PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S,
December 7, 2023
It’s always a hard job adapting IP into video games. Harder yet is the task of adapting James Cameron’s Avatar, still one of the best-selling yet also retrospectively contentious franchises to date. With Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, this is, somehow, Ubisoft’s second stab at the series. Though it’s the most prolific, cinematic and biggest foray we’ve got yet, that’s not exactly saying a lot. Rife with bugs, an uninspired story and a dull quest structure make even the prettiest of jaunts to a magnificent alien world a downright slog.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has an incredibly promising opening. Rather than being an Avatar, jumping into the body of one of the race of blue individuals, you are a born and bred young Na’vi who was kidnapped at a young age and enrolled against their will into TAP (The Ambassador Program). This program is run by the RDA, an organisation of humans who are intent on dispossessing the Na’vi. This is guised to the children as an education program to teach them about the ways of humans but, as is apparent in the Avatar movies, the RDA’s intention with their kind is far from genuine, with their teachings turning to military roots intent on making the captured Na’vi into weapons for themselves.
Before long in this prologue, you break out, and you bear witness to the majesty that is Pandora with an incredibly beautiful view of the open world that lays ahead of you, waiting for you to explore. Textbook Ubisoft. At first glance this looks like the start of a promising journey, delving into difficult topics such as the military-industrial complex and stolen generations of indigenous cultures. Then you remember this is a game being published by a studio where stories with cultural sensitivities and subtleties aren’t their strong suit. This is, after all, the same company that has emphasised time and time again their games aren’t political.
Avatar as a franchise already isn’t the most subtle, heavily implied to be depicting the colonising of Native American individuals through a sci-fi setting. Frontiers of Pandora leaves that marginal ambiguity out the window but doesn’t have anything interesting to say on these ideas either.
Your adventure takes place a year before the events of 2022’s Avatar: The Way of Water and is set on an entirely new continent. Though there’s the occasional nod or whispers about the events of the 2009 film, making this story bespoke is an excellent idea, opening the door to new realms and clans, of which there are three biomes, with a focal clan in each. Throughout your time with the game, you’ll bond with these clans, going on a series of missions to liberate the lands, ending pollution, mining and slaughtering, and stopping RDA. This all serves the end goal of getting the clans on your side and taking your fight to the big bad in one final hurrah, but perhaps in it all, you’ll become more acquainted with the Na’vi ways and reconnect with your kind.
This is all well and good on paper but at the end of the day, you’re still also on a warpath that feels very human in the worst way. Your personal journey becomes confusing. Buried in-game is a coming-of-age story of you engaging in beautiful rituals the Na’vi share, wearing their dress and eating their food. This becomes muddied however when you befriend a series of human ex-RDA members that are confused in their message, trying to find a middle ground but also aid your cause.
Frontiers of Pandora is what can only be described as superficially anti-human. It’s trying to serve a palatable power fantasy of nature vs machines as you topple mechs and destroy mining rigs and pipelines. Yet you’re doing so with not just your birch bows that you create, but the same guns and metal killing machines that your oppressors slaughter your own with. You’re meant to laugh at the awkward moments when your human friends say something inadvertently offensive to your kind. You’re made to feel bad as the music swells, watching one of the good guy humans die in front of you for your cause. But you know what? I. Just. Didn’t. Care.
“…Frontiers of Pandora is what can only be described as superficially anti-human.”
While you are blowing up bad guys, finding new family and the like, Frontiers of Pandora does have gorgeous sights. Yes, this is standing on the shoulder of the landmark steps in CGI and animation that the original Avatar did, depicting luscious and mesmerising alien flora and fauna. Still, translating this into a 3D environment you can explore is no easy task, something that Ubisoft is well equipped to create with its bounty of open worlds over the years. The three biomes that are on offer are the Kinglor Forest, Upper Plains and the Clouded Forest.
The former of the bunch is incredibly dense with not just this extraterrestrial fauna and flora but notably riverbanks and thick and monolithic trees that contain twisting branches and vines for one to make leaps and bounds across. The Upper Plains are, just that, more open and therefore provide more breathing room, though they’re home to interesting caves systems and my favourite clan encampment in the home of the Zewa, where impromptu shelters are built around gigantic elephant-like creatures that the people care for. The Clouded Forest is certainly the most tumultuous area of the bunch, revealing itself to you in the final third of the game and feels more human in its snow-drenched pine-drenched-esque forest but also has mysterious poisons spilling out from the ground in regions. Undoubtedly a biome not to be taken lightly.
Regardless of where you are flora and fauna can be neutral or hostile to you, with acidic plants spitting out at you or gigantic squishy mushroom-looking things that will launch you in the air to name a few. I like how some of these compliment the parkour you’ll be doing too, being launched into the air over a gigantic gap only to just reach a vine on a far cliffside that will operate like a lift to get me up and where I need to go… it’s nice and fluid motions.
Though some of the human character models (especially those with a more minor role) fidelity leaves a bit to be desired, the main Na’vi cast is absolutely gorgeous and distinguished, whether it’s the recluse healer clan of the Clouded Forest or those a little more acclimatised to human life, dressed in human garb. There may be dozens upon dozens of classic Ubisoft-style RDA encampments and facilities to take down by exploiting weak points or exploding a gigantic gas tank, but they do an effective job of remaining domineering of the environment. They’re at least more striking and organised than the guerilla-style bases found in Far Cry, obviously due to the RDA’s money. This feeling of power imbalance especially rings true when perhaps before you even see one of these concrete beasts you will first note the dying earth preceding and surrounding it, all transformed into grown-out nothing.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora even takes you to some harrowing environments where you will truly see the devastation that the RDA has left. Without spoiling much there’s a pivotal part of the game that sees environments you might have come to know and love shift and change in dramatic ways. There are even more blunt and brutal locations like an underground prison facility for Na’vi where through environmental storytelling you’ll see the cruel conditions they were undertaking. This is effective for a moment before the writing and dialogue kick in and you’re reminded how ineffective the game is at its complex themes.
These environments will ask a good amount of the player, enticing the player into yet another Ubisoft open world. The big, staple activity is liberating and destroying these RDA facilities to end pollution in the area and gather more resources. This is where the gunplay will get gritty and hectic. It’s fun to play and obviously, there’s the option to take it slow and stealth your way through an environment, picking off the mook human enemies that are on feet before focusing on the bulkier mechs and choppers. However, I decided to go more guns blazing, lobbing EMP grenades, bomb arrows and shotgun blasts everywhere I went. Again, as mentioned earlier, entirely jarring for the Avatar name but at least it plays well. A nice touch is the mobility of playing as a Na’vi. You can charge up for larger jumps of significant height, your sprints feel hyperfast and alien. The Far Cry comparison is obvious but squint and you’ll sort of actually feel like you’re playing the original 2007 Crysis game as you storm through these technical facilities that intertwine with jungle biomes, feeling like a supersoldier. That’s a sensation and power fantasy I haven’t had in shooters for quite some time.
Other open-world activities can foster engaging with the world but do feel like sluggish padding to reach the end goal. Unlocking smaller RDA facilities known as Field Labs nets you extra quests to engage on and fast travel points. There are locations you can go to to meditate and take in the views but they’re performed by completing hokey and annoying QTE prompts.
All these tasks garner favour points that you cash in at a clan’s hideout for rewards in valuable items and gear. Gear levels aren’t a new thing when it comes to Ubisoft titles but it’s more emphasised here to a painful degree. Where you largely gather a lot of your materials and items is in side quests that every so often engage you with the world of Pandora, the Na’vi people and their culture, but largely all boil down to fetch quests and just taking out a few more RDA along the way. The gear requirement for each side and main mission is ever-changing and perhaps at a too fast and cruel pace. Each time I’d jump into a mission even after a decent serving of side content and I’d only just be scraping by or still be under-leveled and have to brute force my way through.
Both searching for the valuable flowers and saplings that net skills, along with the hunts that you go on for valuable meats from animals and rare plants feel like the closest Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has to puzzles. It’s no coincidence that they’re my favourite part of the game as they are truly how you engage with and observe the Pandora around you with no strings attached like foes to overcome or gear levels to worry about. These valuable flowers and saplings contain valuable ‘Ancestor Skills’ that will net you capabilities such as ejecting stunned Mechs with a melee prompt or a safe land cushioning ability to negate some fall damage. These are always an engaging hunt in and out of caves, a platforming puzzle, or flight on your banshee-like Ikran away. As for the hunts, you’re granted a Na’vi sense which is something of an x-ray vision that gently prods you in highlighting items of interest without holding your hand too much. Opening up the ‘Hunter’s Guide’ in the menu to read about a type of animal and where it is typically found then has me actually thinking about where that is in relation to the map and my surroundings, further aided by the Ikran sense letting you track and follow the scent of an animal to locate them.
Save those latter examples, these offerings feel like a hodgepodge of everything Ubisoft, leaving most tasks as just something we’ve seen before or downright bad. Liberating outposts makes sense here but it’s nothing new and when you’re a dozen of these bases deep, they all blur together and you’ll start feeling like you’re just going through the motions.
Perhaps the most ill-fitting addition of all is hacking that feels ripped right from Watch Dogs as you follow nodes to a key source to then connect it all up later. This often nets you key but sensitive information on Pandora and its resources you’ve robbed from the bad guy humans and now passed on to your good guy human friends who won‘t use this data for evil. It’s all mind-numbing and rushed elements in a game that left me wondering why it was even there in the first place.
Even meeting the game on its own terms is hard. Casting aside the boring gameplay loop, mishandled themes and dull story, I tried to focus on the beauty of Pandora offered ahead of me. For every gorgeous bioluminescent piece of flora I find when the game turns to night or every vista I’m soaring above in my Ikran… there are the game’s technical faults holding it back. It’s hard to remain thrilled about this strong opening Frontiers of Pandora opens. This is simply because the more you play the more it feels like a game quite literally tearing at the seams and falling apart technically. The most egregrious being the regular frame drops you get in cutscenes, taking all of the remaining substance from the moments.
I’m reminded of this year’s Redfall with all it’s shortcomings. So much wasted potential all for a game that comes out rushed and ill fitting for its subject matter. I didn’t experience a single crash in-game, but I had just about every other issue under the sun playing on my beefy PC that more than meets the specs. Shocking slow texture pop-ins that make the sky islands ugly grey boxes, quests not triggering properly, falling through the map and so on.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is not a game that should have released in its current state. It is simply not optimised and also has the issue of confused identity, the latter of which can’t exactly just be patched. This was developed by the team at Massive within Ubisoft, simultaneously mind you to the upcoming and anticipated Star Wars Outlaws. I can’t help but feel this later took lower priority and as such feels like something the studio rushed to its deadline. It leaves me concerned for Outlaws’ future.
- Pandora still has its moments of beauty
- Hunting for creatures and seeking valuable upgrades serves as engaging puzzles
- Dull, uninspired story
- Delicate themes are grossly mishandled
- An unsatisfying hodgepodge of the Ubisoft formula
- Riddled with bugs and severely unoptimised
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a big misstep and feels like Ubisoft’s biggest missed opportunity in a while. Not even the fantastical and majestic sights of Pandora and some engaging hunts can cure the buggy, unoptimised product presented to the world. Offering a dull story while it trips and stumbles on delicate themes, it too is simply a confused formula of everything you’ve seen before from other titles, almost all of it ill-fitting. Two adaptations under their belt and it seems Ubisoft just can’t get that voyage of Pandora right.