Rude tourists are the worst. That goes double on Pandora, a lush planet that the Resource Development Administration (RDA) has travelled far from Earth to plunder. Rampant environmental damage and trigger-happy soldiers mean they’re not a popular bunch with the land’s native Na’vi, and in open-world action game Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora, your job is to give them the blue boot by any means necessary.
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To do so, you play as a customisable Na’vi warrior who was kidnapped and trained by the RDA 15 years ago. Now, they’re free to reconnect with their people’s culture and lead the fight against their former captors. In our two-hour hands-on with the game, this translates to a fairly run-of-the-mill formula for anyone who’s played developer Ubisoft’s Far Cry series. RDA outposts are dotted across Pandora, and can be cleared by either picking off its defenders unseen or charging in guns-blazing. As your character is trained in both Na’vi and RDA weapons, this often involves using a bow to pick off soldiers silently, then switching to an assault rifle when things get loud.
Yet finding your target can be tough. One of the most controversial parts of Frontiers Of Pandora will likely be its navigation system, as many of the quest objectives we encountered didn’t feature waypoints. Instead of following a dot on the compass, you’re often given rough directions to find your way.
Tracking down an RDA campsite means retracing a Na’vi patrol’s route through hills and rivers, while finding a nearby clan’s settlement meant searching for a towering rock covered in willow trees. There’s a lot less hand-holding than in other Ubisoft games, and while some players will likely appreciate that, others may find stumbling blindly through a jungle slightly irritating.
Even when you’re lost, Pandora is a gorgeous setting – especially when you’re soaring above it. In Avatar director James Cameron’s films, there’s a magic to the planet’s natural beauty and the impossible scale of everything. Frontiers taps into this awe when it’s time to tame our own ikran, a flying dragon-like beast, to fly. As we scaled its towering rookery, leaping between vines and gigantic tree branches, Pandora unfolded below, revealing one of the most vibrant open-world settings we’ve seen this year. It’s an enchanting climb, and at the end of it you’re (eventually) rewarded with an ikran of your own to fly.
After a scenic flight, we were back on the ground with one last mission: destroying a massive oil refinery that’s sucking the life out of its surroundings. We were encouraged to sneak around the base, setting up hacks for machinery and turrets that could all be triggered at once later on. But we were quickly spotted, turning the mission into a hectic bloodbath. Though gunplay is again fairly standard, there are some fun ideas at play. Unarmoured soldiers are shockingly fragile and often die with a single bullet, but those in imposing AMP Suit exoskeletons require breaking an armoured glass cockpit to get to the squishy human within.
As a result of the guerrilla battles, our preview concluded with an all-out war between the Na’vi and RDA on the horizon. The story, of rousing fragmented Na’vi clans into a planetary revolution, is shaping up to be an exciting one – though our time with the game ended just as things were heating up.
Despite the name, our hands-on with Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora didn’t really play like a new frontier for Ubisoft. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the developer’s outpost-clearing collect-athons are hugely popular for a reason – but from this preview, it does feel like the studio’s sticking closely to what it knows despite having a blockbuster alien landscape to play with. Fans will likely have a lot of fun evicting the planet’s would-be conquerors, but it remains to be seen how much Frontiers Of Pandora will embrace its weird and wonderful world.
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