After 30 minutes or so with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, I was fully invested. A broad grin crept across my mug as my Na'vi bounded from platform to platform up a mountain in the sky. The rousing music, lush vegetation and minimal user interface pulled me into Ubisoft's take on Pandora. Having ikran, the distant moon's answer to dragons, swooping around during my ascent helped me feel like I was actually exploring this alien environment.
The journey up to the ikran rookery was the highlight of my two hours or so with the game, closely followed by having the chance to explore Pandora from the skies after bonding with my new companion. Calling your new irkan flying friend to swoop in and rescue you in mid-air is thrilling, and your sidekick can land pretty much anywhere.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an open-world adventure game from Ubisoft studio Massive Entertainment. It’s a canonical part of James Cameron’s fictional universe and it's set shortly before the events of Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the original 2009 film. Frontiers of Pandora was initially supposed to arrive at around the same time as The Way of Water, but Ubisoft pushed it back to this year.
As massively successful as the Avatar movies have been at the box office, they've hardly made much of a lasting cultural impact. I saw Avatar three times in theaters because of its absorbing spectacle, but had forgotten almost everything within a year and had to rewatch it before checking out the long-delayed sequel. I appreciate the technical wizardry and astonishing visuals of the films, as well as their salient points about environmentalism and colonialism, but the plots are largely rudimentary.
With more time and scope, the game has a chance to tell a richer narrative. Your character and some other Na'vi were kidnapped at a young age and were trained to serve under the RDA, a human military operation that's harvesting resources from Pandora. Something goes wrong and the protagonist is put into emergency cryosleep. After waking up 15 years later, you're effectively an outsider and need to relearn the ways of the Na'vi.
That's a setup that effectively draws the player in as someone who needs to gradually understand how everything works. Naturally, as one of the Na'vi, you'll square off against the RDA and try to drive them from Pandora.
My demo started with a modest fetch mission. I had to harvest some nectar needed for a ritual. After taking a few minutes to drink in the unusual flora and get my bearings, I made my way over to a mangrove hive. Harvesting the nectar involves a minigame that I'm sure will become annoying after having to do it a few times. You need to use a thumbstick to find the correct angle to pull an item from a plant or tree. Thankfully, Ubisoft offers the option to turn off this special interaction, much like you can skip the irritating pickpocketing minigame in Assassin's Creed Mirage.
The publisher's most recent open-world title is a blast. That was largely helped by Ubisoft showing restraint and avoiding much of the bloat for which it's become notorious over the last several years. I was worried that Ubisoft would revert back to its old habits and stuff too many things into Frontiers of Pandora; it's difficult to say whether that's the case, based on a relatively brief look at an early section
Between side missions, looting, crafting and exploring, there's certainly going to be lots to keep you busy outside of the main quests. You'll be able to experiment with cooking by combining ingredients and seeing what happens (a familiar task to anyone who has played a recent Zelda game). This doesn't seem too complex as you can only cook with two ingredients at once. Eating food can be helpful as meals can provide temporary boosts to things like base health and damage delivered while in stealth. It can also help you recover health. There are the expected multiple skill trees to juggle too, focused on survival, combat, hunting, crafting and ikran riding.
Most of these features seem additive rather than things that will pull you too far from the main story. On that note, it's too early to say whether the narrative of the game will be much better than the humdrum narratives of either Avatar film (I'm still not over the rare mineral humans were mining from Pandora being called "unobtainium").
After learning how to use your ikran, you'll need to disable some aerial devices that are disrupting a Na'vi clan and then take out an enemy base. Destroying those floating beacons isn’t too difficult. You'll need to use your hacking tools to disable the device before blowing it up. This section gave me a chance to try out aerial combat as RDA aircraft hover around the beacons to protect them. Playing on normal mode, I found that it was pretty easy to take down the flying machines with an automatic rifle (your Na'vi is pretty comfortable with guns after their RDA training).
Defeating mechs and human opponents is relatively straightforward too — unless you get overeager and rush headlong into an RDA base, only to get overwhelmed by enemies. I did just that a couple of times and died on each attempt. Taking a stealthy approach was both more successful and satisfying. Your Na'vi is powerful, so their bows are effective against humans and mechs alike. Taking out a soldier from a long distance with the longbow and thunking large arrows into mechs using the heavy bow helps to thin out the numbers without causing too much of a ruckus.
I deftly snuck between tunnels and pipes as I disabled drill towers and generators. When the enemies eventually discovered me, I made good use of my rifle as well as the staffsling to hurl explosives at them. Frontiers of Pandora affords you a lot of freedom when it comes to combat, and I enjoyed figuring out the best approach to various encounters.
The side missions I was able to try add some flavor too. One will see you taking out RDA installations and outposts to reduce pollution. Elsewhere, you'll free animals that the military operation has captured.
Some aspects of the demo were unintuitive, however. I spent a few minutes figuring out how to ascend a steep cliff face before realizing I had to shoot a plant with my bow so it would drop a climbable vine. That was a little frustrating, as was not immediately knowing how to use the hacking tool — you need to apply just enough pressure to the controller's trigger to line up two circles.
Overall, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is showing a lot of promise. I went into the demo with low expectations after a gameplay showcase in June left me underwhelmed, much like the two Avatar movies did. But now I can't wait to jump back in and once again soar through the skies on my own ikran.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will hit PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC and Amazon Luna on December 7.