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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora honors the Na’vi with ‘quality over quantity’ gameplay

While Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora isn’t the first video game based on James Cameron’s massive film franchise, it’s certainly the most important. Ubisoft aims to deliver the biggest, most authentic adaptation of the series yet in a sprawling open-world game. That puts a lot of pressure on developer Massive Entertainment to prove that Avatar can make just as much sense as an engaging interactive experience as it can a Hollywood blockbuster.

With that task comes a unique challenge: How do you turn the gentle, nature-conscious Na’vi into video game action heroes? Massive Entertainment would solve that with a clever narrative setup, putting players in control of a Na’vi that was abducted and trained like a human soldier. After escaping the villainous RDA, that hero is let loose into a home that’s now foreign to them. For Associate Game Director Drew Rechner, that story is what bonds the game to its movie counterparts.

“Being raised by humans and then learning what it means to be Na’vi, that’s your character’s journey,” Rechner tells Digital Trends. “But as a player, you’re learning side-by-side what it means to be Na’vi, what it means to exist in harmony with Eywa and Pandora.”

Following its grand reveal at this week’s Ubisoft Forward event, Digital Trends sat down with Rechner to learn more about how Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora maintains the ethos of James Cameron’s film universe. He would spill some new details on the game, including the fact that it contains an explorable version of the film’s Floating Mountains. The most important takeaway for fans, though, is that Massive has put quite a bit of work into making sure it can honor the Na’vi through sensible gameplay systems that still fit within the rules of the film universe.

The thing that caught me off guard the most was seeing James Cameron on-screen during the presentation. How much did you interface with Cameron and his team on this project?

Drew Rechner: In Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, we had direct access to the teams at Lightstorm and Disney. It was really cool because we got to meet and bounce ideas, completely freely, with the people who worked on the films. So we would have ideas for the new regions we have in the game, the completely new cast of characters, the new plants and animals. We’d bounce those ideas back and forth. They would sometimes have ideas and throw them our way and we could adapt them for gameplay, so it was a really strong collaboration.

How much freedom did you have in adding your own lore to the world?

Rechner: So we worked with them directly to create two brand new regions. We obviously have the Kinglor Forest, which is most akin to a rainforest. That’s what Avatar fans are going to recognize the most. We wanted it to feel a little bit familiar.

But then we created the Upper Plains, which are these long sightline grasslands, with gameplay in mind. Because of course, as a gamer, you see dense forests and short sightlines, and then you see long open spaces and think “Ah! I have a heavy bow. That’s good for long-range. Maybe I’ll use that here!” We were able to do a lot of that shaping of gameplay ideas and making sure it really fit into the Avatar universe because we’re expanding the world and universe with this game.

A Na'vi flies on an Ikron in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Ubisoft

This game was in development at the same time as Avatar: The Way of Water. How much knowledge did you have of what that film was and what was happening in it?

Rechner: We did have direct access to the team, so there were lots of interfaces about things that were coming up. That helped shape the things we were creating. Obviously, our game is standalone, so we didn’t want to have too much overlap with the films. We weren’t making a movie game.

When a lot of people talk about the films, they always say “This looks like a video game!” So when adapting it into an actual video game, what were the parts of the film universe you wanted to make sure you adapted and got right in a game?

Rechner: First and foremost, just the beauty of Pandora. And that was something we couldn’t do without the latest iteration of the Snowdrop engine. That’s the real-time raytracing, the microdetail system, the density of all the foliage.

And something that’s a little bit hidden is the audio system. We put in a lot of work to upgrade the audio system so you can hear the ambient sounds bouncing off of rocks. When you go through a cave or through the water, it sounds different and really immersive. So seeing the films and seeing that opportunity to take players to Pandora is just too good to pass up.

Was there a lot of thought put towards how the Na’vi interact with nature and how that’s reflected in gameplay?

Rechner: Absolutely. Being raised by humans and then learning what it means to be Na’vi, that’s your character’s journey. But as a player, you’re learning side-by-side what it means to be Na’vi, what it means to exist in harmony with Eywa and Pandora. And so it was really important for us to ensure we had this ethos of quality over quantity.

So it’s not about hoarding and taking everything you see. It’s about finding the best of it. We didn’t want to completely deprive nature of all of its resources; we wanted to only take exactly what we needed to exist. That was a really important aspect of the game and it’s how you upgrade your gear and make yourself stronger.

Anything you can see, you can go to.

There’s so much verticality to this world. I notice some structures in the sky … Can we travel to those?

Rechner: I don’t want to spoil the story too much, but absolutely. You have your banshee, you can soar above the canopy, but you can go even higher. You probably saw, and probably even remember from the films, the Floating Mountains. Of course, you can go up there. Anything you can see, you can go to. So you can land on the Floating Mountains and maybe some level designers put some cool things up there for you to find. We’ll have to see!

This game is reminiscent of Far Cry in a lot of ways, another Ubisoft game with a similar structure. Was that game an inspiration for this or did you arrive at your gameplay ideas independently of that?

Rechner: We love Far Cry and I personally love Far Cry, but we set out to do something different. I think the way we thought about it was: What would service this game and the Avatar universe? We had a story that we really wanted to tell, this really personal journey about starting off as a child of two worlds and connecting to Eywa. And I think that a first-person, immersive perspective was really important to us.

So that’s where we started from and everything else that you do is servicing the ethos of Avatar about only taking what you need and living in harmony. But in our game, there are the main clans that you’re helping out and side-quests you’re participating in, smaller-scale independent stories. We have such a rich cast of characters that we really wanted to convey the Na’vi culture and heritage.

A Na'vi shoots a gun at a mech in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Ubisoft

What surprised me in the trailer is the fact that you use guns in this, which at first seems so strange. It makes sense within the story you’re telling, but when in the proncess did you decide that would be part of the combat? Was there any pushback from Cameron’s team on that?

Rechner: For us, it really goes back to the story that we wanted to tell, and it was such a good fit. You’re raised by humans, so you don’t have any knowledge of Na’vi culture of Na’vi ways. One of the cool things from a gameplay perspective is that you have access to the very weapons the RDA uses against you. They’re loud, destructive. When we talk about playstyles, that’s run-and-gun!

And with Na’vi weapons, it’s silent and precise. It’s about the stealth gameplay. For me, I like to start with stealth and then inevitably run and gun my way out when I mess up. But you can pick and choose depending on how you like to play.

In the films, we see everything from the perspective of a human coming into the Na’vi world, and we’re getting the inverse of that here, with a Na’vi coming into the human world. That means you’re diving deeper into Na’vi lore. How much are we going to see that hasn’t been told in the films yet?

Rechner: In Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, it’s really about connecting to your past and what it means to be Na’vi. So we really focus a lot on the different tribes, because they all have their different customs.

So when you’re visiting the Aranahe in the Kinglor Forest, they’re very different from the Zeswa in the Upper Plains. Then we also have another more mysterious clan that I’m not yet ready to reveal! But they’re all so different culturally. Everything from what they eat, how they dress, how they talk even is very different and there was a lot of effort put into that.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora launches on December December 7 for PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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