Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora preview - Ubi template goes blue with satisfying results
Exploring the world of Pandora - really exploring it - through the eyes of a Na’vi has long been something I’d hoped we’d get the opportunity to do ever since Ubisoft’s first foray into James Cameron’s world back in 2009.
Add to that the mesmerising performances and visuals on show in Avatar: The Way of Water alongside my dreams of visiting The World of Avatar at Disney, and it’s safe to say that my hopes for Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora have been incredibly high.
During a recent two-hour preview session, I got a glimpse into Ubisoft’s painstakingly recreated version of Pandora, which sets you free in an utterly strange, beautiful, and completely alien world that left me with more sense of wonder than I’ve felt in quite some time.
On Pandora (and more specifically, the Klingor Forest where our playthrough was limited to), it’s immediately apparent that all the hallmarks of what makes a Ubisoft game an Ubisoft game are here. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry in recent years, I have a feeling you’ll be right at home here.
Guided or Exploration Mode makes a return from AC (the former of which was my only option here), and you’ll use this by utilising your Eagle Vision, sorry, Na’vi Senses, with a button prompt that highlights important quest locales with a shining beacon of light.
Once you’re here, though, you’ll need to hunt around for a specific location, item, or person, taking away any complete hand-holding to make sure you’re really connected to the environment - and what a gorgeous one it is.
Ubisoft has hit the nail on the head when it comes to crafting a beautiful, believable recreation of Pandora, and gameplay aside, it’s a wonder to explore. While first-person perspectives are not my typical choice (aside from third-person when flying an Ikran; more on that later) it really does add to the sense of spectacle on offer.
As Helicoradian plants flump into the ground when getting too close to them, and Mermaid Tails launch you up into the air to other areas when walking over them, I found myself using my Na’vi Senses at every turn to learn about Puffball Trees that explode gas upon shooting them and the other utterly alien flora and fauna on show.
Some free-running is present here too - though not quite in the capacity of Assassin’s Creed - and you’ll be able to jump and climb from tree to tree or cliff to cliff while darting throughout the world.
To gun, or not to gun
RPG mechanics from other Ubisoft games take the form of skill trees, different weapons, and plenty of optional areas to explore off of the beaten path. There are small minigames when harvesting plants (which can be used in crafting or cooking) that use the thumbstick, and hacking sequences that can feel somewhat frustrating to line up correctly before completing a run of the mill ‘complete the circuit’ loop.
Fast travel, of course, is to be expected, and at one point I was able to wait at a campfire to progress the day to the correct point for the quest too - as I said, all the hallmarks are here from the well-worn template for open world games that Ubisoft set a decade and a half ago.
All of this is the usual standard fare that you’d come to expect; with skill points helping you to remain undetected, recover health, or provide additional boons for your trusty Ikran; all presented in the veneer of a tall, blue alien.
Combat against the RDA (humans) or hostile wildlife feels pretty good, too, and as someone who recoils at my own inability to be unable to land a shot correctly, whether I was using an RDA weapon like an Assault Rifle or a Na’vi bow, I was surprised at how easy it felt to land a shot (I may have even ‘YES-ed’ out loud at one point).
Speaking of combat, you’re also able to approach a situation in a number of ways. In one of the biggest combat sections of my demo, you’re sent into an RDA base to try and thwart their control of the area by interacting with certain objectives.
I died here a few times (surprise surprise), but took it as a chance to approach the area slightly differently: The first time I tried to run and gun, but that didn’t work. The second time I opted for flying right in with my Ikran, but that was just a terrible idea. Lastly, and the one that worked best for me, I entered stealth mode - not literally - and snuck around.
I’d previously put points into being quieter when moving, so this was ultimately the best choice for me. If there’s more of this in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, I’ll be happy, as it’s always great to feel like you’ve got some sense of agency when approaching a situation.
Flight of the Ikran
One of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora’s showstoppers is a quest that I experienced halfway through my gameplay demo, sending you off to the Ikran Rookery to bond with your own trusty winged beast - it wouldn’t be an Avatar game without it, after all.
This section had me navigating up a huge winding path leading high into the sky, and it’s here that the freerunning mechanics (though again, I’ll use this term somewhat loosely) come into their own.
Movement throughout Pandora feels fluid, and jumping from set piece to set piece as you run through plants that bestow speed boosts, bouncing off of gigantic mushrooms to gain air, and unlocking doors that are opened by destroying connected lilypads was a total treat here as the music tinkers away in the background for a cinematic self-insert moment that we’ve all seen in the movie franchise.
This was the highlight of my time with Frontiers of Pandora - that’s not to diminish the other sections I played - and I imagine it’ll be a moment I remember fondly when playing the game in the future, too.
As you bond with your Ikran after a series of failed attempts that send you further and further up into the clouds, you’re finally bonded and can choose your Ikran’s name before being able to take to the skies, and it has to be said: Flying an Ikran is nothing short of spectacular.
While we’ve had an Avatar game before, nothing has come quite as close to reaching the awe of those breathtaking scenes from the films. Here, Ubisoft gets pretty close. As you rise, fall, dive, and feed your Ikran while zipping through the skies of Pandora, it feels incredibly tactile and easy to control. Aerial combat exists here, too, and you’re able to use the same weaponry as you are on land for a fully fluid experience.
My only qualm is how long that sense of wonder I felt while zipping through the skies (in third-person) on the Ikran will last, if at all, and whether or not I’ll end up using fast travel options to get from point A to B instead - so it’ll be interesting to see what else Ubisoft may have up its sleeve here
While I’m very aware that the sprawling nature of some Ubisoft games has left me feeling a bit fatigued in the past, and that it’s very possible that the mystique and magic of Pandora itself may fade over time, I came away from Frontiers of Pandora very much wanting to continue to play.
I didn’t quite feel as if I was able to get a sense just yet of how alive the world feels aside from a couple of random encounters and a derelict RDA base that had been reclaimed by the planet with all manner of flora and hostile creatures there, but it’s incredibly promising nonetheless.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, I See You - and so far, I’m here for it.
For more content, be sure to check out what we thought of Assassin's Creed Mirage in our review.