In Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, developer Massive Entertainment will transport us to the incredible world of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbusters. But, unlike the studio’s previous Division games, Frontiers of Pandora is played in first-person. This is something that… well, a lot of you have issues with.
With such striking protagonists as the blue, cat-like Na’vi it’s understandable why many people would like to play in third-person. So why is Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora in first-person?
“Because we want you to feel immersed, we want you to feel immersed and feel like you’re really on Pandora,” says Ditte Deenfeldt, game director on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. “So it was never really a big discussion for us.”
“This was something that we were completely in agreement with Lightstorm,” explains creative director Magnus Jansen, referring to James Cameron’s film studio, which is aiding in the creation of Frontiers of Pandora. Both Lightstorm and Massive consider Pandora to be the star of the game rather than the Na’vi.
“To be as close to Pandora as possible, to be as immersed into it as you can possibly be, which is (achieved through) the first-person perspective… to me, it was a no-brainer for us to go there,” says Jansen.
“We want you to get up close to nature, which is kind of the main character to some degree in the game, and the very best way of doing that is being in first-person,” sums up Deenfeldt.
With this philosophy, Frontiers of Pandora follows in the footsteps of other games that have placed immersive, tactile environments at the forefront of the experience; games like Thief, Dishonored, and BioShock. But while many games that value immersion stay locked into the first-person perspective, in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora you won’t be seeing the entire game through the eyes of your Na’vi protagonist. When it comes to flying through Pandora’s skies, the camera pulls right out to allow your Na’vi and their Ikran mount to take centre stage. However, as with Massive’s reasoning for using first-person, this second perspective is all about Pandora rather than your character.
“We decided to use the third person camera for the Ikran and also the [ground mount] Direhorse because of the framing that it provides on the world,” reveals associate game director Drew Rechner. “We really liked that [field of view] change. You can see a lot of the tree branches and the leaves and all of those things from the wings in third person that you wouldn’t really be able to see if you were in first-person. And same thing when you cut through the waterfalls with your wings, you get to see that part of the [Ikran] get wet and you see the water run off. Those kinds of details I think would be really difficult to see [in first-person].”
The switch between first and third-person perspectives for mounts will likely have many people asking why Frontiers of Pandora couldn’t offer the ability to switch between viewpoints at will. Afterall, Starfield developer Bethesda has long offered that choice in its RPGs. But Massive says that such a system is not simple to implement as the two perspectives require very different approaches.
“If you want to have high quality of both, you have to make a decision very early” explains Deenfeldt. She notes that creating first and third-person perspectives are very different disciplines – effectively two different games – and so offering both in the same project is “double the work.” A third-person perspective would require entirely different animations and a completely different approach to how you interact with the world.
“When you’re harvesting, or when you are hunting, or just moving around, if you are in third-person that becomes tiny little pixels touching tiny little pixels and you don’t get that particular sense of place and immersion that we really wanted this game to have,” she says.
By sticking to the first-person perspective Massive has been able to focus on creating incredibly detailed, intricate animations that show the world of Pandora close-up.
“When you are harvesting you grab the fruit and then, as you twist the controller, the hand is in concert with what you do,” explains Jansen. “And that’s sort of mimetic, that it mimics the tactility that comes from that. And the connection and the increased immersion that comes from that has been a huge focus for us.”
Jansen says the team wanted to push this mimetic quality forward and so many smaller details work in concert with those mechanics. For instance, as you walk through the undergrowth, your character’s hands will reach out and push aside grass and branches. This obviously mimics the way Jake Sully explored Pandora in the first Avatar film, but the aim is to help create a tactile bond between the player and the world. As such, first-person was the obvious route.
Putting the camera directly in the head of your protagonist comes with another benefit, too: it really emphasises just how tall a Na’vi is. Seriously, humans are like children in comparison.
“That sense of scale is a really important thing for our game,” says Deenfeldt. “The main enemies are humans and some of the main combat spaces that you fight in are human spaces, so you really get to feel that scale difference.”
“I mean being three metres tall is a huge part of it,” says Jansen. “You go up to a foot soldier and they’re quite small and then you kick them or punch them and they go flying. It’s great fun and a great show of strength, but we try to [show scale] in a lot more [other ways]. Because almost all of the human environments, they’re built for human size. So often when you have to go into a control room, you have to crouch down and you go through this tiny doorway and you really feel your size when you do that.”
That sense of scale contributes to the overall sense of immersion, which as we’ve discovered is the reason that Frontiers of Pandora has been developed as a first-person game. And so while many players were hoping for a third-person Avatar game, hopefully it’s now clear why Massive Entertainment opted for a different route. And, having played two hours of it for our recent preview, I genuinely think the perspective works to properly anchor you into the strange, beautiful world of Pandora.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.
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Author: Matt Purslow