gameplay loop, but there's a lot of potential here

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora key art

Confession time: I couldn’t care less about Avatar. Yes, I’m one of those people whose only “Avatar” is the brilliant Nickelodeon animated series.

Truthfully, I never understood the hype for the Avatar film in 2009, and rewatching it in theatres in 4K last year, I still didn’t like it much. As a result, I skipped Avatar: The Way of Water entirely.

I mention all of this because it means I’m going into Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Ubisoft Massive’s big-budget game set in Canadian filmmaker James Cameron’s blue people world, without one iota of affinity for the source material. Having said that, I actually am interested in this game for a number of reasons following a behind-closed-doors briefing in Los Angeles.

First and foremost: the narrative. Games, by virtue of their length and structure, simply afford artists the ability to tell longer-form stories than film. That doesn’t make them inherently better, of course, but in the case of Avatar, I think that has a lot of potential. For me, Cameron’s world is painfully boring, filled with dull characters and shallow lore. No amount of his gorgeous visuals and thrilling set pieces can make up for that, especially in the context of three-hour films.

Frontiers of Pandora, however, is far more appealing from a narrative perspective. Working alongside Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, Massive has created an original standalone story that spans the period of the first two Avatar films. For fans of Cameron’s work, you’ll appreciate that the game beings with our customizable Na’vi protagonist, being kidnapped by the Resources Development Administration (RDA) at a young age and trained to fight against your own people. However, Jake Sully’s battle with the military group in the first film gives your Na’vi teacher the opportunity to hastily put you into cryosleep, and you eventually awaken 15 years later (in 2169, coinciding with The Way of Water).

It’s an interesting premise, as Ubisoft is using it to explore what it’s like for a humanized Na’vi to reconnect with their roots. While this certainly has some thematic overlap with Jake Sully’s own journey, Frontiers of Pandora at least has the potential to take the idea of belonging to two worlds several steps further. It’s easy to see how there could be quite a bit of emotional resonance to be wrung out of a Na’vi being slowly welcomed back into their people and rediscovering their lineage.

Avatar: Frontiers of PandoraFor now, though, that dichotomy is evidently playing a role in the gameplay. According to Massive, your character’s knowledge of two worlds means they can efficiently wield two different kinds of weapons. From the human side, you’ll have your standard firearms, like rifles and shotguns, but your Na’vi half also makes you skilled with heavy bows, longbows, short bows, spear throwers and staff slings. What’s more, your Navi’s superhuman strength means you can perform takedown maneuvers like punching through a mech suit to yank out a soldier. In what bits of gameplay we were shown (ostensibly the same beats as the Forward presentation), it looks quite Far Cry-esque, so your mileage may vary on that. (I happen to like that formula.) Ubisoft promising that there are RDA outposts to conquer also won’t help with those comparisons, so hopefully, the final product stands out a bit more when it comes to combat encounters.

Where Frontiers of Pandora clearly does differentiate itself, though, is in its exploration. One thing about Avatar that even people like me can appreciate is the stunning tropical vistas, and Massive, leveraging the power of current-gen hardware, has whipped up some truly breathtaking and expansive regions.

In particular, the developer understands that part of the fantasy of Avatar is soaring through the skies atop the Mountain Banshees (Ikran), and so a key part of the game will involve you obtaining and customizing your own mount based on name, colour, attire, head ornaments and more. Ubisoft says it wants you to forge an emotional bond with your Ikran, so hopefully, that will happen over the course of the campaign in a similar vein to, say, horses in Red Dead Redemption 2. In any case, the ability to take to the skies is certainly new for Ubisoft.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora IkranBesides the aerial sections, Ubisoft is promising all sorts of reactive plants, wildlife and other opportunities in the open world. These include special flora for skill trees and harvesting materials for gear crafting and cooking. We didn’t get to see much of this, but Ubisoft made a rather intriguing comment about wanting to focus on quality rather than quantity when it comes to the kinds of ingredients you’re collecting. In other words, the developer doesn’t want you to have to just grab everything you see, which seems like a smart approach to a more purposeful world and less unwieldy inventory. Massive also teased a harvesting mini-game that affects the quality of the yield, although we didn’t get to see that in action. Still, the potential for a compelling gameplay loop focused on exploring different Pandora biomes for new rare materials is certainly there.

Ultimately, it’s clear that Massive has nailed the look and feel of Pandora, and other comments about exploration and combat certainly sound solid. As it stands, though, it’s less apparent how much the moment-to-moment gameplay will feel different from Ubisoft’s other open-world games, especially Far Cry, but for now, I’m much more curious to find out than I would have been.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora launches on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC and Amazon Luna on December 7th, 2023.

Image credit: Ubisoft