Since the reveal of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora in 2021, I’ve been curious how The Division developer Ubisoft Massive will take on this property, one of the most financially successful movie franchises in the world, and translate it into a video game. Knowing Ubisoft’s pedigree, I imagined what Frontiers of Pandora might look like: something between Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. After a special behind-closed-doors presentation during Ubisoft’s summer gaming event, I can say I was spot on.
Most interesting to me, instead of controlling an Avatar, which is meant to resemble Pandora’s native Na’vi, players control an actual Na’vi. As for how this ties into director James Cameron’s movie universe, your Na’vi, which you can customize in a player creator, is kidnapped as a child in the year 2138 by The Ambassador Program, a subset of the villainous Resources Development Administration from both Avatar movies.
Instead of living as intended, The Ambassador Program trains your Na’vi in human ways. But then the first movie’s events happen, driving the RDA off Pandora. However, before abandoning ship, The Ambassador Program is ordered to kill all kidnapped Na’vi, but your teacher refuses, instead locking you away to cryosleep. You wake up 15 years later, finally ready to learn about your heritage and become one with Pandora, all while the RDA returns to try again to mine it for resources.
Mechanically, this story setup means you’ll use Na’vi weapons, like long and short bows and spear throwers, and RDA weapons, like assault rifles and rocket launchers in first-person gameplay. Your first step on this new journey is to prove to your Na’vi tribe that you belong. That includes participating in the ceremonial trip to the Rookery, where you imprint on an Ikran, the flying mountain banshees of Pandora.
Game director Ditte Deenfeldt says you can customize your Ikran companion, from its head ornament to its color, as well as flying streamers and riding attire. In this open-world version of Pandora, or more specifically, a brand-new region called the Western Frontier, players can ride mounts through large open fields down below, attack an RDA outpost, then hop on their Ikran and take to the skies, where they can fly through the nooks and crannies of the towering (and sometimes floating) mountains of Pandora. There’s aerial combat, too, so you can also take down RDA airships on the back of an Ikran.
Deendfeldt says taking down outposts, which in the brief gameplay snippets I saw reminded me most of the enemy-ridden outposts in the Assassin’s Creed series that serve as miniature combative sandboxes, will have an immediate effect on the surrounding lands of Pandora. These facilities pollute the areas they’re in, and destroying them allows nature to reclaim them. That translates to new resources for you to collect, and it looks like nature will overtake the abandoned machinery of outposts, turning once mechanical monstrosities into havens for wildlife and fauna to thrive again. I’m especially excited to see fauna light up with bioluminescence at night, thanks to the game’s day and night cycle.
You use resources you collect across the Western Frontier to craft new items, upgrade your current repertoire, and create new dishes to cook and eat for status effects and bonuses. All of this ties into the RPG nature of Frontiers Of Pandora, which includes ability trees to fill out alongside Na’vi customization that affects your head, waist, arms, and legs.
Visually, the game looks good, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Cameron’s movies; I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation to have, though. What matters most is the execution of gameplay, and I didn’t get to go hands-on with the game. The gameplay snippets I saw looked solid – Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry fans will likely notice it looks familiar – but I want to see if controlling a towering and powerful 10-foot Na’vi makes a third trip to Pandora worth the wait.