Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Review
Whether or not you’re a fan of James Cameron’s Avatar films, it’s impossible to deny that they are breathtaking in their ambition and groundbreaking in their use of digital technology. They’ve been called indulgent and excessive, too, and not exactly subtle when it comes to storytelling. To at least some extent, the same adjectives apply to Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. It shares the same breathtaking world as the films, and pushes the boundaries of gaming technology. Looks can be deceiving, though. Unfortunately, Frontiers of Pandora’s gameplay and fun factor don’t match the impressive visuals.
Film Quality World Building
Let’s be clear about one thing: Frontier of Pandora’s world and art design can be jaw dropping. At higher resolutions they are nearly as exquisitely detailed and every bit as impressive as the films. Every screen is a riot of color, movement, and life. The plants and animals, the weather systems, and the lighting are some of the most detailed we have seen in an open-world game to date. It’s all canon, too, as Cameron and company approved every bioluminescent pixel on the screen. From the moment your character escapes the game’s bland beginning and steps into the lush environment, you’ll never stop being generally impressed by the world. It’s remarkable.
I need to note that the publisher was generous enough to supply both PC and PS5 codes. Why? At least on PC, Frontiers of Pandora might be a significantly less immersive experience for anyone without a CPU/GPU in excess of “recommended” specs. Even with the recommended specs, I encountered minutes-long loading times, pop-in, missing textures, sound dropouts and stutters, server disconnects, desktop crashes, bugged quests, and frequent falling through scenery into Pandora’s digital netherworld. To its credit, Frontiers of Pandora does offer a very wide range of graphical and accessibility options, if only to let a range of systems get the thing up and running in some form. Still, take the game’s recommended PC specs with a grain of salt.
On the PS5, things were much more stable, though by no means perfect. While loading times were a fraction of those on my chugging PC, there were some lingering issues with missing elements in the character creator and nearly omnipresent pop in textures. Still, for any players with mid-range PCs or below and also access to a current gen console, the latter is definitely the way to go.
Taking place just prior to the second film, Avatar: The Way of Water, you play as a Na’vi unexpectedly brought out of cryosleep and thrust into a newly awakened war between the Na’vi and newly returned RDA, who have established a base of operations in the so-far unseen Western Frontiers. As part of the Na’vi resistance, your tasks are to help destroy the RDA’s many military bases and mining operations, and to rediscover your heritage as a Na’vi and last surviving Sarentu tribe. You learn the ways of the Na’vi, meet the three main tribes of the region, and discover how to live in harmony with nature and assist your people. As with the films, the thematic subtext is clear. Man’s destructive intrusion into unspoiled nature does not end well for anyone. We won’t spoil any more of the plot.
Frontiers of Pandora will be compared, and rightly so, to games like the Far Cry franchise and Horizon: Zero Dawn. The comparison is certainly apt in terms of general gameplay loops and mechanics. Unfortunately, Frontiers of Pandora has fewer memorable characters or story beats. There’s certainly no big bad to equal the likes of Far Cry 6’s Giancarlo Esposito. The writing and voice acting are fine, though much of the dialogue is a bit stilted and blandly expository. Then again, that criticism could be leveled at the films, too. Despite this, the tribes’ reverence for nature and tradition comes through clearly.
Gameplay splits into two main branches. There are multiple systems for exploration, crafting, hunting, and learning the ways of Na’vi and its tribes. Most of these would feel right at home in a survival/crafting game. Then there’s combat against RDA soldiers, mechs, and flying units. You quickly have access to various bows, rifles, and even RPGs, and can use your Na’vi senses to track the location of enemies. There are, of course, systems for upgrading both your combat and crafting abilities. A great many core missions involve defending Na’vi locations or infiltrating RDA bases.
Sometimes, though, the game’s combat and survival crafting mechanics just don’t mesh or work as intended. I liked that weather and time of day impact the plant and animal life and how or when they can be harvested. But having to do a mini game every time I pick a piece of fruit, especially during combat or a timed sequence, is an unnecessary and eventually tedious complication. Using the Na’vi senses mechanic to locate and identify plants and animals works well, but it’s less consistent spotting human enemies and the glowing blob of a mission objective does little to guide the player. Frontiers of Pandora tries too hard to avoid the Ubisoft open-world problem of map clutter and hand-holding. Finally, for a game that pushes the player to find specific resources, those items are frustratingly scarce.
Frontiers of Pandora is played primarily in first person, except for occasional sequences like flying. If nothing else, this decision aligns the game more closely with Far Cry than Assassin’s Creed or Horizon. It works fine, though it undercuts some of the RPG elements like character creation and the visual impact of clothing and armor. Since character level is based on gear, not seeing it change is disappointing.
Pretty But Copy Pasted
Frontiers of Pandora loses luster thanks to its often bland missions, many of which seem copy/pasted from other Ubisoft open-world games. Main campaign missions are sometimes weirdly paced, too, with minutes of uneventful travel – or, just as likely, aimless wandering – followed by relatively little payoff at the end. Maybe most annoying and unnecessary are the timed missions, which could work if the game’s other mechanics were more polished, and the narrative rationale was compelling.
In some open world games – Red Dead Redemption 2 or Elden Ring come to mind – the main quests can be ignored, as they primarily serve as motivation for exploration and discovery. Despite its spectacular, living world, Frontiers of Pandora mostly just shuttles the player from one location to another. Massive has built a beautiful world, a literal extension of the films, but has not created content as thoroughly engaging as the setting. I just never felt the need to go exploring, knowing I’d find something unexpected or a surprising story beat. Mostly, the level-gated missions just forced me into foraging and repetitive combat against a very small number of enemy types.
What Lies Underneath
We’ve talked at length already about the game’s art direction and graphics, though we should note that the game does a great job of creating three distinct biomes. Equally impressive is Frontiers of Pandora’s audio landscape and music, both of which demand to be listened to via a quality pair of headphones at the very least. The game uses a technology called “audio ray tracing” to make sounds react naturally to their environment. The musical score is a combination of cinematic orchestra cues and world or tribal music textures. The music is also omnipresent. It sometimes becomes annoying and repetitious during protracted exploration, long minutes of vague, tuneless noodling.
Aside from its technical issues — especially on PC — Frontiers of Pandora does a lot of things pretty well. It checks a lot of boxes. But I rarely found myself having much unqualified fun. There’s something about the game’s pacing, rote mission design, dull characters and lackluster combat that failed to engage my imagination. I think if it had simply embraced being a survival crafting game, and not a first-person shooter, I would have enjoyed the mechanics and world much more.
For gamers with a current gen console or powerful PC, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an incredible-looking open world experience. It is a seamless extension of the films, which will appeal to many fans. But underneath all that flash, flora, and fauna is a lack of imagination and unsatisfying FPS combat. Pandora’s lovingly recreated beauty contains mystery, power and a fair amount of disappointment.
***Both PS5 and PC codes were provided by the publisher for review***
- Spectacular art direction and graphics
- Immersive sound and world
- Feels like the movies
- Ikran flying is fun
- Dull combat
- Uneven pacing
- Some annoying mechanics
- Technical issues
- Just not much fun