I thought that the 2009 film Avatar, of big blue cat people fame, was a bit underwhelming. Speaking as a massive speculative exobiology nerd (which is to say I think theoretical aliens are well cool), I found it baffling that with a budget of 237 million big ones and a brief of "create a convincing alien planet", they couldn't have let their brains rip just a little bit harder. The beasts were all very spectacular and that, but every design basically boiled down to "a normal animal, but it's bigger and more brightly coloured, plus we've stuck a bit from another animal on it". Same goes for the floating mountains and, if we're honest, the entire story.
Unsurprisingly, then, when Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora was announced at Ubisoft Forward last night, I shrugged. Weird flex, etc. But in the course of watching the trailer, I changed my mind. It told us nothing about what the actual game will be like, but it made me realise there's at least a lot more potential here than I might have thought. Here's why.
Now, I don't know whether it's because games have a long history of being considered as lesser media to films, or because more of their overall entertainment value comes from the thrill of player agency, but when it comes to imagination, I've always held games to a lower standard than movies. A C-tier monster becomes a solid B+ when it's chasing you virtually, after all, and a generic script feels less annoying when you can wander off and loot vegetables like a simpleton. On that basis, I found myself weirdly more excited about Pandora as a setting for a game, than I feel about it as the setting for next year's actual Avatar sequel.
"There was a sort of Elasmotherium/dimetrodon lad, who did a really majestic fart on top of a hill."
Most importantly though, Ubisoft's Avatar trailer showed off loads of cool beasts. There were some of the old bunch from 2009, of course: good ol' horse with an anteater's face, the floating Ikea jellyfish things, and the classic "pterodactyl with a massive chin". But there were new creatures too, and I dunno if they've been lifted from concept art from the new movie (currently due at the end of 2022), but they all felt a solid notch up from James Cameron's 2009 menagerie.
There was a sort of Elasmotherium/dimetrodon lad who did a really majestic fart on a hill. The old "space dogs" seem to have been replaced by cool, flange-headed beaky lads which look a touch more alien. There was a fun, six-legged gecko lad with an underbite. And most intriguingly, there was a mysterious, hill-sized geezer having a nap under a tent who looked a bit like a triceratops with ram horns, and felt like they might have been an NPC. All good stuff, I reckon.
It was during the Majestic Fart sequence, in fact, that I realised the more precise reason I was getting such an unexpected tingle of anticipation for the game. Particularly at that point, the trailer's direction, music, and general vibe was hugely evocative of Guerilla Games' Horizon Zero Dawn, which is one of my favourite games ever. To me, Horizon was a game which actually exceeded the standards of imagination I'd usually expect from a sci-fi film.
(Now I think about it, this does of course raise the question of to what extent HZD lifted its tone from Avatar in the first place, but since that's not convenient to the point I'm trying to reach here, I'll just leave that on the ground like a load of wet crisps.)
The point is, if I get an Ubisofted version of Horizon Zero Dawn, with loads of alien wildlife to hunt/pet/ride about on, plus some nasty, cigar-chomping space marines to burst into shreds, I'll be a happy bunny. Even if I have to play as a Pokémon that fucks.