Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Review

There’s a big tree in my backyard that has always looked quite alien to me. Its branches get thicker as they extend out rather than tapering off like a normal tree, and they spread out and wind around, reaching in every direction towards something I can’t perceive. Its roots form a hard, knotty cover over the ground like a writhing pile of snakes, or the tendrils of something Lovecraftian. The tree is surrounded by an artificial creek with several overlapping waterfalls built into it, and the water is dyed an electric blue and glows at night thanks to some well-placed underwater LED lights – though I prefer to imagine the water itself is phosphorescent.


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As a big Avatar fan I’ve always thought of it as my own little slice of Pandora. The mysteries of its phytology intrigue me, and I often find myself staring out the window, studying its strange, otherworldly form when looking for creative inspiration. What’s most remarkable to me about Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is the way that every tree in the forest is just as unique and awe-inspiring to me as my Pandoran tree – and it’s a big, big forest. Massive Entertainment has succeeded in creating a game that transports players to the world of Avatar, fully-realized and ceaselessly stunning in every moment. If, like me, you have long dreamed of exploring Pandora yourself, Frontiers is exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

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Ubisoft often gets flak for publishing so many games that use the same blueprint, but the company’s approach to open-world is a perfect fit for Avatar. Just as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey offers an opportunity to explore ancient Greece, Frontiers gives us the opportunity to explore another world – one that has long existed in multiple volumes of design documents and show bibles, but has only ever been glimpsed briefly on the big screen. Frontiers is a canonical deep dive into the ecology, geography, and culture of Pandora, and it’s every bit as magnificent in the game as it is in the films.

Avatarians (that’s what I call Avatar fans, you likely have a much meaner name for us) are deeply invested in the world, and Massive worked closely with James Cameron’s company Lightstorm to create an authentic version of Pandora, pulling as much as possible from unused concepts from the film and already-defined but yet-unseen aspects of the world to create its Western Frontier.

There’s three main regions to explore. The Kinglor Forest is where you begin, and it has the most in common with the jungle featured in the original Avatar. Herds of sturmbeests graze in the clearings, helicardion plants retract into the ground with a thwump when you get near them, and at night the forest floor glows brightly as the bioluminescent evening flora awakens. With its incredible graphical fidelity – particularly with full 32:9 super ultrawide support on PC – Frontiers looks unbelievable; possibly the best looking game of the year. it really feels like being in the Pandora of the films.

The second region is where Massive really starts to flex creatively, and it’s where I spent the majority of my time with the game. The Upper Plains are made up of rolling hills and deep canyons where strong winds have shaped the terrain in unique ways. Trees here practically grow sideways out of the ground and massive thorny bushes create natural habitats where Na’vi can seek refuge. The tribe of this region is nomadic, and has developed a symbiotic relationship with giant creatures called zakru, in which they build their camps against them to protect them from the winds. This may be a totally new setting for Avatar, but it’s consistent with the level of thought and detail Cameron put into the films that make Pandora feel like a real place, which in turn makes it so rewarding to explore.

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Frontiers is packed with all the standard Ubisoft open-world trappings, but it’s impressive how well it makes familiar systems and mechanics feel new and authentic to Avatar. You’ll find one of the best examples of this early on when you start hunting wildlife and gathering plants to cook food and craft upgrades. Frontiers takes a quality-over-quantity approach to resources, so there’s no benefit in taking more than you need, and you’ll always want to take the highest quality resources you can find.

For plants, that means gathering them under the right weather conditions and harvesting them just right. Each plant has a different angle it needs to be retrieved in order to gather it intact. The more thoughtful you are about gathering, the better your crafting materials will be. This goes for hunting as well, meaning you have to hit weak points and kill your prey quickly in order to ensure it receives a clean, respectful death – one that honors its connection to Eywa.

Hunting and gathering are only one path towards progress, which is something I really appreciated about Frontiers. While the loot system initially made me groan, because who needs another looter, it isn’t nearly as obtrusive as you might think. If you enjoy seeking out rare plants and animals, armed with your encyclopedic hunter’s guide, you can do that, but you can also just buy upgrades with currency earned from clearing out RDA strongholds if you prefer combat, or find the things you need by exploring. I got to the end of the game just one level under the recommendation for the final mission, and I didn’t ever go out of my way to upgrade my gear. Doing just the things I wanted to do provided what I needed.

Speaking of combat, there’s a lot of it. Most missions task you with sabotaging an RDA camp that’s doing some variety of terrible things to the environment, and you’ll use a mix of stealth and heavy artillery to get the job done. Frontiers encourages a stick-and-move, guerilla tactics playstyle that feels fitting. Na’vi are fast, agile, and powerful, and you get a strong sense of your character’s physicality both when parkouring through the jungle and when storming an RDA stronghold. Using stealth to sneak around an installation destroying fuel lines and sniping unaware soldiers is satisfying, but when the poop hits the fan you can put your speed and verticality to good use as you dip and dive around, blasting electrified shotgun shells at giant mechs. Combat upgrades allow you to rip soldiers right out of their mech suits and smash them into the wall, which never gets old.

Frontiers certainly isn’t going to beat the ‘blue Far Cry’ allegations, but I’m surprised that there weren’t more opportunities to fight alongside the wildlife the way you can in recent Far Cry games. You also never get to fight with other Na’vi, which may be a result of technical or budget constraints, but feels like a hugely missed opportunity here. You never encounter RDA and Na’vi warriors in battle, and Na’vi never come to your aid. The end of the game builds towards a big team-up mission between the tribes, but in the final battle everything happens off-screen while you crawl around in vents disabling the RDA’s defenses. This is a huge part of Avatar that feels conspicuously missing from the game.


Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora Is Constantly Stunning

Story and characters are Frontier’s biggest weakness. Despite a strong setup – which shows your character being raised as a human in RDA captivity and watching your sister being murdered by your father figure – your generic build-a-character isn’t given any opportunity for development. Your ‘siblings’, fellow captives from your tribe that was eliminated by the RDA – are immediately left behind at the first resistance camp you find, and don’t get to take part in the adventure with you at all. You occasionally return for moments of plot development, and while there are some emotionally charged scenes, none of the developments are surprising or complicated. There are a lot of interesting themes here about overcoming a traumatic childhood, reclaiming your heritage, and making peace with the past, but none of them are explored very deeply.

While you can play co-op in Ubisoft’s traditional clone-the-protagonist way, Frontiers is a decidedly lonely experience about one Na’vi’s solitary journey to dismantle local RDA machinations, which isn’t befitting of Avatar at all. It also has a total lack of cinematic flourish, since you’re locked in first-person, even in cutscenes. This means you never get a perspective of the villains other than when they directly interact with your character, which makes it difficult to get a sense of who they are or what motivates them. The bad guys are forgettably two-dimensional.

Frontiers of Pandora captures Pandora with stunningly perfect accuracy, but it doesn’t quite nail Avatar. I appreciate the effort that went into creating a canon experience that expands the world of Pandora and will eventually connect with the film series too, but so much of what I love about Avatar beyond the mystery and wonder of the world is missing here. The world feels rich and alive, but ultimately it’s just a beautiful playground and a vibrant nature documentary, without a compelling narrative or characters to inhabit it.

Still, you can spend countless hours cataloging the various plant life throughout the Western Frontier, seeking out every Tsraya flower to unlock new upgrades, and dismantling RDA bases far and wide – and I probably will. I am constantly in awe of the places I discover in Frontiers, from grand vistas to hidden caves to lookout points on floating mountains that give you the most incredible view. It’s a world I’m excited to continue exploring and learning about, and overall it has deepened my love for Avatar. Ubisoft’s strengths are also sometimes the things that keep it running in place, unable to iterate and evolve, and Frontiers is the perfect example of that. It’s everything you love and hate about Ubisoft games, Avatar-style.

Avatar Cover

Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora

Reviewed on PC

Pros

  • A living, breathing Pandora to explore.
  • Uses familiar open-world systems but makes them its own.
  • Best looking game of the year
Cons

  • No cinematic flair, overly static presentation.
  • A lonely experience that should be filled with Na’vi companions
  • Shallow, forgettable antagonists.

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