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a Na’vi riding an Ikran over a forest lake as blue equine animals scatter behind it in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Image: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft

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Avatar’s test as a franchise wasn’t The Way of Water, it’s Ubisoft’s Frontiers of Pandora

James Cameron owned the haters with Avatar 2, but he hasn’t reinvented Star Wars... yet

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The years leading up to the release of James Cameron’s long-gestating Avatar sequel The Way of Water were fraught and filled with debate. Does anyone care about this so-called franchise? Did 2009’s Avatar have true “cultural impact” despite becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time by the end of its theatrical run? Was Kate Winslet holding her breath in a motion-capture water tank long enough to break free-diving records really “worth it”? Cameron, heeding the “put up or shut up” call, silenced the skeptics — The Way of Water became a massive hit with positive critic scores to boot. The discourse tune immediately shifted from “really, more Avatar?” to “Avatar 3 nowpleasethankyou.”

Cameron’s triumph sets the bar high for the third installment, already in the can and slated for 2024, but even higher for everyone else with chips on Avatar being more than a quadrilogy of theatrical events. Everyone in the toys, comics books, collectibles, and Hawaiian shirt businesses needs Cameron’s universe to extend far beyond where the filmmaker will ultimately take it. Which brings us to December’s Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Ubisoft’s stab at actually turning Avatar into the next Star Wars.

At Monday’s Ubisoft Forward showcase, fans and skeptics alike finally saw more of the grandeur and action promised by the much-delayed game (which will now be released on Dec. 7). The first-person adventure drops players into a playable Na’vi, ahem, avatar, a new character who has just woken from a 15-year cryosleep and is ready to fight the terran RDA forces to save Pandora. It’s not Jake Sully’s story, and as the trailers stressed, the action’s not even taking place on the map around the events of The Way of Water (instead, it’s relocating to the “Western frontier” — please prepare your All Quiet on the Western Frontiers of Pandora jokes). The trailer and gameplay footage bursts with the color and is overrun wildlife unique to the Avatar movies, with shooter-ish gameplay reminiscent of Far Cry. It’s a real game.

Ubisoft frontloading the Frontiers of Pandora footage at Forward echoes the 2017 announcement of the game and the E3 2021 trailer reveal: this is not an IP cash-in. Developed by Massive Entertainment in conjunction with Cameron’s own studio, Lightstorm, the game is intended to live up to the director’s filmmaking. Cameron was even on hand at Ubisoft Forward to set the bar: “We wanted the audience to feel as if they were really on Pandora,” he said in opening remarks, “to dream with their eyes wide open and to explore this world with our characters.”

The director promises Ubisoft’s technology has finally allowed both studios to realize Cameron’s world in an immersive style as dimensional and fluid as, say, an Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry game. It better.

Star Wars didn’t become a 46-year-old mega-franchise on the quality of films alone, which is clear if you saw Attack of the Clones or The Rise of Skywalker. Decades of Expanded Universe storytelling in every type of media enriched both the canonical story from George Lucas’ original trilogy and departed from it in ways the original creator never would. There’s an argument that Timothy Zahn is as important to Star Wars’ lifespan as anyone who set foot on the Empire Strikes Back set. Ahsoka is a certain generation’s No. 1 fave Star Wars character thanks to The Clone Wars’ Dave Filoni distilling what he knew was beloved about all of the Star Wars storytelling behind him, not just Lucas’.

While there have been bits of Avatar spinoffs dropped in the cultural feed between the 2009 movie and The Way of Water, none of it was as significant as Star Wars non-movie achievements. But games seem like the modern place for the series to really take hold: While the original trilogy may set the tone for “what Star Wars is,” Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic or Rogue Squadron the recent Jedi: Survivor have all redefined it.

This has not gone well for Avatar, so far. Avatar: The Game, Ubisoft’s 2009 attempt at a playable Na’vi adventure, took the wind out of the Great Leonopteryx’s wings with janky controls and paint-by-numbers action. At the time, it was enough to convince me that maybe Avatar was a one-and-done movie-theater moment and not the beginning of something greater.

The Way of Water’s one-upping of the original’s world-building and earthlings-as-alien-invaders drama was riveting, but also raised the question: Is it just Cameron’s playground? If anyone else but the ocean-obsessed, tech-minded auteur tried pointing their digital camera rig at ping-pong-ball-covered actors, what comes out may not be the “Avatar” as fans have come to love it. Disney can spend millions to erect a Tree of Souls in the middle of Animal Kingdom and tell us it’s a franchise, but sheer capitalist will doesn’t make fetch happen. Someone needs to pick up the baton, see more potential, and innovate within.

Here’s what seems like the hard part: Star Wars has endless possibilities — Jedi spirit quests, smuggler goings-on, Mandalorians mandaloring, the endless wars of Star Wars — to mine for genre and storytelling. Avatar, for now, only has the biomes of Pandora and an endless war between two factions. Tricky. But the creatives behind Frontiers of Pandora’s seemed to have heeded Cameron’s call to at least push the known elements to their most playable extremes.

The Ubisoft Forward gameplay footage sets up the story about a young Na’vi captured in her youth, trained by the human RDA, then stabbed in the back during the Battle of the Hallelujah Mountains, the climactic event of the 2009 Avatar movie. This might be Avatar at its most Star Wars: Pandora has its own Order 66 now, and our hero is the surviving Jedi Na’vi warrior who must protect the moon when the RDA returns.

Avatar: The Game couldn’t keep up with Cameron’s imaginative ecosphere, but Frontiers of Pandora hammers home all the experiences that should have been in 2009: Players will fly the ikran banshees around the floating mountains, they’ll ride direhorses across extraterrestrial planes, they’ll meet clans of other Na’vi who all have their agendas, and they’ll wage war upon the RDA in grimy smog-stained industrial complexes. Naturally, abilities will be upgraded at the (skill) Tree of Souls.

two Na’vi women welcome the player to a forest settlement of the Aranahe clan in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
a Na’vi sitting on a Direhorse looks at animals on a grassy plain with a rock formation in the background in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
the player aims an assault rifle at an RDA mech as an explosion goes off in the background in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Images: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft
a Hammerhead, an elephantine creature with a long beam across its face, in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Cameron took us underneath the oceans of Pandora in The Way of Water, but Frontiers of Pandora feels like Ubisoft playing the classics to ensure its first major AAA outing of the new generation actually works, including sticking to 2009 Avatar’s familiar deforestation themes. In the game, players will choose between Na’vi weaponry or RDA firepower to take out enemies, but blowing up a mech suit stationed in the middle of an unobtanium refinery looks like a social-justice rush either way. According to a news release published after the show, Frontiers of Pandora will also allow for two-player online co-op, so friends can join in on the war against man. There also appears to be lots of opportunities to “pet the dog” — or, in this case, a Hammerhead Titanothere or some other Pandoran fauna.

Avatar does not need to be the next Star Wars. Four giant James Cameron spectacle movies are enough to satisfy this Payakan stan. But the sheer amount of great Star Wars games makes me a little jealous — there’s great potential to Pandora and its corner of the Alpha Centauri system, from bouncing across trees to soaring over oceans or even zipping off into space.

Cameron and his team seem to think so, too: Avatar: The Way of Water producer Jon Landau told Polygon last year that Lightstorm has taken great care in making sure the transmedia efforts around Frontiers of Pandora and other Avatar media all line up without overlapping with or straight-up cannibalizing the films’ saga. They want this to work, and want to see more Avatar stories told by people who spark to what Cameron is laying down. That only happens if Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora works. No pressure.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is scheduled to launch Dec. 7 for Amazon Luna, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.

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