Call it ‘tried and trusted’, ‘well worn’, or ‘long established’. The familiar Ubisoft open-world formula is the obvious fit for quests in wonderous locations. And Massive Entertainment is the ideal studio to build, in captivating detail, the world of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Watch our Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora gameplay below
Within minutes of exploring the Kinglor Forest as Na’vi, any doubt we had over who was making Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was gone. The game feels like ‘Assassin’s Creed: Pandora’ meets ‘Far Cry: RDA. The framework that Massive invites us to explore, works out just fine. In fact, we wanted more.
The project has been underway for at least six years (it was announced in 2017). It was described as a major undertaking with Avatar’s director James Cameron at the helm. It even has his very own Lightstorm Entertainment film production company on board. We mention this because, at the very least, Frontiers objectively showcases an extraordinary amount of construction work from the many artists involved. A fair question might still be, is it fun to play?
“Explore”, “immerse”, and “adventure” are terms Cameron has used to describe goals for Frontiers. Going into our hands-on session, one concern was that “play” has become a dirty word for such a high-profile game. Play means we need more than interacting with plants and resource collecting. We need to play the game.
And so, it is a relief to find that the moment-to-moment flow of Frontiers is enjoyable. The desire to express your inner Na’vi is fueled by beyond-human actions that make you smile. Massive has the control feel just right, sensing that a powerful avatar is at your command. Strong limbs and the heart of a Thanator. It recalls the best moments of Assassin’s Creed parkour, but from a first-person perspective, against the backdrop of a gorgeous alien landscape. It draws you in.
Our time with the game lasted approximately 2hrs and was across four main missions. We played The Eye of Eywa, Take Flight, Those Who Guide Us, and Pushing Back. Between them, they gave a good impression of how the role-playing themes as the Na’vi are handled throughout Frontiers.
The Eye of Eywa mission is an unhurried, resource-finding trek through the Kinglor Forest— Kinglor being precious moth-like creatures that are now suffering. You are with the Aranahe clan, helping the leader’s daughter, Etuwa and Master Weaver, Nefika, to solve the mystery. Most of the time is spent adapting to the ‘Na’vi Sight’, which highlights waypoints and illuminates points of interest. In this case, mangrove hive nectar is used in Kinglor rituals. Everything spotted can be referenced in a Hunter’s Guide, presumably an AR wearable.
Alongside the nectar, you can harvest fruits with a simple mechanic. Frontiers is quite fond of such mechanics, which later include hacking control panels and local computer networks. It’s a meditative pastime, brought to life by sprinting along the great roots of the mangrove trees and using vines to hoist yourself higher. A taster for the more daredevil exploits soon to come.
Take Flight is the mission which really taps into the dream of becoming Na’vi as seen in the Avatar movies. It is a breathtaking ascent of the iconic floating mountains to subdue and form a lifelong bond with an Ikran; the dragon-like Na’vi steed.
During this long and dramatic sequence, plants like the Mermaid Tail catapult your avatar between platforms. Gateway Lilly blocks the path ahead until triggers are found and activated. A short cave section is lit by luminescent flora within. They look magical. Massive has done a super job of interpreting the movie world as an exhilarating playground.
A male warrior named Eetu guides you through the ritual, ultimately hurling you off a ledge and forcing you to call to the Ikran while freefalling. This is one example of how Frontiers uses narrative segments to link the action, showcasing more movie-like 3D modelling and animation that brings Pandora to life. The main NPC Na’vi all talk and gesture convincingly.
Though we didn’t spend long on the menus, we did briefly inspect the Skill Tree for our Na’vi, which are based around Ancestor Memories. Sort of like genetic capabilities, we remember and master. Categories include Hunter, Warrior, Survivor, and Maker.
For example, investing in Experience Points can boost tactical awareness and limit the noise made by footsteps for stealth purposes. Maker skills improve the quality of crafted gear and weapons or extend the benefits of consumables. Your Ikran also gets a Skill Tree of its own, for resilience and greater aerial prowess.
In the Those Who Guide Us mission, Etuwa outlines what’s at stake in the struggle between Na’vi and the Sky People. “If we do not fight, we will lose everything. We did not want war, but they have made us warriors.” This purely narrative interlude is staged as a cut scene, with no interaction, but at the end of which a new bow recipe to craft is unlocked among rewards. If you’ve bought into the RPG aspect of Frontiers, tailored weaponry is exciting.
So, a few words on some of the problems we faced during the demo, in case all of this reads overly positive (while some reports might claim otherwise). Our first hands-on mission, The Eye of Eywa, takes place some hours after the opening scenes of the game in which tutorials play an important role. We struggled to make sense of the User Interface (UI), particularly the Na’vi Sight, and match up the brief objective descriptions with points on the Map. Additionally, some of the mechanics, such as harvesting and weapon/tool selection, were less than intuitive. Even though we were playing in Guided Mode, with the most assistance, all tutorial aspects did seem lacking. The Gateway Lilly puzzle was especially baffling.
One, undeniable, downside to Frontiers which I am sure will be fixed within the release version, is the overly long travel times between some locations. This is something that Fast Travel—a mainstay of Ubisoft’s open-world—may resolve. However, FT was not a feature of the demo.
Now, all that being said, by the time we launched into Pushing Back, the final mission in the demo, we felt very much ‘in the zone’. We had already tackled some light combat with RDA units on the ground, and some aerial battles against Scorpion Gunship patrols. We had also invested some Skill upgrades to silence footsteps, amplify damage and boost ammo capacity.
Pushing Back is how it feels to be that warrior: bones reinforced with carbon fibre armour that is very hard to kill. Your Ikran is also key to mission success, which adds to the action.
It helped to swoop onto RDA aerial devices which are floating platforms that have been disturbing the Kinglor food cycle in the woods below. More Scorpion Gunship battles kept us on our toes. Clearing the way to scan and then sabotage the control panels. Since there are quite many of these enemies guarding the platforms, accuracy is important. They can be brought down in stages, targeting gunners first then the engines that go up in smoke. It feels great.
The final ‘push’ takes place within a Hydro-Oil Extractor Outpost, a filthy industrial complex. During our attempt, the area was soaked in torrential rain, with fine mist obscuring all the structures and RDA guards. This allowed us to strike weak points on bigger targets using the bow, only switching to the rifle when the action became more heated in close quarters.
In essence, Pushing Back is about activating switches affecting Drill Towers, Water Pipelines, and Internal Generators, all the while systematically taking apart the outpost defences. It is a tremendous set-piece encounter, with explosions triggered as alarms ring and lights flash.
Classic James Cameron cinematic presentation with you orchestrating the unfolding of the chaos. It’s the kind of mission well suited to a time-limited challenge mode, managed to perfection.
The misery rained down on the RDA is amplified by their panicked radio chatter and cries of frustration. You can cause, and capitalise upon, so much confusion amid the devastation.
As lasting impressions go, Pushing Back is up there with the best sci-fi shooters from recent decades. The control feel is phenomenal. The VFX is often stupendous. The sound design is magnificent, and the orchestral score is calming or hair-raising exactly when needed.
If you are somebody who appreciates the direction taken by the newest Assassin’s Creed entry, perhaps also fond memories of Far Cry 5, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora should be on your list of must-have games due December. Usual ‘downgrades’ apply, but we can only trust that Massive Entertainment will deliver on the promise of this demo.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is set to launch on 7 December for PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC.
Thanks to Paul Davies for helping us with this awesome hands-on preview.