Ubisoft, we have a message for you from the people of the Earth: Please don't do this to us.
Wes: I mean, we knew Massive Entertainment was working on an Avatar game, but it's a different thing to finally see it—to be faced with the reality that Ubisoft saved the "one last thing…" moment from this year's E3 conference to unveil Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Hundreds of developers have spent three years making a game based on a decade-old movie that humanity has collectively attempted to forget, because we're all kind of embarrassed about spending a billion dollars to go see it.
This isn't helping. We all know James Cameron's making like seven more Avatar movies, and that's bad enough. We know exactly what to expect from those. But Ubisoft's Avatar game is a bit of a wild card. What if it takes Cameron's painfully boring world and makes flying across it on the back of those pterodactyl things… awesome?
What if you can do parkour across the branches of giant trees and it feels more fluid and exciting than Assassin's Creed? What if—god help me—blowing up those human mechs with a big alien bow actually feels badass?
Or what if there's a genuinely touching story that adds real depth to the Na'vi in a way that Cameron's childish original script couldn't dream of? I don't want to think about the possibility that Ubisoft could release an irresistible, "must play" open world game out of Avatar.
Rich: Dreadful thought, isn't it. Ubisoft says the game is going to see players as Na'vi taking "a journey across the Western Frontier, in a new, standalone story." So this is distinct from the upcoming and much-delayed movie sequels. That also kinda sounds… singleplayer? Which seems a little odd to me as Massive obviously specialises in multiplayer experiences, though I'm just speculating there.
The trailer was CG so we can't even say for sure what kind of game this will be, though there were a couple of neat moments where it moved into a first-person viewpoint from the Na'vi's perspective. The trailer to me was suggesting an open world style with a natural ecosystem, into which we get the baddy faction with all their nasty gleaming military hardware.
Do you think we got much sense of what it's actually going to offer, or it's all just smoke-and-mirrors?
Wes: The preview was at least in-engine, so I think it's within the realm of what the game will play like. Of course it's all flashy cutscene composition, but I do think we'll be able to fly around the open air on the Na'vi's pet bird creatures and if you can seamlessly transition from the ground to the sky, that could be worryingly fun. And that first-person bit you're referring to where the Na'vi slides under the tree? If that's true to the game, Mirror's Edge in the jungle is a strong pitch, actually.
The thing I'm most curious about, though, is those bits where the Na'Vi are in their village hanging with giant dinosaurs, or whatever those animals are. What if this game lets you grow your settlement and tame and raise animals? I am an absolute sucker for those kinds of town-building systems.
Rich: Stop making this game sound potentially good Wes! Yeah the lush look of Pandora itself is one of Avatar's few real strengths for me, and that kind of style would suit some of the themes really well.
On that note, one of the really striking things about Avatar is that the concept couldn't be more made-for-videogames. The core of the idea is people controlling other bodies through technology, damaging ecosystems, and spectacular set-piece battles between asymmetric forces. You couldn't have a more perfect set-up for a game with big ideas, and I think Massive's a great studio. This has also as you mentioned been in development for some time: whatever we think of Avatar, a lot of people with an awful lot of money seem to think it's a good bet.
Oh god now I'm worrying myself. Because the thing about Avatar is, to me at least, it always felt like something that was marketed into enormous success, when the actual creation wasn't so great. It's the only movie I've ever watched in a cinema where I fell asleep.
God it's dull! And just so kind of… irritatingly earnest with it. I admit that some of what they were doing with the effects was eye-popping, but the grown-up Smurfs aesthetic never worked for me and I just found the whole 'message' of the film kind of dragged it down both as a piece of entertainment and world-building. *cough* Anyway, back to the game!
Did you ever play the one that Ubisoft made in 2009? It wasn't great but it did have a few interesting ideas, probably the most impactful being that you chose at the start which 'avatar' you wanted to have—a Na'vi or the soldiers—then it was basically two different games depending on that choice. And one thing it did have going for it was a very beautiful world, even if the game was pretty dull.
Wes: I didn't, though I did play some of Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie which was honestly better than it had any right to be. I think part of what drives me crazy about Avatar the further away we get from it (and the more money Cameron sinks into its sequels) is how skin deep it is in every way, from the story to even the "beautiful" world. Yeah, it's lush and verdant and all, but like, in the most generic way possible? I feel like there's just very little originality there; it's just the Jungle Dial turned to 5000%.
Rich: Yeah you're right, the whole experience just has this hollowness to it. If anyone tells me they like Avatar it's one of those things where I just instantly doubt their taste in other matters. Your movie sucked James Cameron!
Wes: The world is already a confusing place, so it's nice when we have these truths to fall back on. Avatar 2 will certainly look amazing yet feel as hollow and manufactured as the first. Don't confuse everything by releasing a really good Avatar game in 2022, Ubisoft. No one will know how to handle it.
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Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.
When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).