'Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora' review: Ubisoft's open-world formula strikes again

5 months ago 95
screenshot of Blue Na'vi riding a direhouse in a wideshot of scenic plains

Just like the franchise it bases its existence on, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is the video game equivalent of catching that one popular movie on TNT at 2 pm on a Tuesday. You didn't watch it when it was released in theaters years ago, but you have a free afternoon and want to waste some time.

That about sums up my first impressions of Massive Entertainment's trek into the world of Pandora. It's nothing great or special, but damn, it's beautiful. After having played about 70 percent of the game, thanks to a review code from Ubisoft, I can say it was one of the games of the year, lost in the shuffle behind the releases of the excellent Super Mario Bros. Wonder and Alan Wake 2. However, if you're a fan of Avatar and the lush world created by director James Cameron, you will love this game.

We're not in Kansas anymore

landscape shot of Pandora
Credit: Massive Entertainment / Ubisoft

Launched on Dec. 7 and published by Ubisoft (we'll talk more on this later), Frontiers of Pandora takes place 16 years after the end of Dances with Wolves, I mean, 2009's Avatar. Before the events of that movie, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) kidnapped a group of Na'vi children to train as soldiers loyal to humans. Fast-forward 8 years to the events of Avatar and Jake Sully's rebellion, the player character and his Na'vi captives are put in cryostasis and are awoken a decade and a half later.

This lays the groundwork for the rest of the story that follows your newly awakened Na'vi character unleashed into the Western Frontier of Pandora — a previously unexplored region in the movies and to the player character who's been cooped up inside a base for the majority of their lives. This presents an interesting plot element to the story, as both the player and the player character are new to this world and what it has to offer, which is a lot.

Pandora is a breathtaking, vividly imagined alien landscape that's been fully realized by the team at Massive. This is no surprise considering the tremendous amount of environmental detail the studio put into its previous works, The Division and The Division 2. The Western Frontier is broken into three major zones: Kinglor Forest, The Upper Plains, and The Clouded Forest.

Kinglor Forest provides the starter area for the player character after escaping from the RDA base where they had slept in cryostasis for the past 16 years. The flora and fauna are both exotic and vibrant, featuring bioluminescent plants and creatures that glow with ethereal light, creating a dreamlike and otherworldly ambiance. The Upper Plains of Pandora are vast, open areas that stretch far into the horizon. They are characterized by their wide, rolling terrain, which offers a stark contrast to the dense, vertical landscapes of the rainforests and floating mountains. The Clouded Forest, as the name suggests, is shrouded in mists and clouds, giving it a mystical, ethereal quality. This constant veil of fog adds a sense of mystery and enchantment to the forest, which is covered in towering, hulking trees that make even the 10-foot-tall Na'vi seem small in comparison.

All these areas combined make for a world that's asking to be explored to the fullest. The game even offers an exploration mode that removes most of the UI and quest markers and forces the player to use their "Na'vi senses" to figure out where they need to go. This mode can be a bit frustrating at times, but it's an intuitive way to explore the world and make use of the games' Hunter's Guide and the map's biomes. The excellent world design makes it to where it's really hard to get lost in the world unless you aren't paying attention.

The map is huge, and even with the additions of the Ikran and Direhorse, that allow you to fly and ride through Pandora, getting to your next destination can still be quite the trek. There's a level of painstaking detail that is underappreciated in games like this. And thanks to the fluid player movement, exploring Pandora is even more fun.

lush and vibrant flora and fauna
Credit: Massive Entertainment / Ubisoft

Much of the beginning of the game is awkward. From the pacing, the voice acting, and even the movement — everything just feels a little undercooked. That is, until you're let loose into Pandora, where the movement shines. As the Na'vi, you can run faster and jump higher than your human counterparts. With that added strength and agility, the world is built around that, allowing players to reach wherever they want. That is no exaggeration, and I found myself spending time trying to climb mountain landscapes just to see if I could (and the answer was yes, I could, but a bit of cheese was involved).

I played Frontiers of Pandora on my Playstation 5 in Performance mode, and despite how dense the locals are, I had no issues running the game at a full 60fps, bar a few minor bugs. However, playing this game in quality mode is a different story. The game is designed around the agile quickness of the Na'vi, and that is severely hampered when the game is locked at 30fps, so if you want the game to run as intended, you'll have to sacrifice some graphical fidelity (which isn't a bad thing at all since the game looks gorgeous regardless).

It's another Ubisoft open world

A na'vi sits in waiting in the forest with a bow and arrow
Credit: Massive Entertainment / Ubisoft

A lot can be said about the open-world model, from the repetitive gameplay and mission structures to overwhelming maps filled with numerous but similar activities, and a formulaic design that prioritizes quantity over quality. Unfortunately, some of those same problems can be found in Frontiers.

To be clear, this game is not an alien planet version of Far Cry, however, it does offer a similar gameplay structure.

This includes the RDA bases littered throughout the world that the players can destroy to revive the landscape that's been ravaged by the horrors of capitalist industrialism, and the plot revolves around helping the various factions fight back against the RDA. Beyond that, the emphasis on exploration and the minimalist interface is far beyond what the usual Ubisoft game has to offer, which is a welcome change of pace from Far Cry 6 — a game that demanded the player do something every five seconds for fear we'd get bored.

Frontiers offers more substantial open-world hunting and gathering that's similar to the mechanics in Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2. The game places heavy emphasis on swift kills of wildlife and gentle fruit gathering to yield better resources used to eat and cook food that replenishes the players' health and energy. Using human weapons like the Assault Rifle or Shotgun on wildlife will render carcasses ruined. Additionally, with the resources you've gathered, you can use them to craft better equipment for yourself or your Ikran (your flying companion) — or give them to the various Na'vi tribes you meet in the game to curry clan favors that can be used to receive high-quality items.

This system is, at times, at odds with the game's narrative focus on environmental sustainability as I kill heaps of deer to craft better gear. It's made even weirder that after a certain point in the story, the player character will pray each time when gathering from the animals they just slaughtered.

A hanger of AMP, giant walking exoskeletons that serves as enemies in the game
Credit: Massive Entertainment / Ubisoft

Speaking of combat, it's one of the weakest parts of the game. The player is given the standard Ubisoft weapon wheel of various bows, arrows, and guns. Each packs a punch, and the longbow combat feels immensely satisfying. Being a 10-foot-tall alien, your arrows are like javelins to the puny humans in your way, and there's a sick delight in seeing an RDA soldier flung into the air after shooting them with your longbow. You also get a slingshot that can launch explosives and traps.

The two guns you receive, the assault rifle and the shotgun, are also very fun to use. The shotgun, in particular, is obscenely overpowered and I found myself only using that near the endpoint of the game. Part of that choice is because stealth is a complete waste of time in this game. I understand that a Na'vi is super noticeable amongst the industrialized monstrosities that are the RDA bases, but these behemoth structures are begging to be stealth-ed. However, it's super easy to be spotted by enemies, and once you are, the ENTIRE area knows where you are. Adding to the frustration is the fact that, no matter how hard you try, your character inexplicably seems to be made of glass, leading to numerous deaths that made me not want to come back to the game.

At its best, the combat is serviceable for a game I think would make a better walking simulator than an action-focused FPS. At its worst, Frontiers is an exercise in patience in the face of excruciating bullshit. I'd mention Ikran combat, but it feels so shallow, that I don't think it's worth mentioning at length. It's not bad, but it can be improved because the current implementation of the Ikran feels like it was an afterthought. After all, it's in the movies.

Tell don't show

A Na'vi encounters a Ikran
Credit: Massive Entertainment / Ubisoft

It's rare to see a movie game follow in lock and key with its namesake, but Frontiers manages to do that. Just like Avatar and Way of Water, Frontiers' plot serves secondary to the world and universe it's based in. While the movies were nothing special plot and character-wise (especially with the first being an egregious "white savior" movie), they were more a showcase of the sheer technical spectacle put on display. Playing Frontiers feels the same way with a shallow plot and, at times, annoying characters.

Nothing about the story was a surprise. Having been raised to be a soldier by the RDA, our main antagonist is John Mercer, an evil corporate stooge motivated by revenge and greed that you have a personal grudge against. Mercer and co-baddie Angela Harding only have two defining character traits: they're mean and hate the Na'vi. It's effective for quickly establishing the villain, and your own character's motives, but it's lacking in depth.

Having escaped from him and the RDA, the player is tasked with convincing the three major tribes on Pandora, the Aranahae, Zeswa, and Kame'tire, to join forces with the revolution to stop the RDA from destroying the planet. A basic plot made even more boring by the weak antagonists and even weaker side characters. The player character is given just enough to be established as a character with some goals and motivations, but it's clear the studio intended them to be a conduit.

Even worse, the NPCs in the game appear to be professional yappers. It was hard to tell if this was a case of "Bethesda's Bug," but whenever I'd go to a base to re-up on supplies, I was overwhelmed by the NPC dialogue as the characters constantly talked over each other. It was like playing an inane version of Senua's Sacrifice, but with characters that endlessly regurgitate the same 3-4 lines.

Having been spoiled by game-of-the-year contenders like Baldur's Gate 3 and Alan Wake 2, the motion capture and voice performance left a lot to be desired. The first 10 minutes of this game feature some of the most awkwardly paced scenes as the game rushes through fade cuts to get the player to the "good part." Any of the tension of what's been set up is then undercut as the player character is constantly bombarded with random microaggressions by the human characters you're supposed to be allied with. And while the franchise has never been a bastion of accurate representations of Native and Indigenous peoples, there's a certain bit of whiplash to hearing the term "Residential School" be used to refer to the Na'vi ambassador program your player character was raised in.

Overall, Frontiers suffers from a massive "show, don't tell" problem where the horrors of being raised to be a child soldier by your alien oppressors are constantly lectured at you as a lazy way to establish a narrative without genuinely engaging the player in the story's emotional depth or complexity. This narrative approach makes it difficult to harbor any negative emotions towards Mercer and the RDA beyond a simplistic "colonialism is bad" sentiment.

There's a lot that can be explored here, like the complexities and nuances of an interstellar conflict, cultural assimilation, identity crisis, and the moral ambiguities of rebellion and resistance. However, these deeper themes are often undermined by the game's lack of depth in storytelling and character development, leaving the player detached from the emotional core of the narrative and the plight of its characters.

Frontiers of Pandora is by no means a bad game. Truthfully, it's a good game. Casting a dark shadow on the lavish beauty and opulence, the flaws are so glaring that it's difficult not to be disappointed by what it could've been.

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