Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora - Hands On Preview
Say what you will about the Avatar franchise (and according to the internet many do) but it is a big deal. Whether you think it is an affront to cinema, a guilty pleasure, an amazing but hollow technical showpiece or the greatest thing since sliced bread, there is no denying the sheer amount of money that Avatar has brought in for Disney and James Cameron. So it is no real surprise that we are getting a new video game set in the world of Pandora, I mean it makes business sense right? But movie adaptations tend not to have the best reputation in this industry so people are rightfully a little worried about how this may all pan out. But thanks to Ubisoft Australia, I have had a good couple of hours of hands-on time with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and can say that things are looking cautiously optimistic for fans of 10-foot-tall blue folk.
Being developed by Ubisoft, Frontiers of Pandora was always going to draw comparisons to the French developer’s other projects. So it was no surprise to see a common internet thought suggesting that Avatar would simply be Far Cry: Blue People. While there is some truth in that, with the game being a big open-world FPS title with side missions, RPG elements and a host of smaller activities, it is actually a non-Ubisoft game that I was most reminded of. That game is Sony’s Horizon franchise. From the homemade feel of a lot of the weaponry to the multiple different ammo types that have different elemental effects, to the big colourful world that feels like a combo of nature and future tech, everywhere I looked I was reminded of Horizon and its unique world. Frankly, there are worse things to be compared to so I don’t have a problem with this at all.
The first thing that struck me with Avatar was the sheer amount of colour. This is a game that covers every colour in the rainbow and throws them directly at your eyeballs. It is a stunning-looking game, which is no surprise considering the source material, but I think this may actually cause some issues. You see it became very hard to detect enemies and goals among the multicolour flora that populates Pandora. It was very easy to lose track, get lost and get turned around, it all kind of bleeds together in a way that caused confusion. It is perhaps the first time I have been worried about a game looking too good, but I can really see it causing some issues in the full playthrough. That said, I didn’t get to tweak any graphics settings so that could very well solve these issues for me and it may be that over the length of the game, it becomes a non-issue.
Another thing that slightly concerns me is the sheer amount of information that is constantly hammering at the player. There is a lot here, flora, fauna, story beats, skills, crafting, lore and it all comes at players in a bit of a rush. This was probably made worse by the fact I was dropped into a game session that was a few missions in, so I missed some of that early learning that would have come at the start of the game. But there is no denying that there is a lot to learn here and it could be a case of drowning the player in info and systems. Once again, this could be a forgotten issue after playing the game for a longer period of time and all of these systems and functions could become second nature, but it is something that immediately struck me as a bit of a hill to climb.
The gameplay is pretty sweet, however. As I said earlier, it has a real Horizon feel, especially to the combat, with players taking on Mech suits and armoured infantry with bows, homemade grenade launchers and stolen assault rifles. Once I worked out each weapon’s strengths and weaknesses I had a blast assaulting human strongholds, sneaking in and taking down enemies one by one until I was discovered and things got very loud very quickly. The FPS mechanics are tight and there is real freedom to the movement system. It isn’t quite Titanfall or Dying Light, but it isn’t too far off. One of the missions I tackled had me climbing up a giant peak and thanks to the movement system it was a blast, not a boring segment of annoying platforming that is so often the case in an FPS title.
The single coolest thing I got to experience in my playtime is without doubt the ability to summon a flying mount. Not only can you call it at any time and then soar through the skies, but there is the ability to summon it while you are falling from great heights (something that will seemingly happen a lot in Pandora) your mount will catch you mid-air, saving you from gravity’s loving embrace in the process. Much like the leap of faith in the Assassin’s Creed games, I can’t see this mechanic ever growing old as it is a unique thrill that works perfectly in the Avatar universe. Combat aboard the flying mount is also solid, with the ability to swoop down on enemy encampments, bombarding them with fire before jumping off the mount and wading in guns (arrows) blazing. I can see a lot of fun being had here and I expect once the game is released that it won’t take long before we see a flood of videos from the community taking this feature to its limits.
So where does all that leave me in regard to my feelings towards the game? Well, if I am honest, I didn’t have super high expectations, the movie tie-in curse is something I remember all too well and frankly, the Avatar universe is something I have enjoyed, but never been enamoured with. So with that in mind, I have to say I am now looking forward to the full release of the game in December. It has some wonderful mechanics, tight combat and a thoroughly enjoyable movement system that hold the core gameplay in good stead and while I have some misgivings about the sheer visual onslaught and the encyclopedia size information wall to absorb, I have a suspicion that over the course of a full game, these issues will be minor. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is shaping up to be, at the very least, a solid FPS adventure that should keep fans more than happy, but it is also worth noting that if things play out in an ideal way it has the potential to be even more than that. The only way we are going to find out for sure is when the game releases on PC, Xbox Series and PS5 on the 7th of December.