The Direct got a sneak preview of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora ahead of its December 7 launch, and it is shaping up to be something special.
Officially unveiled at E3 2021, Frontiers of Pandora puts gamers into the shoes of an Avatar (a.k.a. a human scientist living their lives inhabiting the body of the native alien Na'vi on the fictional planet Pandora).
This franchise-canon story comes from Massive Entertainment (the team behind hits like The Division and the upcoming Star Wars: Outlaws) and was developed in partnership with the Avatar movie team to give players the most authentic Pandoran RPG experience.
In anticipation of the game, Ubisoft gave the press (including The Direct) just over two hours of gameplay, offering the chance to get a taste of the open world and several major story quests.
Far More Than a Far Cry
Some may look at Frontiers of Pandora and think of it as just another open-world Ubisoft game with an Avatar skin on it. After just our time with the title, it does not entirely shake that. It does, however, do enough to differentiate itself from some of its Ubisoft-developed peers.
The game it seems to share the most DNA with is Far Cry. Much of the time playing is spent hunting and gathering, crafting upgrades, and pouring over the vast skill trees, as one does in the Far Cry titles.
One story mission in particular felt like it was pulled straight out of Ubi's other survival-based action series. The sequence had players taking down a refinery operated by the villainous human-led RDA. There are multiple objectives to tackle and this compound can be taken on from any direction in any way the player deems fit in typical Far Cry fashion.
What makes Frontiers different is that the main character is a Na'vi and not the typical human Ubisoft protagonist. Being one of the hulking blue Pandoran aliens affords the gamer a move-set and toolkit that feels distinctly Avatar. The main character can power up a super-sized jump, slide up and down climbable vines, and skulk in the shadows with either a bow or an RDA assault rifle.
While most Far Cry encounters usually boil down to sitting on a cliff with a sniper or bow and taking every foe out before ever stepping foot behind enemy lines, it feels grear here to jump and climb that players are almost encouraged to dance around enemies rather than take them head-on.
This makes one feel like they are on a covert mission, and are truly outgunned in every way. Given how quickly an alerted enemy can kill the playable character, slinking into the shadows, and completing objectives without ever being seen feels like the most natural thing to do which is a far cry from the bombastic running and gunning of Ubisoft's other series.
Welcome to Pandora
Another highlight of our time with Frontiers of Pandora comes in the world itself.
One of the highlights of the Avatar films has been its stunning world of Pandora and the flora and fauna that populate it. Frontiers of Pandora immerses gamers into this science-fiction Shangri-La, giving the player a sense that they are living out an Avatar movie.
The best part of this experience was no longer being a passive bystander of Pandora, but actively getting to explore and experience it. Instead of watching the characters of the Avatar films interact with this ecosystem, the gamer gets to do it themselves.
This added agency makes even the most mundane of Pandoran experiences sing. Moments as simple as walking into a patch of the shrinking plants known as the Helicoradian feel like they are pulled right off the silver screen.
And most of this fun is outside of any story content. Some of the best parts of the demo were walking in a direction and seeing what may lie around the corner. This can result in coming across a new plant type that gives a permanent health boost, a pack of wild Viperwolfs to hunt for upgrade or cooking materials, or a small side story to engage in with some fellow Na'vi.
There is a reason Pandora is in the name of this game. This living, breathing open world is the beating heart at the center of this whole experience.
Becoming a Part of the Na'vi Family
In a similar fashion to the first Avatar movie, from what we played, Frontiers of Pandora centers on a Na'vi who - after being imprisoned and trained by the RDA for the past 15 years - is now free, rediscovering their heritage for the first time.
This is a logical place to start for gamers, as it offers an easy opportunity to onboard people into the world of the renowned sci-fi franchise.
But it also gives Ubisoft the chance to hand players the reins to some of the now iconic moments from James Cameron's series of films.
The pinnacle of this in the preview demo came in the ascension of the Ikran Rookery. This mission sees the player make the climb that Jake Sully took in the first Avatar movie to hopefully take an Ikran (a flying lizard companion that can be summoned at any time in the open world).
Traversing the floating Hallelujah Mountains was chill-inducing. Over every crest came a stunning vista that made this grueling platforming journey feel worth it.
Then, finally getting to the top, bonding with an Ikran, giving it an adorable name like Floof, and then diving off a sky-bound peak only to be saved by your new lizard companion is pure magic.
Even casual fans of the franchise will have shivers running up and down their spines getting to experience moments like this. If this first flight is any indication of some of the story moments set for Frontiers of Pandora, gamers are in for a real treat.