I’m relieved. I worried about the new Avatar game when I read Chris’ preview earlier in the year because there was footage of gunfights and talk of loot systems and crafting. And I thought to myself, ‘That’s not it – that’s not the Avatar fantasy.’ I like the films – there I’ve said it – because they take me away to a fantastical place where the tall blue Na’vi people live in giant trees and run around in loincloths and fly around on lizard dinosaur things. That’s the fantasy – that’s what I want. I want to feel like I’m in the films. It’s with that in mind, then, I tell you “I’m relieved”, because Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora absolutely gets that – and it manages to hit the fantasy in some quite spectacular ways.
Perhaps obviously, then, in the game I am a tall blue Na’vi. I’m jumped into the game about a quarter of the way through, so I miss all the story set-up, but there’s a separate trailer that explains the background of who I am and who you will be. In short: we were apparently kidnapped by the RDA – the humans – and now we’ve run away back to our Na’vi family, and we’re learning to reconnect with life there.
What’s important is that the Na’vi treat me as one of their own and I live among them, which means I am free to come and go from their gigantic hometree bases as I please. They talk to me, they give me supplies as long as I donate things to the wider community too, and they give me tasks to fulfil. As far as humans go: I have nothing to do with them. They are still the number-one threat to the world but besides a couple of squads patrolling in the jungle, I don’t see them. I work for the Na’vi.
Being a Na’vi also means I feel like a Na’vi, which not only means I am taller and stronger and more athletically capable than a human, but also that I feel and sense the natural world around me more strongly. I can reach out and touch plants that will react (mostly kindly) towards me. I can soothe animals that are afraid of me, and then help them by pulling human tracking devices out of them. I can even focus my Na’vi vision to see the scent-trails of animals and points of interest in the jungle around me, or determine whether lifeforms are hostile to me or not. I feel as though I belong here, in nature, and it is a kaleidoscopically colourful and beautiful place to be. Do you remember the sequence in the original Avatar film where Jake Sully, as a Na’vi, experiences their world at nighttime for the first time – a kind of bioluminescent splendour? It’s like that; neon pinks and purples and blues radiate softly from plants around you, bathing it all in the most appealing hues.
The increased physical capabilities I have are being able to charge a stronger jump and being able to double-jump. I can also slide along the ground (though holding sprint and crouch is much trickier on mouse-and-keyboard than it is on controller – one of a few implementations that feel like the game was designed with controllers in mind, rather than traditional desktop controls) and mantle up onto nearby ledges. There’s no spidery climbing as in Assassin’s Creed, which I find strange, because the game clearly wants me in the trees. Even so, getting there is a trial-and-error shuffle up ledges instead. It’s a bit like how you climb in a game like Skyrim, hopping into scenery until you catch on something and are able to propel yourself up. It feels clumsy here, but it’s passable, and there’s plenty of environmental help in the form of plant-based speed boosts and launch pads and climbing vines to keep you in motion.
As a Na’vi, I’m also deadly, and I’m pleased to see – in my limited experience of combat in this demo – that one nicely shot arrow is all it takes to send a regular soldier ragdolling into the jungle undergrowth. I can even quite quickly take down those large exosuit soldiers with my ‘even bigger arrow’ that you’ll again, remember from the films. It’s not a one-hit affair but suffice to say I feel as though the humans ought to be scared of me. I try not to use the gun much but it’s very powerful when I do, and I have a staff that can toss explosives.
Nowhere is the Avatar fantasy stronger in the demo, though, than the main quest sequence that takes me to the top of an impossibly high – and in some cases floating – collection of cliffs to claim a flying mount, an Ikran, of my own. Again, it’s a sequence straight out of the original film. I clamber through a tropical paradise over perilous edges and through waterfalls, and across great ropey vines (although not all of them are considered platforms, I discover) to perform the ancient Na’vi right of bonding with a mount. And there are moments, after emerging from enclosed spaces, where Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora really flexes in terms of the spectacle it provides. All around me, way down below me, I can see the tops of the forest canopy, blanketed in mist, while above me, I’m humbled by the sight of the iconic floating islands (again, from the film).
As if that weren’t enough, waves of the Avatar orchestral theme begin to buffet me up the remaining part of the climb, becoming more and more frequent the closer to my objective I get. Combined with the view and my Na’vi guide gently chiding me for being slow, plus the acknowledgement of what I’m about to do, and the place that holds in Na’vi society, it all stirs a rousing pot of emotions inside me.
Then, there it is, the Ikran, which I try a few times to soothe before all of a sudden we’re bonded through my hair-like connection chord, and then somehow I’m falling, and falling, before my Ikran swoops down to catch me mid-air and we’re soaring together, exhilaratingly. All I hear is the rushing air around me, as I dive down to the tops of my jungle playground below. This is everything I want from an Avatar fantasy, and I’m loving it, but – and there are some buts – there are things I’m not so sure about too.
My biggest concern is navigational clarity in a very dense forest, and how it isn’t always clear where to go. This is an open-world game so finding my way around is of the utmost importance, because I’ll be doing a lot of it, but the beacon marker system the game uses (a pillar of light you see while using your Na’vi vision) can be hard to see, especially against the busy jungle. It gets doubly hard the closer to the beacon you get, as the pillar changes – for some unknown reason – to a much smaller slash mark. Then, when you’re considered so close you’re ‘in the area’ of the objectives, the markers are removed altogether so you can look for what you seek. But areas can be large and what you seek can be small, and it can lead to some frustrating moments.
I have one such moment while climbing to get my Ikran, when the game tells me to wait by a campfire for someone to arrive. Fine, except I can’t find the campfire, and because I’m considered ‘in the area’, the game doesn’t mark where it is, so I end up running around for several minutes until eventually – because I’m up high in a precarious position – I lose my footing and fall off some scenery to my death. Unexpectedly, though, this does me a favour because when I reload, the checkpoint turns out to be the campfire I need. It’s not the first time I struggle with navigation, and I’m not the only one to struggle with it in my press group, so it’s a worrying sign for the rest of the game.
These navigation kinks (which I think could easily be addressed) tie into a general feeling of awkwardness across the game, and a feeling that in pulling the Avatar idea through the Ubisoft open-world-game presser, it hasn’t come out without a few kinks. Take the Na’vi movement and abilities: they do make me feel more physically capable than a human, but they also still feel quite human-like. It’s as though I’m a taller human with a double-jump than a different species altogether. And the skill tree doesn’t house much exciting upgrade potential: most of it is extra percentage gains in damage or resource gathering or stealth. There is, admittedly, one very cool hunting-linked ability whereby you can have all wildlife be friendly to you, but it’s top-tier skill you need all the other skills to unlock.
It’s a similar gripe I have with looting and crafting: it doesn’t quite feel like it fits. I don’t want to poke through human containers for pieces of equipment to add to my Na’vi armour, but the game wants me to, so that’s what I do. I don’t want to craft my own gun ammunition either, because why would I? But apparently I have to do that too. It’s the Ubisoft open-world game loop, none of which pulls me deeper into Pandora but makes me feel like I’m playing a modified Far Cry.
It also worries me that the first main quest we’re given in the game involves collecting what is effectively honeycomb from the forest around us, so it’s a fetch quest – a main quest fetch quest. And if you get those in the main quest, what will you get around the sides? The in-game shop I see while I’m nosing around the menus worries me as well, because it’s another layer of coroporate abstraction from what the game should really be about.
But I’ve only seen a glimpse. There’s, judging by the map, a huge playable world to explore, and I’ve seen barely any of it. And I’m encouraged when I accidentally find myself in the territory of the legendary giant panther alien cat thing from the films, which I as a Na’vi am so scared of, it shuts down my senses and all I can hear is my heartbeat in my ears. And then, suddenly, the cat is there – and it’s every bit as big and tough and frightening as it was in the films.
So while the Ubisoft open-world formula doesn’t quite fit, and I can feel some kinks here and there, I also don’t particularly mind. In many ways, it reminds me of the films. I have concerns with them, but it doesn’t stop me from watching and enjoying them. And nor do these concerns stop me wanting to go back into Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Loincloth, here I come.
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