The best and biggest fictional worlds work because of how lived-in they feel. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek. These contain all sorts of stories independently of the original one that kickstarted the franchise. Sure, there is a main timeline of events centered around a protagonist (or group of them), but there is room for much more, which gets expanded through supplemental material. Star Wars didn’t become Star Wars because of the movies. It became what it is because of decades’ worth of games, novels, comics, and more. Lord of the Rings is what it is because Tolkien spent decades crafting every single part of Middle-earth and its millennia of history, culture, and lore through poems, short stories, and an actual history book. Similarly, the key to James Cameron’s Avatar has never been Jake Sully.
As Cameron himself once said the plot of Avatar is simple because it is a way to speak to every culture in the world. “It was dealing with a universal truth of the human condition that transcended culture.” The plot was nothing more than a door that opened to the larger world of Pandora, one of 15 moons orbiting the planet Polyphemus. It is that world that audiences everywhere fell in love with to the point of making both movies two of the three highest-grossing of all time.
Now, over a decade after the release of the first film, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora finally places the franchise on the path to becoming a new Star Wars, a new iconic universe, by fulfilling the promise of Cameron’s world and providing a cure to the Avatar blues. No, it’s not a pun, but a real reported phenomenon of people feeling depression upon seeing the first movie and knowing that Pandora wasn’t a real place they could visit. Now, Frontiers of Pandora finds a solution by fully immersing you in the world of the Na’vi.
In Frontiers of Pandora, you play as a Na’vi orphan kidnapped and raised by the Resources Development Administration who wakes up from suspended animation after more than a decade in an abandoned facility. The story follows your character’s role in the resistance against the RDA, the rallying of several Na’vi clans against the humans, all while you explore the open world of Pandora and learn about the lost Sarentu tribe you were born into.
From the opening minutes of the game, Frontiers of Pandora becomes all about immersion. When you make your way out of an RDA facility and exit to the forests of the titular moon, it feels like opening your eyes for the first time. Everything is so green, lush, and free of human misery. The absolutely incredible variety of plant life all react differently to your presence — from the helicoradian coiling up and retracting to the ground to many plants just trying to kill you. No two trees look the same, and no two species of animals either, which helps make the forests and other biomes of Pandora feel alive. Biomes, yes, because there are dozens of entirely different types of landscapes in what is essentially just a section of the moon that we saw in the movies. Seeing rainforests and swamps coexisting with flatlands and the iconic floating mountains of Pandora does the one thing the movies couldn’t—allow you to stop and just look around in awe.
This was James Cameron’s main goal with the game, as he said during an introduction at Ubisoft Forward earlier this year. “We wanted the audience to feel as if they were really on Pandora, to dream with their eyes wide open and to explore this world with our characters.”
If nothing else, the team at Massive Entertainment absolutely succeeded at that. This is a game that takes the Ubisoft formula and uses it to immerse you into its open world. From lots of side quests to raiding enemy bases and hunting and gathering, Frontiers of Pandora may initially seem like Far Cry in space, yes, but it serves a purpose. This game is the most comprehensive Na’vi training program there is.
By hunting and gathering and exploring the world, you immerse yourself just as the game’s protagonist, learning about the ways of the Na’vi and the lost tribe of the Sarentu. You commune with Eywa and become a part of this world. Take the ikran, an essential part of the Avatar movies and this game. Flying around with your buddy is not just a better way to explore the game’s world, but it is entertaining in the way swinging around New York City is in the Spider-Man games. Flying is also the enemy of time management. I’ve lost hours of game time just to fly around Pandora and take in the scenery.
By the time you first infiltrate a refinery and kill some imperial colonialists, you don’t only feel obligated to do so because the game tells you to. Instead, you feel the pain and the anger the Na’vi do, you share the hatred toward the RDA, because you’ve spent time caring about this moon. You’ve seen the way the animals react to the pollution brought on by the RDA and felt the joy of seeing plant and animal life return to these places after destroying the refineries.
That only works because we are spending hours on this open world, guided only by the smallest of hints as to where exactly you need to go for the quests (even in guided mode, it’s easy to get lost sometimes). Every aspect of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is meant for you to stop and touch grass — literally. Whether it’s gathering to get stronger so you can tackle an enemy base, climbing somewhere high to get skill points, or the fact that you have a limited inventory, these are all mechanics meant to make you feel like part of the Na’vi, one with nature and this world. You may not remember all the names of all the characters of the Avatar universe the way you may do the Star Wars universe, but this game makes it clear that it is Pandora that has always been the key to this franchise. And it is only getting bigger and better.