Avatar is a bizarre universe. It appears that almost everyone on planet Earth has seen both films, judging by their box office results – these are, after all, among the highest-grossing blockbusters of all time. That said, meeting an Avatar fan in a natural environment is almost a miracle. I have never talked to anyone about these productions, well, maybe briefly after the screening, praising the breathtaking views. There aren't many memes about this universe, or at least none that I can think of (consider how many memes you know from GTA). Even on AO3, the biggest fanfic site, there are 1000 (!) times fewer fan stories based on James Cameron's films compared to, for instance, Harry Potter. Interestingly, Astarion, the popular vampire from Baldur's Gate 3, has appeared in far more fan fictions than the entire Avatar cast...
For a long time, I've been curious whether this odd dynamic – we all watch Avatar films, but there’s hardly any community around them – will translate to Ubisoft's upcoming game. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was announced six years ago, so before The Way of Water. The mentioned FPS was intended to be released around the time of the movie premiere, but alleged issues with polishing the gameplay led to a one-year delay. Recently, I had the opportunity to play Frontiers of Pandora for two hours. And the game still remains a mystery to me.
It's nice, even... too nice?
In a two-hour demo, I saw quite a bit of Pandora. It started with collecting nectar for the spiritual guide of one of the Na'vi clans and ended with infiltrating the large RDA base, i.e. the evil corporation whose true face we saw in films. In the meantime, I managed to bond with an ikran, a kind of mini-dragon, which you may recognize from the cinema, and also complete a short detective quest.
And I know one thing for sure: Frontiers of Pandora will definitely be a game with stunning graphics. The colorful forests, the detailed character models, and the jaw-dropping landscapes, which beg you to take screenshots every few seconds, are a true wonder. Yes, the gaming version of Avatar will not differ from the original in this respect. That's good news because we can never get enough of beautiful games.
I intentionally wrote that the graphics are amazing because they’re also a bit... overwhelming. At first, I struggled to locate the specified targets, and it was also challenging for me to differentiate, for instance, Na'vi characters in the thick jungle. The confusion goes away after a while, especially when we start understanding how the Na'vi sense works, which helps to locate the mission objective. In Frontiers of Pandora the sense is quite unusual, so it takes some getting used to. The conflict between detailed visuals and clarity is nothing new – the more photorealistic games become, the more challenging it gets for developers to subtly indicate interesting locations or mission objectives. I wonder if the further we venture into the woods of Pandora, the easier it will get?
Gameplay versus the world
There were two moments in the demo that stuck in my memory. The first mission was about obtaining a flying mount. This was a long, beautiful, and well-designed sequence. We climb to the giant rock, the place where we will meet the mentioned ikrans. The simple environmental puzzles and great music accompanied me throughout the entire trip, and the beautiful landscapes, like in the movie Avatar, made an incredible impression. It was a fantastic and highly cinematic fifteen minutes of gameplay.
The second moment that I especially enjoyed was the infiltration of the enemy base, which was the finale of the demo. That's when I did most of the shooting, of course. I should also admit that I'm a veritable FPS geek. The base was huge, I've encountered many opponents, and I enjoyed shooting. We can use both Na'vi weapons, such as various bows, and the captured human arsenal, with the rifle at the forefront.
In this part of the demo, bows obviously worked better for stealthy approach, and firearms were more effective during intense shootings when the opponents had already discovered us. I liked that the soldiers in small mechs could be killed in two ways: classically – by reducing their health bar to zero – or by taking down the operator hidden behind armored glass. If we pierced through the shield, the driver would die from a single shot - a kind of equivalent to a headshot, only adapted to the realities of this universe. Great detail!
However, I can't remember any of the characters I've met along the way. Thanks to the materials attached by Ubisoft to the demo, I had no problem checking that these were, for instance, Etuwa or Ka’nat, but honestly, all the Na’vi merged into one stereotypical character for me. I have no idea what will happen next, but the fact that the game is backed by Ubisoft, which hasn't been on good terms with quality stories for a long time, doesn't give much hope for an epic and memorable tale.
Far Cry, is that you?
The association with Far Cry is pretty obvious, as Frontiers of Pandora actually resembles games from this series. However, after two hours, it's hard for me to say how many features from Ubisoft's flagship shooter will be found in this game. The specific humor and chill that characterizes Far Cry will definitely be missing. It will be replaced by the chest pounding known from movies, which doesn't make me happy. I'm one of those people who forgot about Avatar films a few days after watching them. Obviously, the Far Cry series can't boast any kind of fantastic story either, but that distinctive touch of madness and goofy humor gave it a specific character.
The Swedish studio Massive Entertainment, which has been part of Ubisoft since 2008, is behind Frontiers of Pandora. Its employees are shooter specialists, known from the well-received The Division series. The studio is still working on the second game under the license, Star Wars Outlaws, and also – only probably – on The Division 3.
It's hard for me to compare Avatar and Far Cry in terms of gameplay – I've simply haven’t seen enough of the game and on top of that these were the introductory fragments of the game. Indeed, I saw characteristic gameplay elements – collecting various herbs, destroying enemy outposts, or sneaking around forts. However, we must keep in mind that today, this is a norm in single-player shooters. What distinguishes Frontiers of Pandora from Far Cry is its vertical freedom – not only will we often fly on winged mounts, but we will also climb trees or gigantic rocks.
The feeling of controlling our character (which, by the way, we will be able to create ourselves) is also unique – the Na'vi, after all, are on average three meters tall, and you can really feel it. Especially when we visit human outpost. We can't use ladders because they are too small for us, but we can easily jump onto high buildings or walls.
Ultimately, I lacked a certain amount of freedom in this demo. An option for even a superficial but free exploration of this world would allow me to better assess what this game will actually be like. For now, I don't see the madness of Far Cry – and this madness, together with the open world, is the essence of the Far Cry series. I'm uncertain whether the lukewarm universe of Avatar will provide a suitable backdrop for an epic tale or a crazy open-world shooter. We don't have to wait long to find out, though. The game is slated for release on December 7. Will this be a good end of the year for Ubisoft?
Adam Zechenter | Gamepressure.com