Looking ahead to Avatar: The Way of Water

It’s been a while since we talked about Avatar. Actually, scratch that. It’s been a while since anybody talked about Avatar and its upcoming sequels, with the sci-fi blockbuster having largely dropped out of our collective cultural conversation in the decade since its release. But with the first of four planned sequels due for release in just a few months’ time, James Cameron’s sci-fi series is kicking off its marketing campaign.

In addition to the film’s official title being revealed, we also got the first teaser trailer. Having caught a glimpse of Pandora and the Na’vi, I thought it could be interesting to look ahead and preview what the film may be when it finally hits cinemas later this year.

James Cameron, director of Avatar: The Way of Water.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Avatar. I didn’t hate it or even particularly dislike it, but it was the kind of blockbuster that I just haven’t felt a desperately pressing need to revisit. While its story and characters weren’t bad by any means, nothing Avatar did managed to succeed at creating a world that I can’t get enough of. Avatar was fine – but unlike something like Star Trek or Star Wars, the first film didn’t inspire a huge fan community nor create the sense of scale or the feeling that there’s a great deal more to its world that we desperately need to see.

I re-watched Avatar about eighteen months ago, and I’ve probably seen the film four or five times over the past decade. But could I tell you its plot in any detail or recite some of my favourite lines? How about picking my favourite character(s)… or even remembering the names of the main ones? Aside from the moon of Pandora, is there anywhere else in Avatar’s fictional universe that I’d want to explore? The answer to all of the above is “no,” as you may have guessed.

Official logo for Avatar: The Way of Water.

So that’s the position I’m in as we look ahead to Avatar: The Way of Water (which my brain keeps calling The Shape of Water like that other film from a couple of years ago). But although I might be cruel enough to call some aspects of Avatar “forgettable,” there are reasons for positivity. For one, the science fiction realm always has space for new and expanding franchises, and while I doubt any will ever topple Star Wars or Star Trek, there’s definitely scope to add the likes of Avatar into the mix.

Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water has a colossal budget, and we will undoubtedly be in for a film whose design, aesthetic, and visual style will be beautiful and immersive. With CGI and other special effects having improved dramatically over the past decade, some of the “video gamey” feel of the first film – with its slightly too smooth and shiny textures – should have been mitigated. While The Way of Water will still be so heavily reliant on CGI as to be basically fully-animated for long sequences, CGI animation in 2022 can look a heck of a lot better than it did in 2009.

A Na’vi taking a swim.

To my surprise, I must admit, the teaser trailer for The Way of Water racked up well over ten million views on YouTube in the 48 hours after it was published there, with several million additional views across other social media platforms. For a time, the teaser trailer was the #1 trending video on YouTube, so there’s clearly still interest in Avatar from the general public – even if most folks haven’t rewatched the first film in a long time!

The teaser trailer itself was a stylised affair, heavy on the soundtrack, that showed off a few interesting-looking locations but that revealed practically nothing by way of narrative or plot. At this stage that could be okay; it’s a tease to renew interest in a franchise that has been dormant for more than a decade. But I wonder if there was enough substance in the 90-second teaser to really kick off a marketing campaign that will need to rebuild interest in the world of Avatar between now and the holiday season.

Sully.

There were a few moments in the teaser trailer that looked genuinely interesting. At one point we saw what appeared to be Na’vi and humans working together, or at the very least Na’vi being shown around a human facility that seemed to be under construction. Whether that means that humanity’s presence on Pandora is growing is not clear. We also saw Na’vi carrying human weapons and wearing what appeared to be body armour; again this could suggest some kind of team-up between at least one human faction and Sully’s Na’vi tribe.

We also got our first look at the much-vaunted underwater motion capture technology, something that has apparently been developed by James Cameron and his team for the new film. The technology wasn’t ready a decade ago, but having worked on it over the past few years, The Way of Water is now leaning on it as a selling-point.

Are humans and Na’vi cooperating?

There have been great underwater sequences in films before, and the very brief clip shown off in the teaser trailer isn’t a lot to go on. I think we’ll have to reserve judgement on how well the underwater motion capture stuff works – as well as how “groundbreaking” or original it makes the finished picture look – until we’ve seen a lot more footage. I don’t want to jump the gun and say it was underwhelming based on a few seconds’ worth of video that was compressed for YouTube!

It’s no bad thing to experiment and try new techniques; that’s the only way that cinema – or any medium, come to that – can ever grow and develop. Whether the gruelling process of underwater motion capture will catch on and become something we see other titles pick up in future is anyone’s guess at this stage. I would say, though, that behind-the-scenes photos and interviews seem to suggest that this particular filmmaking process is hard work!

Underwater motion capture for Avatar: The Way of Water.

James Cameron put a lot of energy into Avatar. A whole Na’vi language was constructed by linguistics experts, and while that isn’t something entirely unique for a sci-fi property (hello, Klingon) it does show how seriously Cameron and others took the project. Seeing Avatar expand beyond its original film and begin to take advantage of some of that hard work is something I’d like to see happen, and there’s always going to be room for more high-quality sci-fi.

Expanding on the story of Avatar – which was left somewhat open-ended back in 2009 – could be fun, and I hope that the story will go in a different and perhaps unexpected direction. The original film took flak for its perceived unoriginality, so this first sequel could be an opportunity to break away from that.

Though I’m not going to rush out and be the first in line for Avatar: The Way of Water on release day, I’m hopeful that it’ll be a decent sci-fi title when it’s ready. As the first of four sequels to the original film, this could be a franchise that we’ll discuss a lot in the years ahead.

Avatar: The Way of Water is scheduled to be released on the 16th of December 2022. The Avatar series – including The Way of Water – is the copyright of 20th Century Studios and/or The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

E3 Roundup

Spoiler Alert: There are minor spoilers ahead for several of the games shown off at this year’s E3.

E3 2021 is over, and it was an interesting long weekend of games and gaming! I’m sure some people will come away disappointed – a lot of the games that were shown off aren’t being released imminently, with many of the bigger, most-anticipated titles not being launched until 2022. But overall, I had a good time. Because E3 was all-digital this year, the presentations were slicker and smoother, and while there were a couple of cringeworthy moments as presenters and CEOs were clearly talking to an empty room instead of a crowded auditorium, on the whole I think E3 benefits when the public stays away!

I mentioned this last year when Electronic Arts had their big annual presentation, but digital events really feel like the future. Live events have the potential to go wrong – very wrong, in some cases – and also drag on a lot longer. E3 this year was more concise, and several of the big presentations packed a lot of games into their hour or two. Though this is still a pandemic-riddled world, and that’s why E3 has gone digital this time around, I won’t be shocked to learn that future years will keep this kind of format.

With Sony skipping E3, Microsoft dominated proceedings. A number of big Xbox exclusives were shown off, and with the eyes of the world on the games industry in a way that seldom happens, I wonder if Sony will come to see the decision to stand alone as a mistake. There will be a Sony event later in the year – perhaps even this summer – but having missed the party at E3, Microsoft will come away dominating the gaming headlines in the days and weeks ahead.

Pandemic-related delays continue to afflict the industry, and some of the bigger titles shown off won’t hit shelves until next year at the earliest. Despite that, however, there are still big games coming out in the next few months – hopefully enough to tide us over until 2022! Though I didn’t subject myself to every minute of the presentations and chatter, I had fun with this year’s E3. It was generally well done, with plenty of exciting upcoming games to talk about – which is the point, after all.

Let’s take a look at my E3 roundup. I’ve picked out twenty games that I considered to be the most interesting (or the biggest) from this year’s E3. Here they are – in no particular order!

Number 1: Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was the game that tempted me to sign up for Xbox Game Pass last year, so I’m definitely going to take a look at the next game in this fun racing series when it’s ready. Forza Horizon 5 will see the action jump to Mexico, using a similar semi-open world to the previous game, with different types of races, a multitude of cars to choose from, and a focus on a more arcade style of racing over the simulation of the mainline Forza Motorsport titles.

Forza has grown from humble beginnings to become Microsoft’s answer to Gran Turismo, and a fine addition to the Xbox and PC lineup. Mexico is an interesting idea for a setting, and it seems like there will be plenty of dusty deserts and paradise-like tropical beaches to race around. Racing games always manage to look fantastic, and Forza Horizon 5 was definitely one of the prettiest games on show at this year’s E3.

Number 2: Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora

This one was a surprise; I don’t think anyone had it on their radar! Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora was shown off during Ubisoft’s presentation, and was really the highlight of what was otherwise a dull hour populated by updates, expansions, and sequels. The game is due for release next year, which is also when the first of four sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled to hit cinemas. It doesn’t seem like the first-person action game will be a direct adaptation of the film – at least, that’s the impression I got – but the timing can’t be coincidental!

Despite Avatar becoming the highest-grossing film of all time when it was released, more than a decade later it’s not unfair to say that it hasn’t made a huge impact in the cultural landscape, even within the sci-fi genre. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say Avatar has been largely eclipsed by titles released in the decade since, and is almost forgotten at this point. Commissioning what looks to be a big-budget video game of this kind is a bit of a risk under those circumstances, but it seems like it has potential – and the Avatar sequels may succeed at establishing the basis for an ongoing franchise of which this game could be a big part. We’ll have to wait and see! So we can add this one to the pile of games I’m tentatively excited about.

Number 3: Starfield

I was rather surprised to see so little of Starfield – even though its “in engine” trailer was well put-together, and it was certainly our biggest look so far at a game Bethesda chief executive Todd Howard described as both “a new universe” and something set in the future, I had expected to see more actual gameplay. Considering Starfield is still a year and a half away, perhaps the game just wasn’t ready for a more in-depth look.

What we saw was interesting, though. Starfield seems to be doing something superficially similar to television series like The Expanse in the way it handles its spacecraft – a combination of modern military, industrial, and astronaut aesthetics seemed present in the design and layout of the ship we saw in the trailer. I quite like that style, it arguably gives stories a semi-realistic feel when compared to the likes of Star Trek or Star Wars, which both rely on technobabble and fictional technologies. Spaceships in Starfield are said to be fuelled by helium-3 – a real-world substance that can be used for spacecraft fuel.

But, of course, this is the studio that brought us The Elder Scrolls and the modern Fallout games, so it won’t just be a realistic spaceflight simulator! It seems as though there will be exploration involved, as well as encountering alien races!

As I predicted, Starfield will be exclusive to Xbox and PC following Bethesda’s acquisition by Microsoft. This seemed patently obvious to me, but doubtless some PlayStation fans will still be disappointed.

Number 4: Elden Ring

Upcoming hack-and-slash title Elden Ring was one of the first games shown off this year, debuting on Thursday as part of the “Summer Games Fest” presentation. I stated in my preview of E3 that Elden Ring might not be the kind of game I’m interested in, personally speaking… and having seen more of it I can now say that with certainty!

If you’re looking forward to Elden Ring, that’s fantastic. I have no doubt that for fans of certain genres it will be a fun time – but as someone who doesn’t much care for the “extreme difficulty” hack-and-slash gameplay of other FromSoftware titles, this is one I’m going to skip. Nothing in the trailer – from its dark, bland colour palette to its monsters that looked like they’ve been copied and pasted straight from one of the Dark Souls games – appealed to me, and you could’ve told me this was Dark Souls 4 and I’d have believed it.

The involvement of author George R. R. Martin did admittedly pique my curiosity when the game was first announced, and I have no doubt his input will help craft a fantasy setting that is, at the very least, interesting. But that’s about the nicest thing I can say about Elden Ring. It might have an interesting setting with enjoyable lore. Everything else about it makes it look like a game I’ll happily skip.

Number 5: Sea of Thieves crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean

What?! What on Earth did I just see? This crossover between Rare’s multiplayer pirate game Sea of Thieves and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean looks utterly bonkers, and was a total surprise. Multiplayer generally isn’t my thing, as you may know, so I haven’t played much of Sea of Thieves. But this crossover looks like a blast, and I’m sure fans of the game will have a lot of fun.

Sea of Thieves underwhelmed when it launched in 2018, with criticism for feeling rather barebones. But in the three years since launch, developers Rare have added a lot of new content, and the general consensus seems to be that the game is in a good place in 2021. This crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean will surely bring in a lot of new players, and it looks set to give Sea of Thieves a significant boost.

Number 6: The Outer Worlds 2

The Outer Worlds 2 wins the award for “funniest trailer!” Other than a very early tease at the fact that the game exists, we don’t know much at all about the sequel to Oblivion’s 2019 role-playing game. The Outer Worlds drew positive comparisons to the Fallout franchise; Oblivion having made Fallout: New Vegas a few years earlier. With Fallout 76 floundering, The Outer Worlds was talked up as a kind of spiritual successor. I think that description sells it short – The Outer Worlds is its own thing. And now a sequel is on the way which will hopefully be just as much fun and expand the world that the first game created.

As with a number of big, hyped-up titles this year, The Outer Worlds 2 isn’t coming any time soon. However, knowledge of its existence might be enough to tide fans over until its eventual release.

Number 7: Battlefield 2042

So many games nowadays are ditching their single-player campaigns to focus entirely on multiplayer, and Battlefield 2042 is the latest to do so. Sometimes it feels as though games companies are deliberately making shorter and less interesting campaigns, so that when fewer people play them they can say “see, no one wants a single-player mode! That’s why we didn’t make one!”

Battlefield 2042 was shown off with a very slick cinematic trailer, before showing off proper gameplay during Microsoft’s presentation a couple of days later. The gameplay looks… fine. If you like the Battlefield series, I daresay you’ll find this game familiar and enjoyable when it releases later in the year. Following on from 2006’s Battlefield 2142, as well as the likes of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and even Arma III, Battlefield 2042 is taking a near-future setting that will likely allow for a degree of creativity on the part of developers Dice.

In that regard I have to say I like the diversity of settings on offer from modern shooters. Long gone are the days when everything was either sci-fi or World War II, and after the most recent entries in the series looked at World War I and World War II it makes sense to change things up and give fans a different experience. This won’t be one I dive into, but it looks like a solid shooter for folks into that kind of thing.

Number 8: Age of Empires IV

We’ve known for a while that Age of Empires IV has been in the works, but E3 finally gave us a release date: the 28th of October. I’ve had a great time with the remastered Age of Empires games over the last few years, but the initial teaser for Age of Empires IV a few months ago left me distinctly underwhelmed. The game just looked incredibly outdated, and I was genuinely worried for its prospects.

The E3 trailer, however, looked a heck of a lot better. Though Age of Empires IV will be taking a different approach to past games, and will feature fewer factions at launch, it has potential, and I shall certainly give it a try when it arrives on Game Pass this autumn. The original Age of Empires and its Rise of Rome expansion were two of my most-played games of the late 1990s/early 2000s and cemented my love of the real-time strategy genre. After successful remakes of those classic games, it’ll be great to welcome the Age of Empires series to the modern day!

Number 9: Mario Party Superstars

The Nintendo Direct broadcast began with a far-too-long look at a single new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character that really dragged. After that weak start, however, there were a couple of interesting announcements. Mario Party Superstars is probably the one that seemed most exciting to me, as it will be bringing back boards and mini-games from the Mario Party games of the Nintendo 64 era. I have fond memories of playing the original Mario Party with friends on the N64, so this new game seems like it has the potential to be a wonderful blast of nostalgia.

There is already a Mario Party game on the Nintendo Switch, of course, and at first it seemed as though Superstars was simply going to be an expansion for that title. However, it’s a standalone game instead, and is going to be retailing for full price (£50 in the UK). That seems a bit steep to me, and it might end up putting people off. But the idea is interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how Mario Party Superstars does.

Number 10: Chivalry II

Chivalry II is already out – it launched last week. But E3 provided developers Torn Banner Studios another opportunity to plug the game, and they seized it! The game is a medieval combat multiplayer title, with players jumping into large-scale battles with dozens of others. There are a variety of different game modes, including sieges, pitched battles, and others, and despite the fact that I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer, I have to say that the fast-paced hacking and slashing looks like fun!

In a multiplayer scene dominated by first-person shooters, Chivalry II is something different. Stepping back in time to the medieval era, and arming players with swords, shields, bows, and battle-axes instead of guns and rocket launchers really does feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s likely going to remain a fairly niche game by multiplayer standards, but that’s okay. It looks like fun, and maybe I’ll be convinced to check it out some time soon.

Number 11: Shredders

I like winter time and winter-themed titles – especially when it’s summer and there’s a heatwave going on! Shredders will be an Xbox/PC exclusive snowboarding game, and it’s due for release in time for Christmas. The game looked stunning, with great visuals and a snow effect that looked incredibly realistic. The trailer was very cinematic, though, so I’ll wait to see how good the finished product looks in comparison!

There have been some great snowboarding and winter sports games over the years, and I remember games like 1080° Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 and SSX Tricky in the Xbox days with fondness. Shredders looks to be cut from the same cloth as those older titles, so perhaps it’ll be just as much fun when it’s released this winter.

Number 12: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild II

Regular readers may recall that I haven’t played Breath of the Wild – nor indeed any Zelda game. But fans have been clamouring for a sequel to the 2017 Switch launch title ever since it was released, and Nintendo has been hard at work on Breath of the Wild II (real title unknown!) for some time now. We finally got a look at the game at E3.

It looks like… Breath of the Wild. If you liked the first game, what we saw at E3 should be encouraging because it looks very much like more of the same. Link may have new abilities or new weapons, and of course there’ll be new monsters to fight and a new story. But in terms of visuals and the way the game seems to be played, there’s nothing earth-shattering or radically different from the last game.

Number 13: Redfall

I like Redfall’s visual style. The cartoon-inspired art style takes what could’ve been a horror title, featuring a vampire apocalypse, and turns it into something more fun and casual. Billing itself as a team or co-op shooter, Redfall stars a unique cast of characters tasked with fighting off vampires. It’s a game made by Arkane, the studio best-known for the Dishonored duology, as well as a personal favourite of mine from the Xbox era, Arx Fatalis.

Redfall looks to build on the studio’s work with the Dishonored games, but at the same time will take a different approach. It’s definitely one to watch, and I like the idea of using vampires in this way. Vampires in entertainment often follow the Dracula model: one or two very powerful enemies to outsmart and defeat. Television series The Strain stepped away from that and gave us a vampire apocalypse – and it looks like Redfall will try to do something similar in its own unique way.

Number 14: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania

Super Monkey Ball has always been a niche product, even by Nintendo’s cartoony standards! But there’s no denying that the original game was a lot of fun, and with the series hitting its 20th anniversary this year, Nintendo evidently felt that the time was right for a remaster. That’s what Banana Mania is, in case the trailer wasn’t clear – a remaster of the first three Super Monkey Ball games.

I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one. If you like Monkey Ball games, you’ll probably like Banana Mania when it launches on Switch.

Number 15: Bear & Breakfast

One of the few indie games to really shine at E3 this year was Bear & Breakfast. In short, you run a bed and breakfast (i.e. a small-scale hotel) in a forest. But you’re a bear. That’s the gimmick. The art style looks cute, the premise sounds like fun, and I liked the trailer that new developer Gummy Cat put together. I got kind of a Stardew Valley vibe from Bear & Breakfast, which is certainly no bad thing.

All I can really say is that I like this kind of management/tycoon game, and the uniqueness of the premise, combined with the neat visual style, makes Bear & Breakfast appealing to me. There’s currently no release date, but the developer hopes to have the game ready before the end of this year.

Number 16: Grounded

Grounded is currently out in early access (or a “game preview” as Microsoft calls it). For that reason I haven’t checked it out; early access games are hit-and-miss, with far more misses than hits in my experience. But developers Obsidian have been working hard on this Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-inspired title, and a new update to the game looks to add a lot more content.

Though I’m probably still going to wait until Grounded is ready for prime-time, I love the premise of being shrunk down and playing in the grass. There used to be a Disney World attraction based on the 1989 film in which you could walk through an area of the park where grass and everyday items were scaled-up to huge sizes. Grounded reminds me of that!

Number 17: Halo Infinite

We already knew Halo Infinite was in development, but after a disappointing trailer left fans upset last year, the game didn’t launch alongside the Xbox Series X in November. We got to see a little more of the game at E3, and Microsoft dropped the big news that the game’s multiplayer mode will be free-to-play. This is definitely an interesting development, but the only thing I could think was that most Xbox Series X players will already be interested in the Halo series… so I’m not sure that making the multiplayer free will see Halo Infinite pick up a lot more players! But free things are always nice.

The game has definitely been polished since last year’s controversy, and the graphics look decent. The Master Chief’s return after a long absence will definitely be attractive to fans of the series, and with a Halo television show also in production, it seems like the Halo brand is about to undergo a renaissance after a decade in which it arguably underperformed.

Though the Halo series has been a flagship for Xbox, the sheer number of other games on offer as Microsoft snaps up studios and pushes Game Pass hard makes it feel a little less relevant in 2021. Halo Infinite is shaping up to be a good game – but Xbox’s success is no longer as closely-tied to the series as it once was.

Number 18: Dying Light 2: Stay Human

Zombies have been overdone in the last few years, with so many open-world zombie horror games that the industry is more or less burned out on the concept. Dying Light 2, which fans of the original game have been anticipating since 2015, has a mountain to climb, then – but there are positive signs.

There will be no guns in Dying Light 2, with players having to make use of crafted melee weapons in the post-apocalyptic city they find themselves in. There will likewise be no vehicles – the in-universe explanation being that there is no fuel any more, since the zombie virus devastated the world. Both of those semi-realistic concepts feel like they add value to a genre that’s otherwise played out, and Dying Light 2, with its interesting parkour-based movement system carried over from the first game, may have found a niche that will bring players back.

Number 19: Rainbow Six Extraction

I enjoyed Rainbow Six in the early 2000s, and I had the first couple of games in the series on Dreamcast. Rainbow Six Siege was never my thing; a multiplayer live service just held no appeal. And though Extraction brings back characters from Siege, it does so in a very different way. With a focus on cooperative play as opposed to competitive, and with an interesting-sounding premise involving an alien parasite, Extraction has all the elements in place for a fun experience.

Some have criticised the decision to take the previously straight-laced action series in a different direction, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a series like Rainbow Six trying something new. Siege was something new itself when it launched in 2015; the series had previously been a story-centric game with a main campaign, not a multiplayer one. So let’s see what Extraction brings to the table when it launches in September.

Number 20: Slime Rancher 2

One of the most colourful and vibrant games shown off at E3, Slime Rancher 2 is the sequel to 2016’s Slime Rancher, a first-person farming/life simulator. Though we didn’t see much in the way of gameplay – nor even get any significant details – I assume at this stage that the game will take the same premise as the original title and build on it.

Expect to see more of the same, but with new varieties of slimes and perhaps some new crafting or character abilities as well. It looks like fun, and will be released in 2022.

Notable absences:

Before we wrap things up I wanted to mention a few games that were notable by their absence at E3. Though there were plenty of titles we did get to see – the list above is nowhere near comprehensive – there were some titles I was hoping or expecting to hear news of that didn’t appear for one reason or another.

Anything from the Star Wars franchise:

There had been rumours earlier in the year of a Knights of the Old Republic sequel. There’s also Jedi: Fallen Order II (though that’s an EA game, and EA didn’t have a presentation at E3 this year) and Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, which has been delayed multiple times. With so much new content to come from Star Wars, and with the brand ditching its exclusive arrangement with EA, I’m sure there must be more video games in the works. I genuinely expected to hear something about at least one of them!

Grand Theft Auto 6:

Still radio-silence on this from Rockstar, despite Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive having a slot at this year’s E3. We don’t even know for certain that Grand Theft Auto 6 will be Rockstar’s next big game, and with the recent announcement of a port of Grand Theft Auto V to new consoles, it seems like they’re planning to continue to milk that 2013 title for as long as possible. Disappointing.

Mario Kart 9:

As soon as Nintendo said, in the first minute of their broadcast, that they would be focusing on games releasing this year I was sure we wouldn’t see Mario Kart 9! The series’ 30th anniversary is next year, and in my opinion 2022 remains the most likely release date for the next entry in the Mario Kart series. Despite that, however, before E3 I felt there was the potential for the game to be announced in order to begin to get fans hyped up.

Hogwarts Legacy:

Originally announced for 2021 before being delayed to next year, Hogwarts Legacy still sounds like it’ll be good fun. Actual information about the game has been hard to come by, though, with no new information since last year’s reveal. The time seemed right for an update on the game’s progress, but alas!

So that’s it.

With Sony and PlayStation being absent, Microsoft and Xbox dominated proceedings. Nintendo showed off a collection of smaller games that will be of note to their existing fans, but their biggest releases – like Breath of the Wild II and the next Metroid Prime title – are still a long way off. There were plenty of interesting games, though – far more than I’ll ever be able to play!

E3 worked well in this stripped-down, audience-free format. I hope they decide to stick with it going forward, even when the pandemic settles and in-person events are okay again. I just found the whole thing much simpler and more enjoyable, with less of a focus on presenters and staging and more of a focus on the thing we all care about: games.

The games I found most interesting are listed above, but there were many more shown off as well. Practically all of the trailers are now online on YouTube and similar websites, so take a look. I’m sure there’s something for everyone!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of Xbox, IGDB and/or E3. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Will the Avatar sequels improve the franchise’s standing?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Avatar.

James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi film Avatar never really managed to break into pop culture in quite the way he hoped. It was a huge financial success – in part because folks were curious to see what this new project was all about – but it never really became a top-tier entertainment brand in the way Star Wars or Harry Potter did. In 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, and in the years afterwards the film was constantly on fans’ minds. The Empire Strikes Back cemented its place at the pinnacle of the sci-fi genre… even if Return of the Jedi perhaps tarnished its halo a little!

Avatar just isn’t on that level. There was a lot of hype leading up to its release, with a decent (if rather boastful) marketing campaign spearheading 20th Century Fox’s efforts to push Avatar as the “next big thing.” But for a lot of moviegoers, the film was just okay. It wasn’t bad; it was a solid, enjoyable summer blockbuster that went toe-to-toe with the best pictures of 2009 – including the rebooted Star Trek! But after leaving the cinema, I never really got the sense that fans were clamouring for more in the way Trekkies, Potter-heads, and Star Wars fans are for their respective franchises.

Avatar was a successful film – but can it become a successful franchise?

The creation of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World in Florida is a great demonstration of this. The new land attracted attention when it was built, and for months after it opened its rides were queuing out the door! But that happens for almost any new Disney attraction, and when compared to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, it pales in comparison. There was huge excitement to be transported to a galaxy far, far away. There was curious interest in Pandora… but that was all.

None of this is to say Avatar was bad. It wasn’t at all, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I first saw it. But I was never desperate to re-watch it, and my latest revisit to the 2009 film – which may be the third or fourth time I’ve seen it – was prompted by nothing more than boredom. But it also led to this article, so at least I got something out of it!

Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World.

This is a much broader point that ties into another piece I’ve been writing, but the difference between a good one-off story and a good story that becomes a larger franchise is world-building. Any film, television show, book, or even video game that hopes to be “the next Star Wars” needs to put time and effort into creating a world that fans want to explore. Star Wars and Star Trek did so, and they did so by showing fans a relatively small piece of what felt like a huge picture. The galaxies depicted in Star Wars and Star Trek are so much bigger than the few characters we met in their original incarnations; it feels like there’s much more to see beyond what was depicted on screen.

Avatar – and a lot of other wannabe-franchises too – doesn’t have that, at least not yet. Partly that’s because the film doesn’t hint at anything more than what we see – Earth, Pandora… and that’s it. And on Pandora there’s one major human outpost. There are starships flying back and forth, and the glimpses we got of Earth had a futuristic vibe, but the world Avatar created doesn’t feel as though it extends beyond the places we see. There’s no other planets that we could imagine humans or Na’vi colonising one day. There’s no fleets of starships on missions of exploration or fighting battles; the few ships we see just fly between Earth and Pandora.

A starship seen in Avatar.

Pandora itself is absolutely beautiful; a location painstakingly created. And the Na’vi are more than just a simple analogue for Native Americans or other indigenous peoples; Cameron and his team went to great lengths to craft Na’vi culture, even going so far as to write a fully-formed Na’vi language. Those efforts may yet pay off, but they don’t seem to have thus far. Because as interesting as the Na’vi are – and they are undeniably interesting – they’re all there is. One tribe of Na’vi and one human settlement on Pandora, and… what? Nothing else, as far as the film showed us.

There’s a sense of scale missing from Avatar, and its world-building, while wonderfully done, is small. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect of a story and a few characters – in the first film in a series that kind of needs to happen! But if the aim is to create a series with franchise potential, something to hook fans in and get our imaginations running, that sense of scale and the idea of a greater world beyond what we see on screen is essential. It’s the single most important element in building a larger story – and Avatar didn’t get it right.

So on to the question I posed at in the title of this article: can the planned sequels – of which there are four – improve the franchise’s standing? Can they spin out what was a decent one-off sci-fi blockbuster into something more? Can Avatar make the jump and become “the next Star Wars?”

Two Na’vi seen in concept art for the Avatar sequel series.

The length of time between Avatar and its sequels may be an issue. By the time Avatar 2 hits cinemas in December 2022 – assuming it meets its planned release date – thirteen years will have passed since the first title. Given the general apathy and lack of interest in Avatar this long after its premiere, the first part of this sequel series will have to spend at least some of its runtime refreshing audiences on what happened in the first film and what the setting is. When I sat down to re-watch Avatar earlier, I had only a vague recollection of the film, and I daresay a lot of folks will be in the same position.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, it had been only three years since Star Wars had been in cinemas. And while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released a decade after The Original Series ended, the only reason the film was made was because there was a growing fanbase who had watched the show when it was rebroadcast and those fans were clamouring for more. Is anyone clamouring for Avatar 2?

A scene on Pandora from concept art.

Avatar was a welcome addition to the sci-fi genre. Especially as the last decade has been dominated by reboots, adaptations, remakes, and sequels, it was a welcome breath of fresh air, and despite what I’ve said about its world feeling small, there is potential for it to be expanded upon. To say that the Avatar series can never be more than it already is would be ridiculous – there’s only been one film so far, and it was decent. It didn’t blow up the genre or redefine what a film could be in the way its pre-release marketing seemed to suggest, but it was good. I don’t dislike Avatar.

The sequels do have a pretty big job to do, though. The storyline of Avatar was exciting, but it was hardly original. Comparisons have been made to Dances with Wolves and even Disney’s Pocahontas, and while I don’t think it’s fair to call it derivative, it wasn’t a unique narrative by any means. That point of criticism will have to be addressed, and the sequels will have to try harder to be different from a story perspective if they’re to achieve the heights the films are aiming for.

Na’vi fly atop their banshees in more concept art.

The beautiful world-building that worked so well for Pandora and the Na’vi needs to be expanded upon. Perhaps we could see different Na’vi tribes and civilisations on Pandora, or better yet, expand the scope of the setting out into space. Are there other moons or planets in the Pandora system, perhaps? Or is there another human settlement on some nearby world? These are just a couple of ideas for how the Avatar series can build on the successes of the first film to be bigger – to achieve that sense of scale which the best and most successful franchises have.

Avatar was also a film which had contemporary real-world analogies. I noted influences of at least two of America’s recent wars in the depiction of the Marines, scientists, and Na’vi – Vietnam and Iraq. The dense rainforests of Pandora, and the way Jake and others had trouble navigating them, were the film’s answer to the jungles of Vietnam. And references to winning “the hearts and minds” of the locals was a phrase we heard often in relation to the Iraq war during the 2000s – which is when Avatar was in development. The latter of those themes is arguably less relevant in 2021 than it was in 2009, and Avatar 2 will need to adapt to changing times.

Night time on Pandora in this final piece of concept art.

One improvement we’re sure to see is in CGI and digital animation. Avatar was released at a time when CGI was improving – and was far better than it had been even five or ten years earlier – but there are still some aspects of its visual style that haven’t aged especially well. Some textures have that “too shiny” look that plagued cinematic CGI in the 2000s, and while viewing the film on a cinema or IMAX projector screen dulled the impact of some of that, on a television set in 2021 it’s something you notice. I wouldn’t say Avatar looks dated – but it’s right on the cusp. A film that relies so heavily on computer animation – many of Avatar’s sequences are basically fully-animated – is always going to run that risk, and while it has aged more gracefully than, for example, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, there are still noticeable places where the animation isn’t up to code.

There have been improvements in computer animation since 2009, which should mean Avatar 2 and the rest of the sequel series will be far more visually interesting. Pandora was already beautiful, but if that beauty could be expanded upon I think the sequels could really be something special. Some fans tend to turn up their noses at visuals, but if you think about it, a distinct visual style is another absolutely crucial element to a franchise. Star Trek has combadges, ships with saucer sections, Klingons, and the transporter. Star Wars has white-armoured Stormtroopers, lightsabers, Jabba the Hutt, and X-wings. Avatar introduced us to the blue-skinned Na’vi, but none of its technology, characters, costumes, or locations have become iconic in the same way as the other franchises we’ve mentioned. Part of that is down to the quality of the CGI, but partly it’s the film’s own art style. Avatar 2 could introduce a new design for a starship, character, or even just a costume that will go on to be emblematic of the series – in the way that Boba Fett became a symbol of Star Wars after his debut in The Empire Strikes Back, for example.

So yes, there’s work to do to expand on Pandora and the world Avatar created in 2009. But I’m really interested to see where Avatar 2 will take the story after the conclusion of the first film, and what the other films in the planned sequel series have in store. James Cameron is an amazing director, and having put so much work and effort into the Avatar series, I really hope it will see the kind of success he’s looking for. There’s always room for more sci-fi franchises!

Avatar is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and may be streamed on Disney+ in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries and territories. Avatar is the copyright of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company. Avatar 2 is due for release in December 2022. Logo and official promotional artwork courtesy of avatar.com. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.