We're in a room lined with a dozen PCs and a handful of press, just about to start our extended hands-on session with Ubisoft's upcoming Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. It's hard to say if anyone else is particularly excited to try out the game, but we are. Immediate reactions to its gameplay reveal earlier this year judged it to be a Far Cry spin-off with an Avatar skin. Truth be told, that's kinda what it is. But as massive Avatar fans here at Push Square, we dare to ask: is that really a bad thing?
For years the Far Cry series has been coasting off the formula it perfected over a decade ago with Far Cry 3. Moving from one tropical setting to the next, and dusting through wannabe iconic villains like there's no tomorrow, the series is still great fun — look at our Far Cry 6 review if you want some proof — but it's been in serious need of a spicy new ingredient for quite some time.
That ingredient is Pandora; a world formed in the mind of film-directing master James Cameron. It's a world that millions have visited across the years, with the original 2009 movie and its 2022 sequel bringing in a gargantuan $5 billion at the box office. In the following 14 years since Pandora made its debut, there have been genuine studies into an effect called Pandora Blues, where cinemagoers would be actively upset they were no longer in the world of floating mountains, colourful creatures, and really tall blue folk.
A place like that sounds like a pretty good pick for a video game setting, and Massive Entertainment — the studio behind The Division — knows it. Hearing the game alone is enough to convince us of the meticulous effort Massive has put into recreating this world. The soundscape of the jungle at the start of our demo immediately transports us to Pandora, and that only improves when we actually see it.
From vibrant flowing foliage, distant calls of wildlife, or the blue hue of the gas giant Polyphemus taking up the Pandoran sky, there's so much beauty to take in when exploring Frontiers of Pandora. While the hallmark iconography of the series is present, it's even more impressive to see the smaller details make their way into the game. Running through the thwomping retractable plants or watching multicoloured spinning lizards float across the sky brings a smile to our face. And this is just a small area of the map. Our demo takes place in the Kinglor forest, with more to explore in the full release that we can't wait to check out.
At this point, aesthetically Frontiers of Pandora is popping off. But the limits of our demo also give us some pause. With only a handful of main and side missions to work through, it's hard to tell if Pandora will be a pretty, but relatively empty experience — or quite the contrary. While we are gawking at the landscapes, deep in the throes of nostalgia for this world, the only forms of content we stumble upon are an RDA-tagged creature in need of help, and a patrol of RDA soldiers in dire need of an arrow in the chest. Hopefully, the landscape livens up a little upon full release.
One of our biggest doubts about the game was the first-person perspective. While we still think Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora would look fantastic as a third-person experience, it's clear that Massive wants you to get up close and personal with all the little details of Pandora — à la Cyberpunk 2077. Although, it does feel a bit counter productive when you're crafting armour that you will rarely ever see. Fully convincing us of the perspective, though, is the traversal, which is incredibly smooth as we jump, slide, bound, and ascend the game's world. Despite being riddled with rock ledges and twisting branches, we rarely ever get stuck or make some awkward move.
All of these elements, from sound and visuals to the first-person traversal, come together in one particular mission, where we ascend the floating mountains to earn our very own Ikran — a flying creature and essential component to exploring the wider world. Climbing this mountain perfectly evokes the magical escapism of Cameron's films, with the score swelling as we speed our way across vines and mount new platforms. Looking across the land from this new vantage point gives us a moment of respite as we take it all in. It's not often that an open world evokes a powerful sense of wonder like this.
That feeling is interrupted, though, as we come to a small environmental puzzle. With our demo not including tutorials, there are the odd moments during our time with the game where we aren't so sure on where to go or what to do. The minimal HUD, which does boost immersion, means that we're often pulled out of the experience as we frustratingly wander back and forth. On this particular occasion we happen upon the solution, but there are several instances of confusion during our demo. Admittedly, most of these would likely be solved by actually playing through the tutorials, but it certainly highlights an issue in the game's signposting.
Rounding off our demo, we swoop down to an RDA base — an area charring Pandora's beauty with steel — and with our bow in hand we sneak towards our prey. If there is a moment that feels especially Far Cry, it's this. With multiple avenues to make our way into the base, and the option for stealth or full-blown chaos, it all feels very familiar. However, as we draw back our mighty bow, there's a slow methodical practice to stealth. We spend several minutes jumping and sliding around the base like the nine foot cat person we are, picking off regular foot soldiers one by one. As a soldier in a hulking mech suit approaches, it's time to go guns blazing — and there are guns here. Switching between the Na'vi bows and slings and the militaristic machine guns and rocket launchers gives Frontiers of Pandora's combat a nice duality, and adds yet another string to its bow (pun intended) to elevate it from its counterparts.
If this wasn't enough, however, the flying Ikran we mentioned earlier is sure to do it for you. Upon bonding with our Ikran we're able to take to the skies of Pandora at a moment's notice. The controls feel slick — although we certainly need some more practice — and it massively improves traversal considering the game's unforgiving mountainous terrain. You can even jump from the top of mountains and beckon your Ikran to catch you mid-air, once again feeding into that Avatar sci-fi fantasy.
And ultimately, that's what the Frontiers of Pandora experience is all about. From its stunning visuals to its free-flowing traversal, Massive wants to transport you somewhere magical — and for the most part, it does. While we had issues with general signposting and concerns for the variety of its content, as Avatar fans we played most of our two hours with a smile on our face. It nails the aesthetic, has a hand-crafted level of detail, and the inspiring score made us feel emotional at times. There are a lot of similarities to Far Cry, which feels almost unavoidable in a Ubisoft open world title, but that mystical Pandora factor has power, and its influence trickles down into practically every facet of the game. It might not be out of this world like we'd hoped, but Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a game we can't wait to revisit.
Are you excited to visit this alien world when Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora drops on PS5 on December 7th? Let us know down in the comments.