Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora First Impressions | Na’vi Simulator

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora still has some kins to iron, but it has a lot of potential.

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During our time in gamescom asia 2023, Ubisoft invited us out to try Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora in their Singapore offices. We were given a first-hand look at a sizeable chunk of the game with its open-world systems, combat, and a couple of main and side missions. Throughout my gameplay session, I couldn’t help but feel like this was Ubisoft trying its best not to be “Ubisoft” in its design approach. While the usual open-world structure is still definitely there, there were a couple of tweaks that attempted to shake up the formula. Pandora has always been a universe that has stuck to me long after the films’ credits have rolled. Frontiers of Pandora allows me to experience it all from an entirely new perspective to varying degrees of success.

James Cameron broke every possible cinematic record when he released 2009’s Avatar. It’s a film that I have adored ever since. The wonder, tragedy, and depth of the world drew me in despite a significant lack of expansion for the IP in more than a decade. Ubisoft’s attempt at an original story told through a video game has several interesting implications. How do the developers make something that stays true to the magic of Cameron’s vision while also creating an identity of its own in an entirely different medium?

In a lot of ways, Frontiers of Pandora succeeds in creating a wonderful sandbox that feels distinct and authentic to the Na’vi experience. Since the films have done a great job of showing what it’s like through a cinematic lens, the real advantage of Frontiers of Pandora is getting (quite literally) up close and personal with all of it. The forced first-person perspective has been a controversial choice for some who would rather play in third-person. Surprisingly, I noticed that first-person enabled me to be so much more connected with everything that’s going on from the scenery to the brief story bits I got to see. While I’m not saying that this is the definitive way to present an Avatar game, I do see why Ubisoft opted for a much more personal viewpoint.

Nothing proves this point further than what is my favorite part of the demo: climbing up the Hallelujah Mountains to get my own Ikran. The sense of scale, wonder, fear, and curiosity was at an all-time high here as I tried to figure out how to optimally climb harrowing heights while being treated with an audio-visual masterclass that took me back to when I first saw everything in the films. A very small nitpick is that this segment, while amazing as it is, was drawn out a little bit longer than I would’ve liked it to be. Getting to pick an Ikran is not as random or dynamic as it is in the films. It’s already pre-determined by the game and you don’t have to work for it that much. A real missed opportunity.

Flying an Ikran was a thrill at the beginning. Again, accompanied by a great musical score that had me smiling in delight as I flew through the mountains. The cracks started to show when I was given a prompt for aerial combat. There are floating human outposts that need to be taken down. I had to fight the surrounding helicopters (which is just shooting them with heavily tuned aim assist while flying around), land on the floating platform, and blow it up. It felt less than smooth and a bit detached from the rest of the game. Animations had a lot of jank to it which was odd given how Ubisoft has always been one of the better studios for me when it comes to motion. What I initially thought was going to be my absolute favorite part of the game, became something that just, for lack of a better term, flew by my head.

Frontiers of Pandora Aaerial combat

Nonetheless, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, is poised to deliver a visual feast that pushes the boundaries of modern graphics. With its breathtaking visuals, film-accurate looks, and a world teeming with life, my first impressions of this open-world adventure were nothing short of awe-inspiring.

One of the game’s standout features is the immersive way players can interact with the environment. By using your Na’vi vision, you can explore and learn about the world’s flora and fauna. It’s like having your virtual Avatar encyclopedia, and I couldn’t help but pause frequently to take in the stunning details.

The parkour system, while easy to use, felt somewhat automatic. It’s a nice touch that allows you to fluidly navigate the environment, though it sometimes gives the impression of “Mirror’s Edge lite” in its execution.

The absence of objective markers on your HUD means relying heavily on your Na’vi vision and environment clues to find your way. Games like Ghost of Tsushima have done a similar approach where directional communication blended smoothly with environmental elements. It became a much more serene experience that truly elevated the open world to be a real part of the experience rather than just a background canvas. I can see Frontiers of Pandora attempting a similar approach but one that is admittedly less refined. The Na’vi vision felt clunky at times and didn’t communicate well enough the general direction of where I was supposed to go. While some players will appreciate the challenge, I can see others longing for a bit more guidance.

Additionally, the game’s stealth mechanics left something to be desired. Enemy AI ranges from instantly detecting your presence to be as blind and deaf as possible. They would also constantly be freezing in place and bugging out whenever I attempted to melee attack from behind. It’s an aspect that requires significant fine-tuning to offer a satisfying challenge. The combat, a mix of melee, bow, tools, and human guns, is competent but doesn’t break new ground in the action genre.  If you’ve played a Far Cry game, you know what the combat in Frontiers of Pandora is.

Frontiers of Pandora combat

Perhaps the most significant drawback for me was the lack of a proper introduction to the story and its characters. The demo threw me into sometime in the middle of the game at about 25% campaign progression so I didn’t have the opportunity to find my footing in the narrative. In my short time with them, the characters didn’t leave a lasting impression, coming off as somewhat flat. Hopefully, their development may be more apparent in the full campaign.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has all the potential in the world, offering players an immersive journey into the world of Pandora. However, the game’s open-world jankiness, stealth mechanics, and flat characters could benefit from a bit more polishing. Regardless, this is still one of my most anticipated releases of 2023. Whatever small slice I got to experience with the demo was already enough to tell me that Ubisoft is not messing around when it comes to approaching Cameron’s world with strong attention to detail and a commitment to providing the most personal Na’vi experience possible.