Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora review - Na'vi déjà vu
There are moments in Frontiers of Pandora where you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a joyous free-flowing adventure. Soaring through the skies on your Ikran, seeing new sights and new targets to take down to restore life to the land, but these moments are the peak of an otherwise generic open world.
The world of Pandora is the perfect backdrop for a game like this, so it’s a shame the playspace is scattered with repetitive content and muddied by restrictions. You might try to fly to a distant location, only to hit a wall and have to turn around. The immersion that should’ve carried this game to great heights is often tarnished by unseen barriers, and the progression is too stiff and numbers-based.
Frontiers of Pandora has been compared to other big Ubisoft titles, even being called a “clone”. But if this is Far Cry, it’s Far Cry with a bit more soul. The world is more immersive, the gameplay is more natural and it’s not simply relying on the strength of its villains to tell a worthwhile story. The characters aren’t incredibly compelling, but the environments they inhabit are worth seeing.
That said, the comparisons are unavoidable. I don’t like spending my reviews comparing games to each other, but this is Ubisoft’s open-world formula we’ve been playing for the last decade with a Pandoran sheen. You won’t be surprised by the gameplay that awaits you in Frontiers of Pandora. From destroying outposts to hunting animals, this adventure plays things safe and does little to innovate.
There are lots of design choices I didn’t mesh with in Frontiers of Pandora. I love the world, but barriers blocked me from fully immersing myself in it, and it’s littered with activities and outposts plucked straight out of the 2010s and planted in Pandora’s soil.
Pandora the Explorer
Pandora is this game’s main draw, and it’s gorgeous. This is not your average open-world setting - it’s magnificent to look at, filled with little details, and it’s a perfect playground to let your Na’vi loose.
Between towering alien trees you’ll find neon lizards floating through moonlit glades, or roots stretching from the earth like great worms frozen in place. Floating islands hang in the air, adding a sense of enormity to the land at large. The Upper Plains are breathtaking and bring to mind the vastness of Hyrule’s fields.
The beauty doesn’t always flourish under the RDA’s attempted takeover. Billowing smoke signals danger in the distance, and the near-greyscale shade of these polluted areas is striking. It’s an emotive contrast designed to drive you towards restoring life to these stretches of tortured terrain.
Then there are the sounds. From the satisfying thwip of spiralling plants that shrink as you pass through them, to the pitter-patter of your feet on wet turf or birds screeching in the distance, the audio makes Pandora feel alive as you gracefully leap above trees or cross through dense thickets. Your Na’vi feels good to control too, with enough weight to feel strong and nimble movement to help you navigate nature with ease.
The environmental design here is on another level, packed with detail in all corners of the map. At any point, you can stop and find a screenshot-worthy sight or intriguing alien plants to investigate. And when you finally get your Ikran mount, the world truly opens up.
It’s disappointing, then, when you realise how much generic content awaits within it.
Far Cry me a river
Frontiers of Pandora has plenty of open-world staples. From outposts dotted around the map to hunting and gathering mechanics, you've largely played parts of this game before. These features actually fit into the story that Frontiers of Pandora tries to tell - fighting back against invasive oppressors using the land’s natural resources. These are things the Na’vi would be doing.
That doesn’t always mean it’s fun though. This isn’t quite like Breath of the Wild where picking up materials takes a single button press on the go. Many resources require a brief minigame where you figure out the right direction to yank them free. Whether that’s a good thing depends on how slow-paced you like your adventure games to be.
The world is chock-full of random collectables and tasks to work towards. A quick glance at the achievement list reveals a gargantuan number of things to do, some of which really aren’t worth focusing on. Touching plants to get skill points or minor health upgrades, finding audio logs or notes - these are tasks that you’ll naturally stumble into sometimes, but going for a 100% completion is quite unappealing.
Frontiers of Pandora is both relaxing and mundane, and certainly not anything new. It takes tried-and-tested mechanics and applies them to the stunning vistas of Pandora, instantly elevating generic gameplay tasks by placing them in a world that’s much nicer to look at. At the same time, it has better movement than we’re used to in Ubisoft’s FPS titles, making the game more fun to traverse.
Where there's smoke...
Pandora is a world worth exploring, and that’s why it’s so disappointing when you get stopped in your tracks.
I tried to fly north on my Ikran, but a huge invisible wall had other plans. On another occasion, I saw columns of smoke rising above the treetops, so I rushed over to see what was going on. I found a processing plant locked behind level 20 - it wasn’t too far from the start of the game, and I was only level 4.
Rather than allowing me to go into this high-level area and get wrecked, the game just told me to go away and come back later. As I found out later, outposts a few levels higher than you are borderline impossible, with enemies that one-shot you from miles away the second you get spotted. The only way to beat them is sneaking around and hacking turrets so you don’t get instantly murdered - a boring playstyle that isn’t worth the effort.
Perhaps it’s a good thing you’re kept away from these harder challenges then, but it’s frustrating no matter which way you look at it. The game rarely gives you the freedom to experiment, and when you try you’ll probably just get steamrolled.
It wasn’t long before I saw repeated structures and tasks either. It was inevitable Frontiers of Pandora would recycle its content across the map, but seeing identical mining drills right away was a bit jarring. Even the structure of the terrain around the drill was identical, down to the placements of the ammo crates and the soil beneath my feet. Again, this damages the sense of immersion - which is otherwise Avatar’s strongest element.
This game also has an absurd amount of hacking. I guess Massive Entertainment thought players would enjoy pointing a weird device at computers because that's what you're going to be doing in half the game's quests. This mechanic is boring yet constantly shows up. It's abundantly clear the hacking gameplay was used to pad out the game, and it suffers for it.
Unsatisfying progression makes these issues more glaring. As you play you’ll get recipes for better gear or find stronger items on your travels, but your playstyle will barely change. Most new gear only gives you minor stat boosts like 5% wildlife damage or other insignificant upgrades.
My playstyle (using shock arrows to stun mechs then tearing the pilot out) was fun for a while but the game left me with fewer options than I’d have liked. There are only a couple of skills you can unlock that grant interesting abilities. Most offer extra health or more carrying capacity, options that only exist to make the game less frustrating to play.
Hunting for better crafting materials is something that should appeal to a subset of players more than the repetitive outpost content. Tracking down beasts or searching for rare ingredients can be very soothing, especially when you allow yourself to get absorbed by the world around you. Being able to call your Ikran at any time is pretty cool too.
The hunting and gathering also feed into the premise of the game and the story of its protagonist. You’re thrust into the role of a Na’vi raised by humans and then forced to reconnect with your roots in nature. Discovering which materials are used for what or how to take down beasts cleanly - these things are a learning process for us just as they are for our character, and it feels good to expand your knowledge of the world.
The tale this game tells is occasionally hard-hitting, but generally too poorly-paced to be enjoyable. It’s got lots of quests to sift through and some feel like little more than distractions, with NPCs telling you things you’ll soon forget.
The side quests are often even more generic, and some simply aren’t worth your time. It only took a few “investigations”, where you use your Na’vi senses to find clues, to want to be rid of them for good.
The Na'vi NPCs do a lot of heavy lifting in this game, with strong voice acting and a great deal of charisma or fierceness that's utterly absent from the human cast. Some characters just fade into the background though, and there are far too many to keep track of. One character I spoke to once over the radio sacrificed themselves in a mid-game mission, a moment with no gravitas at all since the only thing I could think was "Who was that again?".
Other characters are just irritating, and the interruptions over comms are insufferable. You’ll be exploring the forests of Pandora, basking in the tranquillity, when a character pops up in your ear to tell you a terrible knock-knock joke. You’ll hear the same lines repeated too. An awful inclusion that, once again, harms the game’s immersion.
There are lots of little activities to partake in, from freeing trapped animals to following moths towards hidden items. Like the outposts, these get stale after a while. The word of the day is repetitive, and so much of Frontiers of Pandora fits that description.
Even the enemy variety is scarce, with soldiers and mechs being your only adversaries for most of the game’s content. Their AI is pretty poor, and their sightlines are so short you can stand in front of them and remain unseen if you're a bit too far away. It's fun to send soldiers flying with a single punch though.
If it weren’t for the sights of Pandora drawing me in I would’ve lost interest in this game much sooner. It’s an incredibly safe title, and it doesn’t know how to let players explore to their heart’s content without damaging the game’s progression. The discoveries I made were usually things I’d already seen, and the main quest wasn’t compelling enough to grab my interest either. These factors combine to create a very pretty but very bland experience.
The slower pace of exploration was nice at first, and being able to fly above the trees to floating islands on an Ikran fulfils a fantasy I didn’t know I had. When the world was able to capture me, this game became a joyous experience. When you stick to the main content, the outposts or crafting, it feels instantly dated and played out.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.