Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora unabashedly follows in the footsteps of its parent franchise. The film series takes clear inspiration from previous media but plastered on a sci-fi setting so visually spectacular that it became almost essential viewing. And yet despite being the highest-grossing movie ever made, most would struggle to remember a single character’s name. Such is the case with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, only the visuals aren’t quite as impressive and the gameplay formula it is built upon isn’t as compelling. There is a beautiful world to experience here when the game isn’t beating you over the head with its themes and needless busy work. This is a world worth experiencing, but won’t leave you craving more by its conclusion.
It’s in your nature
Taking place between Avatar and its sequel The Way of Water, Frontiers of Pandora’s setup opens plenty of new doors for the game to explore different narrative threads than the source material. You play as a Na’vi, not a human controlling an Avatar of one, who has been ripped from their clan to be indoctrinated by the RDA along with a few others. As the climax of the first film occurs and Human and Na’vi relationships break down, you are set to be executed. Instead, your human teacher throws you into cryopods and you end up sleeping for over a decade before reawakening.
As something of a hybrid between a Ubisoft open-world game and part of the Avatar universe, Frontiers of Pandora unfortunately adopts some of the worst qualities from both sources. On the Ubisoft side, you get a mostly disjointed narrative where characters act more like quest-givers than actual people. There are a few Na’vi that somewhat break that mold, however never feel fully realized. Many characters are constrained to Bethesda-style conversations at the beginning and end of quests.
Thematically, two main threads are set up on a micro and macro scale. Your character’s personal quest to learn what it means to be Na’vi is tied directly to the grander objective of repelling the RDA and undoing the pollution ravaging Pandora. Both accounts leave something to be desired, and it all comes down to nuance.
The game loves to tell your character they need to learn and remember what it means to be Na’vi, but doesn’t even entertain the idea of what that means to someone who has been culturally assimilated by another species. For all the parallels Frontiers is happy to make between itself and the colonization of Native Americans, the refusal to dig deeper into such a heinous aspect of that history is a gross omission.
What Frontiers isn’t afraid to make a statement about, and wants to make as clear as possible, is that pollution is bad. Every major outpost in the game is some sort of refinery or mining outpost that turns the normally lush and vibrant environment into a drab, brown, and lifeless patch of dirt. If that wasn’t enough to get the point across, the moment you destroy one of these outposts, color and life suddenly springs back into the entire area before your eyes. It is as though all the harm the RDA causes could be immediately reversed if they just turned their machines off for five minutes a day. Mechanically I get it, but it cheapens the entire premise of trying to preserve your planet.
A Far Cry from home
If there’s one thing Frontiers captures perfectly, it’s the overwhelming sensory experience of Pandora. From the first moments you step out into the wilds, the game shows off all the vibrant colors and otherworldly wildlife it can throw at you. Had this game been available when the first movie hit, it absolutely would’ve cured any supposed case of “post-Avatar depression syndrome.”
For all its visual splendor, the downside to such a bright and saturated world is that it becomes much more difficult for designers to subtly guide the player. This is an open-world game, so most of the time it isn’t an issue, but there are instances where you’re meant to go down a specific path that doesn’t always feel intuitive. This is also where the game’s minimal UI becomes a double-edged sword. It is fantastic to finally have a game where your screen isn’t polluted with icons, objectives, waypoints, and text at every second, but without an alternative signposting method, the experience can become frustrating.
That isn’t an issue when you tackle the enemy outposts. These industrial zones could be ripped out of any mid-2010s shooter, complete with cement walls, catwalks, and pipelines to crawl across to avoid patrolling troops. In a show of respectable restraint, Frontiers doesn’t litter the map with dozens of these bases to tackle and instead makes each one larger and more involved, thus more satisfying to complete.
Approaching these bases will feel quite familiar to any Far Cry title. You make your approach, tag all the enemies, and either go in stealthfully, loud or a combination of the two. The slight wrinkle this game adds is that there are around three or four objectives in each base that you need to interact with to fully take it down, meaning you can do it without killing a single enemy, or blitz from one to the next and pray you live long enough to trigger the final one before dropping dead.
The number of weapons is likewise paired down and more meaningful here, with only a handful doled out through the game, mixing in Na’vi bows and spears with RDA rifles. The Na’vi weapons end up being more satisfying thanks to the more detailed and deliberate animations compared to your standard firearms.
Of course, this wouldn’t be an open-world Ubisoft game without a crafting element. The best thing I can say about it is that it is easily forgettable. Aside from grabbing basic materials for healing or making arrows on occasion, you can ignore this feature if you don’t want to spend time scrounging around for ingredients and hunting animals. What’s more interesting is that buying new items and gear isn’t handled through cash, but different forms of trading. Some vendors only trade for items collected from RDA bases, while Na’vi clans deal in clan favor where doing quests or contributing your own resources to the tribe earns you “points” to trade in for new wares. It’s a nice bit of immersion that feels true to the setting.
The final frontier
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora sits somewhere between appealing to Far Cry fans and Avatar fans. The world itself is a visual showcase that is rich with detail and a treat to explore, and the open-world formula shows some much-needed restraint compared to the typical Ubisoft fare. Where it falters is in giving the player a strong motivation to see your character’s story through. You will quickly get fed up with its heavy-handed delivery of environmental concerns, regardless of what your personal opinions on that matter are, and wish more focus had been put on the more interesting cultural conversations only teased. The sights and sounds of Pandora are only one ingredient of what makes the world feel real – it’s the people who inhabit it and who they are.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was reviewed on PC with a code provided by Ubisoft. It is available on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC on December 7.
- Immaculate world design and detail
- Combat encounters are less frequent and more meaningful
- Unique trading system
- Beats you over the head with its message
- Lack of compelling characters
- Leaves interesting conversations on the table