Before I begin my rather embarrassing anecdote from the recent in-person Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora preview event, I should set the scene. After being bundled into a dimly lit room along with some other journalists by the lovely representatives from Ubisoft, I took my seat and, following some brief guidance on the controls, I was then let loose to play Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Pretty soon after, I notice the currently active quest: “Gather mangrove hive nectar to make niktsyey for the kinglor queen ritual.”
Thus, dear reader, I began my hour-long trek through the dense forest in the hopes that I would find some nectar. Well… I say nectar, but as it turns out, it was more like the entire honeycomb, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In Frontiers of Pandora, several Na’vi orphans are put into suspended animation and wake up 15 years later, when humans have already returned to colonize Pandora. As one of these orphans, you’ll venture across the Western Frontier to discover your origins and help the local Na’vi resistance drive back the RDA.
Like a moth to a flame, I was immediately distracted by the sheer volume of color on the screen. If there’s one thing that Frontiers of Pandora really captures from the Avatar films, it’s the wild, beautiful jungles filled with odd plants and even more bizarre-looking creatures. I had no clue where to begin in my search for nectar, so it wasn’t long before I put it to the back of my mind, lined up shots with the photo mode, and took pictures like a tourist in the middle of the Amazon.
After my impromptu photo shoot, I ran around the jungle hunting the local wildlife. It’s here that I get my first whiff that this FPS game shares many similarities with the Far Cry series, except that, as a Na’vi, I can jump much further and scale towering walls. I’m impressed that weapons all feel responsive and do much more damage to enemies than I expected at this stage. The controls themselves, in general, were rarely an issue, but more on that later.
I also take some time navigating the inventory and skills menus, tinkering with loadouts consisting of a range of RDA and Na’vi weapons, as well as armor to protect your Na’vi avatar. Each piece of armor grants small perks while also allowing the addition of mods to tinker with their visual design. Skills are a mixture of the conventional health upgrades and damage boosts you’ve seen in similar Ubisoft games in the past, but there are more thematic examples, such as one that allows raw food ingredients to replenish twice the energy they typically would.
In my quest to find some honey, I encountered the aftermath of a conflict between the Na’vi and the RDA. Among the debris is Aleymun, a Na’vi trying to piece together exactly what occurred. I agree to help her, which involves interacting with items and linking them to get a picture of what happened. By using a special Na’vi Senses view, not too dissimilar to the Detective View from the Batman Arkham games, I soon piece together what happened before I’m told to move on to stop another squadron from setting up a mining base.
It’s here that I work out that the Na’vi Senses also act as a navigation tool, and it’s the one thing I found to be a hassle. It wasn’t just because we were dropped into the middle of the jungle to fend for ourselves, but more so that the UI iconography was confusing. If I were far away from the objective, I would see a large beam of light, but on approach, it would change into neon claw marks and then disappear entirely when I was in the correct location. This caused me to slip up a few times, whether it was in my honey hunt or trying to find a meeting spot near a campfire later on in the demo.
So it’s around this time I check out the main quest again to find the honey. As it turns out, the mangrove hive nectar was in a hyper-specific location under a tree that I must have walked past numerous times before actually finding it, no thanks to the navigation. Thankfully, I still have over an hour to experience Frontiers of Pandora, so I press on. From there, I report my sticky findings to a nearby contact, and after skipping a bit of the game to save time, I’m soon chasing an Ikran up a mountaintop.
This sequence was a highlight, as it showed that Frontiers of Pandora features environmental puzzles that kept me on my toes while also thrilling me with catapult launches and a tense moment where the very Ikran I’m trying to tame decides to turn on me. Eventually, I bond with the Ikran, whom I name Storm, one of several predetermined choices. Before I know it, I’m flying through the air with my new pterodactyl-like friend.
Flying is always a rip-roaringly good time, and I’m soon performing aerial acrobatics with my new winged pal. Just like the ground movement and gunplay, the flight controls on PC are buttery smooth, and I’m soon performing breakneck stunts to test my mobility. You can also shoot your weapons while on an Ikran, which was handy when some drones decided I was getting too close to their base. My mission is now to figure out how to destroy the RDA aerial devices hanging around in the sky, and that brings us to hacking.
The idea is relatively simple: open the hatch by lining up a circle, then trace a cursor across a screen from the beginning of the path to the end. It’s nothing too complex, but it’s during this hacking minigame that I realized Ubisoft clearly wants us all to play Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora with a PlayStation controller to get the complete experience. This is because hacking relies on haptic feedback to convey information. As a PC gamer used to keyboard and mouse, which has none of that tech, the minigame isn’t as cool, as you just press buttons until you get in.
My next objective is to raid an RDA base, blasting my way through enemies in mech suits and attempting to switch off oil extractors in a moment where the game feels the most like Far Cry. However, midway through, I’m told my session is over, and I immediately feel somewhat conflicted about my time with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. On the one hand, it clearly requires some refinement to make navigation easier, but everything else felt good to play.
We’re still some weeks away from the Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora release date, but I liked what I saw. It’s a visually stunning experience on PC, and if you’re a fan of the Avatar films, this feels pretty spot on. That said, while I saw a lot of the open-world game, particularly during my misadventures while trying to find honey, I still sense there’s more to discover deeper in the jungle.