Video game adaptations of movies are notoriously difficult to make, in part because it’s hard to capture a movie’s most defining features in gameplay. Fortunately, Ubisoft’s upcoming Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora knows exactly what would make a video game adaptation of James Cameron’s movies fun: taking players to the moon of Pandora and giving them the feeling of running through its flora and fauna and soaring through its floating mountains.
The first-person action game, launching Dec. 7, takes place between the 2009 and 2022 movies, and puts the player in control of a Na’vi who was taken from their tribe and raised by the human-run Resources Development Administration (RDA), then put into cryosleep. After several years away, the player’s custom Na’vi emerges and reconnects with their tribe, only to find it very difficult to fit in. But when the RDA returns, the Na’vi clans need the help of every warrior they can get, so the player reluctantly gets taken back into the fold. All of this provides an interesting setup for the game, and illustrates a colder side of the Na’vi that we’ve never really seen them show toward their own kind before.
The original Avatar sold Pandora with a combination of incredible CGI and meticulous world-building, and Frontiers of Pandora is taking a similar approach. Despite my three hours with the game being played on Ubisoft’s remote play servers, it still looked fantastic (aside from some occasional choppiness on the part of the servers), with Pandora’s bright colors shining through the gorgeous jungles. But what was most impressive was how much the atmosphere feels like the Pandora of the movies. There’s an impressive density of plants that each react to your presence, there are twists of trees for you to climb and jump through, and there are dozens of species of Pandoran animals that make the forests feel alive in ways that the movies could only hint at.
Moving through forests, jumping between tree branches, and climbing floating mountains all capture the speed and energy of the movies. The Na’vi movement is fast and frenetic without ever feeling out of control or slippery, and the ability to double jump goes a long way toward imitating the films’ impressive action sequences.
The best part of my few hours with the game was the Ikran, the flying creature that we see film protagonist Jake Sully and his clan of Na’vi bond with in the first movie. In one of the game’s early missions, the player gets to climb high into the floating mountains to bond with an Ikran of their own. You can call on it anytime and anywhere you want; there was nothing better than jumping off cliffs and getting caught on my way down by my own personal Ikran soaring through the sky. It’s also a nice way to travel around the huge and dangerous world from objective to objective.
These missions are where Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora starts to get a little more complicated. The combat itself is convincingly kinetic, capturing the feeling of some of the best sequences in the movies. But structurally, the game seems more or less identical to any of Ubisoft’s recent Far Cry games. It has crafting, several hub cities, outposts around the world, bow combat, and very similar stealth mechanics. If you’ve played an entry in the series since Far Cry 3, chances are that the missions in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will feel awfully familiar — lots of destroying outposts or breaking into compounds.
In the few missions I played, I climbed a mountain to bond with my Ikran and destroyed an RDA base, both of which were a lot of fun. But it’s easy to imagine that missions like these could get old fast, as they often did in recent Far Cry games. Hopefully the full game will have a stronger variety of missions and evolve the combat beyond simply assaulting similar-feeling structures.
For now, Massive Entertainment seems to have nailed Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora’s most important baseline features. Being on Pandora feels like being transported into an Avatar movie. Whether you’re running around the world, flying high into the clouds, or taking out RDA mechs with a bow, every bit of moving around and experiencing the game world as a Na’vi is fun and exciting.