For the first two hours of our Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora preview, the game’s open world and cast of characters stunned. The world of James Cameron’s Avatar is known for its spectacle, with the original film breaking box office records on account of its groundbreaking visuals, which remain unmatched in modern cinema.
Frontiers of Pandora leans into its style and mythology heavily, with Ubisoft crafting a dynamic open world that sings with life in every locale. You’ll find gorgeous flora and fauna as you travel, and encounter splashes of colour and unique design that make this world feel magical.
But that magic was somewhat dampened after the first two hours of GamesHub‘s preview, thanks to a “work-in-progess” game build that felt fairly bug-riddled, and caused a range of issues. In my time with the early preview build, my game had to be reset on at least five separate occasions, for largely the same reason. If I ran too fast into an area, or approached it from the sky on my flying Ikran, the game would not load the area.
Several times, if I dismounted on a fast or slow approach from the air, I fell directly through the game’s geometry, into an open grey plain. When I was able to stay on the ground, main quest structures (the home base of the Na’vi, an entire military structure, an important rock) would load in with basic geometry and no collision, so that quests were not completable. Upon reloading, these issues were fixed – but it happened multiple times in my playthrough, at a frequency that was concerning.
It’s important to mention, as Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is currently set to release on 7 December 2023, and the game’s technical bugs were so frequent in my particular playthrough that it made this release date feel ambitious. I was able to finish the game preview after multiple reloads and help from Ubisoft ANZ’s lovely support team, but it was a frustrating note in what was otherwise a very positive experience.
With that disappointment out of the way, I’d like to focus more on what really worked in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora – largely, in its approach to exploration, and weaving a new tale using established Na’vi lore.
The game, beyond its bugs, is glittering and lively. It leans heavily into the established world of Avatar created by James Cameron, with its open world designed around the ebb and flow of life. Strange, alien plants litter the world, each harvestable to create unique goods and weapons. As you run, you’ll be hit with vivid colours as they stream past, with this open world being warm and bright – in a way that inadvertently highlights the blander colour palettes of other open-world games.
There is no beige in this adventure – only bright greens, pinks, purples, and glowing blues. There’s clearly been much care taken in the design of each plant, and each slice of foliage. The landscapes of Frontiers of Pandora are frequently breathtaking, particularly in areas like the Glade of Light, which is contained within a Weeping Willow-like illuminated tree that casts a purple glow across a leafy mountain.
As a Na’vi warrior newly acquainted with your culture after living in Resources Development Administration (RDA) confines, the world presented to you is delightful and new – with this story element serving as a solid base for discovering new sights and lore about your world.
Harnessing a new sense of freedom, you’ll run freely through Pandora, grasses and plant glow streaming alongside you, in a dizzying rush. It’s in these moments that Frontiers of Pandora shines brightest, as you wield your Na’vi strength to run through forests, collecting new resources, and completing side quests for your tribe. Defeating the RDA along the way, who spend much of the game kidnapping the local wildlife and creating waste as a polluting, corrupting force, is also supremely satisfying.
One particular mission in the preview was a standout – ‘Take Flight’, where you first meet your Ikran companion, and take to the skies.
‘Take Flight’ encompasses a trek through a mountain region covered with plant life, vines, fallen rocks, and obstacles. You must climb it doggedly, in an effort to meet your Ikran, which climbs ever higher up the mountain, as it plays hard to get. What follows is a hard-won victory over the elements, as you puzzle your way through caverns, past the underbrush, and along vines, using nature as your guide. There are bouncing mushrooms, and doorway plants that require you to activate nodes to overcome, and plenty of challenge in the battle for your Ikran – as it should be.
The climb proved very satisfying in my tenure, with each advancement feeling well earned, through experimentation and sheer stubbornness.
The first flight with my Ikran was equally wonderful. Once you earn its trust, you can take to the skies, and finally see the full breadth of Pandora at your fingertips (albeit, with some strategic fog for what I assume are compromises for area loading). Flying feels great, and unlocks an additional combat option: mid-air gunfights against the RDA.
While requiring multiple fingers and renewed concentration, these fights are solid fun, and allow you to clear the skies above Pandora for further exploration.
As mentioned, trouble arrived when I attempted to land. Following ‘Take Flight’, the next major quest in the preview was ‘Pushing Back’ – where you meet with a Na’vi outside a Hydro-Oil Extractor Alpha outpost, and attempt to take down the RDA hordes.
I sped on my Ikran gleefully, and when I dismounted, lodged myself in a rock that hadn’t loaded in properly. This seemingly soft-locked the game, and I had to reload to find my companion, and then mount an offensive at the outpost.
It was here that the other elements of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora unveiled themselves.
Lots of guns
While Frontiers of Pandora appears to be a nature-focused adventure game first and foremost, with strong quest-based exploration and storytelling, it’s also a first-person shooter complete with bows, arrows, and machine guns.
This is a bit uncanny, at first. You’re taking your time, marvelling at the beautiful scenery, and then you pull out a gun, and take on army machines and mechs that feel transported from another game. I guess that’s the point – that the Na’vi’s way of life has been wildly disrupted by human machinery and pollution – but the juxtaposition is still jarring.
Beyond this uncanniness, combat in the game feels meaty, with an array of options. The bow and arrow system feels most reliable, with this sturdy weapon making a solid mark on the battlefield. Guns, while slightly immersion-breaking, are equally solid.
The outpost skirmish wasn’t particularly memorable here, but I put that down to the other, Na’vi-focused elements of the adventure being so standout. The game’s world feels new and fresh, while its human-focussed skirmishes were fairly standard, in the grand scheme of things.
Here’s to hoping Ubisoft gets the balance right later on, and that humans take more of a backseat in the overarching plot of the game. More glowing plants and cool creatures, please.
Our preview of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was decidedly topsy-turvy, with the majority of elements working well. In its opening moments, the game was a revelation, with its eye-catching open world buoying the beginnings of an intriguing new entry in the Avatar saga. Likewise, its open air segments stunned, with the ability to fly anywhere opening up the edges of its vast world.
Combat was slightly less remarkable, if only in comparison to the bright ideas of its opening – but the story of the clashing cultures of the RDA and Na’vi warriors may prove to be fertile ground, with more context.
As for the preview’s bugs – there is certainly hope they’re sorted in time for the game’s launch. They were incredibly disappointing to encounter, and had a notable impact on gameplay. With several others in my preview session experiencing similar trouble, it’s likely Ubisoft is now well across these issues, so fingers crossed for the future.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is brimming with potential – and it should get the chance to realise it. For now, the game is targeting launch on 7 December 2023.
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