Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Review – Otherworldly Exploration, Grounded Combat

James Cameron’s Avatar franchise has been crying out for a good video game adaptation since Day One. The IP has always been more about immersion and worldbuilding than storytelling, two things games do better than any other medium. Despite this, the interactive potential of the franchise has largely lay dormant (a forgettable Xbox-360-era game aside) until the recent release of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

Developed by The Division masterminds Massive Entertainment with full involvement from James Cameron’s crew, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora offers up an expansive open world and sky-high production values, but is the game a transporting experience? Or will you regret opening this particular Pandora’s box? Time to get back to pastel-colored nature…

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora casts players as a Na’vi orphan who’s taken in by the RDA (Resources Development Administration) for “reeducation” after they wipe out your clan, the Sarentu. The Avatar franchise has never exactly been subtle about the fact that the Na’vi are essentially stand-ins for real-world Indigenous peoples, and Frontiers of Pandora’s setup mirrors Canadian residential schools and other historical attempts to force assimilation onto Native people around the globe. Avatar hasn’t always delivered its metaphors gracefully, by Frontiers handles its heavy subject matter with a fair amount of tact. Both the game’s protagonist and her former “classmates” are likable characters, and to my surprise, the solid writing continued throughout the game. Frontiers serves up some emotional twists, turns, and real character development. This is one the better-written Ubisoft games I’ve played in a while, and frankly, its story even holds up fairly well against the Avatar movies.

Following its initial setup, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora lets you loose in a sprawling open world comparable in size to recent Far Cry games. The lushness of the world is impressive, with the opening Kinglor Forest region being home to all manner of reactive otherwordly flora and fauna, floating cliffs, and waterfalls, as well as the occasional patrolling RDA squad. This environment is further brought to life with ray-traced global illumination and reflections, vibrant HDR implementation, an eye-catching particle system, and more. Frontiers of Pandora is a Crysis-like GPU melter on the highest PC settings, but the game has been scaled well to PS5, with players getting a choice of a 30fps Quality mode or 60fps Performance mode without having to give up ray tracing or much in the way of environmental detail.

Admittedly, there are times when all the visual splendor and detail can feel a bit much. A bit cluttered. Thankfully, Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t just have one visual note to play. While you begin in a dense jungle biome, eventually you’ll make your way to the Upper Plains, and gorgeous grassland home to herds of alien beasts and gales so strong all the trees grow at a permanent windswept angle. Then, in the last act of the game, you’ll make your way to the misty coniferous Clouded Forest where secrets and revelations await you. Visual glitches do occasionally spoil the graphical grandeur, although, by Ubisoft standards, the jank level is fairly low (that said, I did encounter a serious progress-blocking bug at one point, which is a major reason this review is a bit late).

So, yes, the world of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is pretty, but what do you do there? There are plenty of your typical Ubisoft open-world activities to pursue – RDA outposts to take down, research posts to revive, and so on – but overall, Frontiers of Pandora’s world feels a lot more engaging than your typical Far Cry map. The Western Frontier brings to mind the Xenoblade Chronicles games or even the likes Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Getting to certain location isn’t just a matter of setting a map marker and mindlessly running toward it for a couple minutes, as getting around often feels like a challenging environmental puzzle.

You’ll find yourself scrambling up sprawling tree roots, using giant leaves to break your fall as you plunge off cliffs, and creeping through neon-lit hidden caves. Eventually, you can fly above it all on the back of your customizable Ikran or gallop across the plains on a direhorse. Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of crafting materials to collect, creatures to hunt, and special plants that will allow you to unlock new skills and level up your character. It isn’t just the world that’s interesting, the Na’vi themselves are also lively and engaging. You’ll visit large Na’vi settlements, like the Hometree in Kinglor Forest or the bustling nomadic village in the Upper Plains, and will frequently encounter Na’vi hunting, gathering, or just going about their business out in the wilderness.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora truly gives you the feeling of exploring a living world, with sidequests that actually feel worth doing. Sure, there are some typical “collect X number of random doo-dads” missions, but you’ll also find yourself solving multi-step mysteries, playing matchmaker, going on dangerous hunts, and more. A unique approach to in-game merchants, in where you spend “clan favor” earned by helping other Na’vi, further helps foster the feeling you’re navigating a believable-feeling society. I’ll admit, I was happy to just lose myself for hours exploring some of Frontiers of Pandora’s more low-key sidequests or just searching for crafting materials. This is a testament to the quality of the world Massive have created, but there’s another less positive reason why I was drawn to take it easy off the beaten path.

While losing yourself in the alien wilderness can be an enthralling experience, when it comes to any sort of serious combat scenario against the RDA, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is kind of a drag. Given your character’s unique background, you can wield either RDA weapons (assault rifles, shotguns, ect.) or Na’vi weapons (bows, spears, ect.) with the latter being more of a focus early on. It feels like RDA bases ought to be tackled in a sneaky way, but you quickly find out you don’t really have much of a stealth tool kit. You can crouch and eventually unlock skills that silence your footsteps or allow you to pull off stealth kills, but a lot of other basic tools are missing. There’s no way to hide in shadows or the underbrush, distract enemies, or get a proper overview of the facility you’re infiltrating – stuff Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed series has been doing for 15 years. Enemies are arranged in ways that make it very hard to pick them off individually and once you’re spotted, the whole base is alerted. Is stealth technically possible? Sure, but only if you don’t value your sanity.

That said, going for a frontal assault isn’t a great idea either. You may be a 9-foot-tall Na’vi, but you’re still relatively frail, particularly early on when you’re ineffectually twanging arrows at giant RDA mechs. More often than not, the “solution” is to hit-and-run – highlight objective markers with your Na’vi senses, beeline for whatever switch you have to pull, then scurry back into the forest until the RDA break off their pursuit. Rinse and repeat. Tackling missions like this works, and I suppose it makes sense that the Na’vi would adopt these kind of guerrilla tactics, but if feels cheap and, more crucially, not fun.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora pulls you in with its dazzling world, then pushes you away its frustrating combat. After a play session I 80 percent enjoyed, I’d leave with a sour taste in my mouth after repeatedly banging my head against some maddening RDA outpost. If you can handle this push and pull, there is plenty to enjoy here. Frontier of Pandora’s main campaign will take you around 20 hours, more if you’re easily distracted, and 100 percenting the game is at least a 40-hour effort. Whether you’ll actually want to explore until your face is blue is up to you.

This review was based on a PS5 copy of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora provided by publisher Ubisoft. 

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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a remarkable achievement in many ways, bringing a cinematic world to life on a massive, technically-impressive scale like few games have done before. Unfortunately, limited, frustrating combat means the game isn’t always that fun to play once you bump into the RDA. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora’s world is worth experiencing if you’re a fan of James Cameron’s movies, but as the franchise often reminds us, sky people ruin beautiful things.

Pros
  • Involving setup and story
  • Luxurious cutting-edge visuals
  • Immersive, engaging world design
  • Plenty of content
Cons
  • Combat is a nuisance
  • Can be glitchy at times

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