Back in 2009, James Cameron provided us with one of the weirdest moments of E3 when, during the Ubisoft press conference, he managed to go on and on for what seemed like forever about his ideas for a game based on his dream of Avatar, without ever showing anything other than a logo. Up to that point, Avatar had been swimming in the famed movie director’s mind for decades, but technology, it seemed, wasn’t up to snuff for his vision.
At that time, the first movie was close to being released and it was the best time to strike with a tie-in game. In December of that year, the film that starred blue cat-like people who lived in a jaw-droppingly gorgeous world went on to break box office records all over the globe, turning into a multi-billion dollar franchise that Fox hoped to cash in on for, well, ever.
But things didn’t quite work out as they hoped when it came to Ubisoft, and the first official videogame of the movie franchise turned out quite mediocre. It took fourteen years until we finally got to see a decent, and in this case, a surprisingly great title like Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Developed by a cadre of Ubisoft-owned studios such as Massive Entertainment in conjunction with Fox’s 20th Century Games, it is easily one of the most visually impressive licensed games, and even though it is generally derivative of Far Cry for most of its moment-to-moment gameplay, it’s one of the better of those for sure.
In the game you play as a na’vi raised by humans and part of a research team headed by the RDA (Resources Development Administration) the company who’s responsible for much of the chaos in the movies and the main antagonist of the locals of Pandora. After escaping captivity and joining the resistance, you begin to develop your inert skills and as a member of a long lost influential tribe among the na’vi, it’s up to you to drive back those who seek to exploit your home planet.
Frontiers of Pandora takes place both concurrently and after the original film, where Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully, is the leader of the resistance, and you get to hear a lot about his exploits as you play the game. But don’t worry, there aren’t any big Hollywood names outside of Cameron’s to bog things down with less than stellar performances. Instead, you get to interact with a host of new characters, and they more or less fit their roles as both quest givers and all manner of crafting stations and shops.
While none of the secondary participants to the story really manages to stick out as anything particularly noteworthy, it has to be said that the story that drives the game is surprisingly entertaining to follow. I’m not exactly a fan of the source material in any way, so I was initially lost when starting Frontiers of Pandora, and the game doesn’t do a great job easing you in, throwing a lot of names and acronyms as soon as it starts. After its initial moments, though, and all throughout your escape to freedom, and the more you engage with the world, it all opens up and serves to provide the lore incentives to carry you through this open-world adventure.
Pandora itself is a visual spectacle, full of lush and colorful locations to jump around in. And given its unique nature, I was enraptured by the amount of things there are to scan and learn more about, not to mention try to climb to the top of. As a “Far Cry like” if you will, Frontiers of Pandora provides plenty to want to strive towards, especially due to the fact that you don’t play as your run-of-the-mill generic human protagonist, but as a na’vi. Besides being about double the height of any grunt you come across, you are far stronger from the very get-go, and are able to fling any poor sucker who’s dumb enough to stand in your way.
It’s a power fantasy that extends to other enemies as well. Armed with a bow from the very beginning, you are able to take out mech suits as if they were made of paper, and things only escalate in terms of abilities the more you level up and spend the points you earn completing quests and such. There are skill trees you can invest in that are focused on different aspects such as hunting, gathering, fighting and stealthing about, and it’s all generally very useful and fun to put to use.
Then there are the powers that are ancestral and have to be found and picked up all across the game’s big ol’ map, and those turn you into an unstoppable murder machine, allowing you to traverse the lush forests of Pandora even quicker than your initial form, such as the double jump that you earn before the game even throws in its title card. These serve as rewards for exploring and they certainly provide lots of clever challenges in getting to them, forcing you to use all the tools you have at your disposal both in and outside of your equipment.
The greenery around you provides plenty of paths to take if you are keen on finding them, such as vines you can propel yourself upward with, and conches you use as platforms to reach otherwise inaccessible locations. Truth be told, the world has been designed to make that a thing, but it feels organic enough not to make that obviously apparent, hiding tools in plain sight you can just as easily run past and not even notice if you don’t know what to look for.
That’s where your na’vi senses come in, the Frontiers of Pandora’s version of detective vision, or concentration, depending on how you’re used to seeing it in other games. By using it, elements in the environment are dimly highlighted and can be scanned in order to be added to your log, as well as quest objectives and other markers. It also comes into play during hunting, as you can use it to track the scent of prey, as well as when an investigation plays out, where it helps you find clues and such.
This wouldn’t be an open-world game without any sort of crafting system, and there’s plenty of that to be done here. You can put materials to use when making ammo for your na’vi weapons as well as armor and other tools. They come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and generally have a quick skill-based gathering mechanic tied to them, just so it’s not just a brainless affair filling your pockets full of consumables.
These minigames of sort also come into play when you are hacking, when you are tasked with carefully squeezing the controller’s triggers in order to fill in circles in your HUD, something that might sound annoying at first, but quickly becomes second nature the more of it that you do.
Aside from your array of useful na’vi paraphernalia, you can also use the humans’ weapons, such as assault rifles and shotguns, and while you aren’t able to craft ammo for them, it’s readily available from the RDA forces that you face off against at just about every corner of Pandora. The bow remains one of the most versatile and powerful of the bunch, though, not to mention by far the weapon with the quickest recharge, and in terms of arrows, they can be crafted using plants that are found just about everywhere.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is the sort of tie-in game that does its source material justice while providing an enjoyable gameplay loop that will keep you entertained for quite a while. No doubt, it feels derivative in the way its structure is without a doubt built like a modern day Ubisoft product, with bases to take over, upgrade paths to take and increasingly busier maps with elements to check off a list.
But it’s the sheer lushness of Cameron’s creation that makes it stand out, as is the manner in which it also provides some of the most fun means of traversal and combat that you are likely to find in any other first-person open-world game. Those who are fans of the movies are surely to get an extra kick out of this as Pandora is beautifully realized and there to be explored to their hearts’ content.