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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora explores the unseen lands of James Cameron's sci-fi saga

Massive Entertainment Creative director Magnus Jansén explains how Ubisoft's Avatar game was built in collaboration with Lightstorm Entertainment.

Alessandro Fillari, Contributor

July 10, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot from Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. A Na'vi rides a horse-like creature over a grassy sci-fi plain.

James Cameron's Avatar films have proven two times over now that the filmmaker's science fiction world is a money-printing franchise, yet the upcoming video game adaptation Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora aims to be something of a fresh start.

With Ubisoft's second attempt at making a game set in the Avatar universe, developer Massive Entertainmentthe studio behind The Division series and Star Wars Outlawsopted for a new setting, story, and open-world structure. Yet, it still holds onto the conceit of a character caught between two different worlds who eventually has to pick a side.

In an interview with creative director Magnus Jansén at the Ubisoft Forward showcase, he spoke about working with Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment in tapping into an unexplored area of Pandora and how the planet brings its own sense of wonder.

Returning to the immersive world of Avatar

Often, games with close ties to major films have to either follow the film's events or come up with a different concept that's close enough to the source. Ubisoft's 2009 charmingly-named title Avatar: The Game was a surprisingly ambitious companion to the film, even featuring some of the core cast. This time around, developers wanted to create something that complemented the films but could still be enjoyed by people who never even saw them.

"Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a fully fresh and new endeavor for us, it's not a sequel [to the 2009 game], and it's a completely new game with new technology and a new story," said Jansén firmly as he explained the upcoming game.

Set largely between the events of the two released films, Frontiers of Pandora focuses on an original Na'vi character raised by human colonizers from the RDA corporation. After the first film's climax, the protagonist and their Na'vi allies are placed into hibernation to avoid execution by RDA soldiers and executives planning to flee the planet. After awakening 15 years later to a changed Pandora, the protagonist regains their understanding of the land and embraces their heritage as they come into conflict with the returning RDA forces, who seek to reclaim the western frontier of Pandora.

The main story deals with its protagonist reconnecting with the planet and its different cultures, which is a compelling hook for an open-world game set in the Avatar universe. The game's opening even carries a similar tone to the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with the protagonist awakening from their slumber to a large and somewhat foreign that's gone on without them.

A screenshot from Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. A Na'vi flies on a dragon-like creature over the water.

A core goal that the developers wanted to hit was the attention to detail in capturing Pandora's lush and diverse environments, which they wanted to bring into a game about exploration. Using the same technology that powers The Division games, Jansén stated that they spent a lot of time upgrading their engine to make the setting of the game into a believable space.

"It was important to me that the sense of discovery and wonder was intact, which is a key part of what Avatar is all about," said Jansén. "It's that feeling of like 'wow, holy cow,' when I see something new and big. We really wanted to allow players to go everywhere, like you can fly up on your flying banshee to go up several kilometers to a floating mountain in the sky. The engine and technology we've built allowed us to make that experience for this game; it was a lot of tech work to make that happen with our level of fidelity."

Exploring Pandora's weird, western frontier

Frontiers of Pandora takes place within its own corner of the planet: the Western Frontier. In addition to the familiar lush jungles and mountainous areas, including the floating land masses, this unseen region of the planet also features terrains not yet seen in the films, such as vast open prairies filled with wildlife.

Conceptually, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora's framework and structure takes a lot after Ubisoft's Far Cry, another open-world action franchise that's effectively a high-octane fish-out-of-water story. As a first-person game, you engage in exploration, combat, and the agile Na'vi-style traversal from that perspective.

From the gameplay shown off during Ubisoft Forward, the game's core loop focuses on exploring a gorgeous yet equally hostile world where you'll need to recapture territory, collect resources, and build up your character.

It's a familiar and well-worn structure, especially for developer and publisher Ubisoft. However, building an Avatar game within that framework, where players have to engage and explore a hostile nature that escalates the deeper you venture, gives it a greater sense of impact, and I'd even say it fits very well for Avatar.

According to Jansén, there was a lot of work and collaboration with Lightstorm Entertainment, which focused on building out the Western frontier and its unique wildlife, including the "planimals," which are the advanced forms of plant life that can either directly help or hinder the protagonist.

"Bringing Pandora to life has been such a joy and a privilege, and the team really had so much fun coming up with the different animals, plants, and 'Planimals' of the world," said Jansén. "Working with Lightstorm, they liked to say this particular thing about Pandora, which we adopted after—Pandora is a beautiful, dangerous place. You have to constantly look out for predators, hazardous jumps, and even plants that can also be dangerous."

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"But as you grow as a player, and your character grows, you come to know what to expect, and you can more easily explore this world and embrace all the interesting things that are hidden within it."

From the brief gameplay we observed, the game leverages a familiar Ubisoft open-world design to bring the film franchise's setting to life in a very compelling way, allowing players to inhabit a Na'vi who is both a stranger and a native of their homeworld.

A brief moment that stood out was a traversal sequence where the protagonist ran across large tree vines and jump onto large "planimals" that boosted them to greater heights. It not only captured the Na'vi's grace and sense of speed from the films, but it also showed some leaps for Ubisoft's familiar open-world gameplay, making its setting feel more like a playground to explore and interact with, which is a neat twist.

The open world of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora seeks to capture the sense of awe from the films – to be able to truly explore an alien world that's both visually stunning and hostile. Without being so directly tied to the films, this puts Frontiers of Pandora in an interesting position to not only offer up a compelling open-world action game, but also create a new lane for storytelling for the Avatar franchise.

Given that the next film is still years away, Massive Entertainment's game has a chance to keep the series in the pop culture consciousness—a boon for both Ubisoft and Avatar distributor Disney all at once.

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About the Author(s)

Alessandro Fillari


Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 12 years. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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