Thanks to Ubisoft, I was given the opportunity to try out an early build of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. It’s developed by Massive Entertainment and I’m pretty excited to talk about what I played; back in 2009, when I experienced the IMAX version of the film, I was blown away by its fidelity and only dreamed of playing games at that level. Fast forward to present day and although were quite not there yet, it’s damn near close here. My 3hr playthrough showcased to me that Massive placed a great labor of love towards environmental design, excellent controls and familiar, but fun gameplay loop. This preview is a hefty one as I’ll be diving into as much aspects as possible; I’ll talk about what I loved and what I found lacking – but, based on what I played, Massive left me with immense hope for what’s to come.
My playthrough consist of 4 main missions and a couple side missions, but I spent most of my time just exploring the lush and dense land of Pandora. And from what I saw, Massive seem to have captured the essence of the films in ways I could only hope for; every facet felt high quality in production ranging from tight controls to visceral graphical scope–there’s a ton to unpack here so let’s dive into it.
Scope and Vision
Keep in mind that I dove into this game blind; I didn’t know much about Frontiers of Pandora for the sake of wonder—it’s how I work. Additionally, this is an early build of the game set to release in December, so it’s natural to expect visual and gameplay bugs. Surprisingly, my playthrough consisted of just one very minor visual glitch, which impressed me considering our current gaming landscape of companies releasing incomplete games. The experience Ubisoft provided me was seamless; there was a save file ready for me with the liberty to adjust my controls and accessibility options. From there, I was catapulted into an open field of Pandora. This is a heavily edited format of the 3-hour video, and even though I think I did a stellar job, there were a lot of moments where I was fiddling with the game’s control layout, so I was often hopping around or constantly switching weapons on the fly. Although I had an objective ready for me, I decided to just roam around as much as possible within my time frame. In that time, I learned that flora affects your avatar in terms of movement speed and health regeneration. That’s when I learned there’s buffs and debuffs involved, giving a sense of depth and some level of RPG mechanics.
While I explored, I encountered random NPCs who had just returned from a successful hunt. They offered to share some of their game with me, which I thought was pretty cool . I stumbled upon abandoned outposts which had resources to gather, and some world information to collect.
There were other moments where I spotted an RDA platoon in the midst of recovering equipment from vehicles shot down by the Na’vi, or worse, them poaching wildlife with their machinery. I had no choice but to take them down. These encounters were surprisingly dynamic; foot soldiers and mechs coordinated attacks well, displaying a commendable level of AI. They demonstrated impressive maneuvers, from evasion to seeking cover and flanking strategies.
You also have the opportunity to learn about your surroundings in and out of combat. In the midst of combat–I learned about the type of machine I was facing for example, and when exploring if a peculiar flora looked interesting, pressing R3 (I used a DualSense Controller) revealed information about their classification and the resources they held.
Exploration is multifaceted–the environment felt enigmatic, akin to experiencing Elden Ring for the first time. There were geological formations with the potential of harboring its own set of secrets.
Explore and Dominate
You probably noticed early in the footage, but large roots would expand from the ground, spanning across the field of Pandora with vines hanging off it which allows you to latch up and get pulled to the top to traverse in. Passing by flora would exude these fumes that propelling me even further. And with the ability to charge my jump and execute an additional midair hop, evokes a sense of fluid parkour that I can’t help but appreciate. Your movement feels weighty, yet there’s a touch of buoyancy that allows for a more forgiving traversal for players. There’s fall damage for sure, but it takes a lot to initiate it.
In the topic of flora, not all could benefit you however–some will attack you with projectiles for example or emitted fumes capable of disorienting or confusing you–I couldn’t tell you how startled I was looking around for an enemy, only to notice some large Venus flytrap-looking thing slapping me with brolic seeds. Though I didn’t experiment with this feature, there was some level of destructible environment, which is something the SnowDrop engine is known for thanks to The Division. I figured this out as I fumbled with the controls, accidentally tossing a grenade that resulted in some trees toppling–I thought that was pretty cool.
The cinematic appearance of Frontiers of Pandora is focused on making sure the player feels immersed in the world; in Avatar, the RDA developed a technology to clone Na’vi and then take control of it through VR space. That’s the impression Frontiers is trying to convey, and it works. All of the cutscenes are in first person, much like the Far Cry games, and they’re done well. Subtle body language, micro-adjustment to facial animations, all visible and to a high degree. Unfortunately, the fade-to-black from gameplay to cutscene is ever present, removing immersion for people like me. It’s a technical element that prevents any graphical hurdles created by the players, but I’m so over it. It makes the game feel dated in an otherwise forward pushing engine.
Now, this is a Ubisoft game and they’re notorious for having a loud screen filled with all types of UI elements–I’m happy to let you know that is not the case in Frontiers of Pandora, thankfully! Now, there are some UI elements of course, all of which can be altered within accessibility options–objectives to the top left, compass top center, ammo count bottom right and health info bottom center. I suggest taking the time to familiarize with them because even then they’re surprisingly subtle. There’s are no mini maps and much like Far Cry, you can have the game guide you or have the objective tell you environmental clues of your next step for immersion purposes–the way I like to play.
Your Na’vi is capable of equipping 4 weapons at a time–in the preview I had a Heavy Bow, Longbow, SKEL M-69 AR and a Staffsling that tossed explosives at enemies. I used a DualSense Pro controller here, so when you hold L1 a weapon/food wheel will show, from there you can choose your type–the last 2 weapons you selected can be quick swapped by tapping Triangle. Within the wheel, you can craft new ammo/food to heal. There are several healing methods ranging from flora, fruits gathered, rations stolen, ect. Some foods can give you additional buffs to further your Na’vi. It’s also a bit weird to use your additional tools; in order to toss a grenade, you have to tap L1+Square, or swapping to your SID hacking device you have to tap L1+Triangle. It took some getting used to but nothing I can’t handle as I thrive in layered controls. From the weapons I used, there’s no means of ADSing, rather your character tucks the weapon closer to the shoulder and fires from there–and the way they hold their bow is pretty cool as it appears to be tilted to the left of the screen with the arrow atop the bow for some slick animation. Reloading animations with military weapons are slick, and the ability to preview your weapons in first-person is also there, though I actually forgot it was a thing during my playthrough.
Character progression is as you would expect for an open-world shooter; it’s light on RPG with a Destiny-style UI system that should be very easy to understand. There’s body gear alongside a slew of weapons, all with rarity and stats in them. You can also add mods that is supplemented per-section of the gear piece rather than per gear. That means, when you slot a mod on an arm piece, when swapping gear, you wouldn’t need to re-apply the mod. Alongside stats on the armor, there are perks to further enhance your playstyle. Skill tree makes an appearance here too, each with subsections to aim at playstyles: Warrior, Hunter, Survivor, Rider and Maker — all with subsequent perks that compliments these choices. It’s rather deep and intuitive, giving the impression that we could really flesh out our build — even if its not as robust as games that focuses on it, its nice that it’s there.
You are allowed to mount animals in this game, but the preview only gave us the Ikran beast. We get to play a mission that focused on bonding with the creature–and after some platforming and puzzle solving, we connect with the creature, name it and take off. Flight felt solid and fluid–you’re able to barrel roll, dismount in midair for some sick combat moments and remount. It felt just as snappy as being on foot, which is nice. There are floating RDA platforms scattered throughout Pandora that needs to get taken down which required me to fly and land on it, unlock a node through hacking which gave me only a few seconds to jump off and call my Ikran before detonation. Blast actually propels you forward too, which caught me off-guard–I don’t think that are any games that does that effect.
Additionally, there are RDA Foward Operating Bases that are heavily guarded. Of course, you have the ability to approach how you like, so I decided to utilize the hybrid blend of stealth and chaos. I surveyed the area a bit, snuck in and positioned myself to attack full force. I was immediately swarmed by mechs, foot soldiers and turrets. Soon after helicopters started arriving. You can’t just go in and kill everyone and be done with it–there are multiple objectives that requires you to shut down and destroy before escaping. The area was huge and vertical ly layered which seem to be designed with co-op in mind. Elements such as chains putting you up higher, river streams to dive in and emerge elsewhere are there making maneuvering feel organic and seamless. Enemies felt its best here with an even more aggressive approach against me. On my final objective, there’s cutscene signifying your success much like the Far Cry games.
And ontop of all of that–Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora looks absolutely fantastic; it seems Massive Entertainment is pushing the fidelity of their SnowDrop engine to new heights. Diversity and density in its foliage, fauna and flora seems to be cranked to eleven, alongside asset variety regarding Na’vi and RDA environments. Scope seems to be pushed beyond the horizontal landscape to be vertical as well, all of which feels physicalized to further enhance its immersion–and this isn’t even maxed out settings from what I gather–I can’t wait to see how it plays on my RTX4090, and I’m hoping for an implementation of Path Tracing. Again, it may not be on Avatar film level yet, but it’s damn near close.
There you have it, everything unpacked from the preview event–I hope you enjoy this video. Feel free to subscribe and follow me on twitter and other socials linked below. It was a pleasure, and until next time.