Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Review
Growing up, I remember avoiding videogames based on movies; they were always low-budget nonsense meant to increase sales rather than deliver a great experience. Does this age-old wisdom still hold true for the upcoming Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora? Let's find out.
Coming from publisher Ubisoft and developer Massive Entertainment, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a big-budget open-world adventure in which you get to play as an unnamed indigenous Na'vi (the tall blue cat people) on the distant moon of Pandora. Those who have watched the films will know that Pandora is in a state of conflict between the native peoples of the land and the invading humans (sky-people) who are trying to harvest the moon's resources. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora continues this struggle, putting you in the heart of the Na'vi resistance.
Chronologically, the game takes place about a year before the events of the recently released Avatar: The Way of Water film. While you will hear mentions about the film's protagonist, Jake Sully, and his ongoing fight, the events of the game take place on a separate continent, greatly limiting the players' need to watch the films. This was an excellent decision by the developer, as it allows for new characters, clans, and stories to be told without everything being focused on Jake, Neytiri, and their family.
In Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, you play as a member of the Sarentu, a clan of Na'vi revered for their diplomacy and storytelling skills. Being a Sarentu holds weight among the other clans. However, the majority of your people were wiped out when you were young by the sky-people. Several child survivors, including yourself, were taken by the RDA (Resources Development Administration) and taught human ways in an attempt to add indigenous ambassadors to their cause. Over time, you have lost your connection to your heritage. Now, as a fully grown Na'vi and member of the resistance, you have an opportunity to relearn what you were forced to forget.
The player has the option to customise their Na'vi, though the available options are rather limited. I was only able to choose from a small selection of hairstyles and facial features. As you unlock them throughout the game, more hair dyes and body/face paints become available. You also have the option to choose your sex and voice, and you can mix and match as you like, which I thought was nice. Changing these preferences is something you can do throughout your playthrough, so you are not stuck with your first choice.
The easiest way to explain the gameplay would be to say it's a Far Cry game in the body of an Avatar game. This means you are dealing with a first-person-only camera (you can see yourself only when riding a mount or using the Photomode feature) and have very little choice in how the events of the game unfold. As you explore the world and talk to the many NPCs, you will be given quests to undertake. From there, it is pretty much just travel to the objective and do what needs to be done. Sometimes, this would mean finding someone who has gone missing; other times, the game would have you infiltrating and destroying an RDA facility. You can't decline a quest or choose any conversation options for how you would like to engage with people. Thankfully, the voice acting is excellent all around, even if some of the lines can be cringy. If you were hoping for a game with some meaty RPG choices, this is not it — Baldur's Gate 3 probably spoiled us. One thing I will say is that the environment, culture, and spirit of being a Na'vi are always at the forefront, separating this experience from what you get when playing Far Cry.
As a Na'vi trained by humans, you will have access to both traditional Na'vi weapons as well as the heavy firepower of the RDA assault rifles, shotguns, grenades, and RPGs. Using a bow with explosive arrows may be fun, but bullets are faster. Sadly, players won't be able to use any of those sweet-looking Na'vi daggers — what the hell, Ubisoft! The player will also have the ability to modify weapons to a degree, adding better grips and strings to bows, muzzles and ammo clips to rifles, etc.
Crafting is a big part of the game; you can find food recipes and armour/weapon schematics in various places across Pandora, giving you the ability to craft higher-rated gear and weapons once you find the required materials. Certain vendors use reputation as a currency for trade, meaning you will need to build strong relationships with each clan. You can increase your "Clan Favor" by donating items to the community or completing quests on behalf of their members. This allows you to spend your influence to get what you need. For the best recipes and schematics, this is a must. I can't stress enough not to overlook those food recipes, as while your Na'vi can still function while starving, you won't passively regain health in that state. Food also offers numerous benefits based on its type and quality.
The movement system in the game is very fluid, with running, jumping, sliding, and crouching all feeling perfect. This makes traversing the forests very enjoyable. I could tell right away that Massive Entertainment made a point to get this right, as for the majority of the early game, you do not have any other mode of transportation aside from your own two feet. The environment also helps you move quickly; plants such as "Mist Bloom" provide a speed boost when your character is exposed to their spores; fortunately, these blue and pink plants are everywhere. Just walk over one of them, and your Na'vi will get a shot of adrenaline for a few seconds. Another useful part of the environment is the "Lift Vines". These yellow vines act like retractable bungee cords, allowing your character to grab them and be swiftly pulled up a cliffside or onto one of the many large roots across Pandora's landscape. Other useful plants for getting around include the "Shade Leaf Cane" and "Sunflower Gigantus", which stop fall damage when landing on them and act like bouncy trampolines, respectively. Also, don't worry too much about falling; you need to be quite high up to suffer any real damage.
As you are running around, you will encounter all kinds of wildlife and plants; these are worth inspecting to add them to the Hunter's Guide which acts as an encyclopaedia for everything you need to know about the wilderness of Pandora. I especially appreciated the ability to pin (limited to three at a time) certain plants or animals in the guide; this allows your "Na'vi Senses" to highlight them, giving you an easy way to find what you are looking for. Over time, I found myself recognising the various plants and animals without pinning them, allowing me to use this feature less while still finding the materials I needed for a recipe or schematic I wanted to craft.
Completing quests and exploring the world will cause your character to level up, gaining a skill point as they do. For this purpose, there is a skill tree available for players to unlock and become more powerful. The tree is split into various paths, such as Warrior, Rider, Survivor, Hunter, Maker, and Ancestor Skills. Each path offers different kinds of skills to unlock. If you want to become an expert with your bow, then it's the Warrior path for you. However, the game does throttle your ability to stack points into a single skill tree; this is necessary to help keep the balance early on. Besides, you don't want to be completely lopsided, do you?
Graphically, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a beautiful game. Using the Snowdrop Engine, Massive Entertainment has created a convincing and spectacular environment to enjoy. Though I was a bit disappointed with the lack of character reflections in the water and my not leaving any footprints in the mud as I moved, but these are minor oversights. The changing weather systems, as well as the day and night cycles, look fantastic and offer a sense of time passing (you can rest at a firepit to speed things up). Night on Pandora looks far more vibrant than day, as all the bioluminescent plants and animals show their colours. I especially enjoyed how a polluted area looks visibly worse than a healthy one. This affects gameplay too, as your character can't collect resources from polluted zones until the cause has been dealt with and the area recovers.
Sadly, at the time of this writing, the game suffers from a few noticeable issues. The big one is a trend in Ubisoft titles of this kind, that is textures do not always load in when they should. Oftentimes, I would stare at a texture for one or two full minutes before it switched from its LOD texture to what it should be when I was up close to it. This seemed completely random, as many of the other textures would be loaded in instantly, and only a few would not. It became especially jarring when characters talking directly to me would have muddy textured clothing while standing next to other NPCs that looked perfect. I also experienced a crash to the desktop several times during my review, as well as FPS drops. Massive Entertainment has informed us that optimisation and performance fixes are still ongoing, but I would be negligent not to include this issue, especially given that Ubisoft Toronto said the same thing about Far Cry 6 and its texture issues, only for those problems to persist months after the game launched on PC. For reference, I am using an AMD Ryzen 5 3600X (six-core, 3.8GHz) CPU with 32GB of DDR4 Corsair Vengeance RAM and an RTX 3060ti with 8GB of VRAM. I also have the game installed on a 1TB Samsung 980 NVMe. You can check out the recommended specifications here if you like.
This next part is going to be a bit controversial, as Ubisoft decided to include a large microtransaction store into this title. Why the gaming community keeps letting companies get away with this nonsense, I may never understand. In the screenshot above, you can see several cosmetic outfits are available. These outfits replace the visuals for any gear your character currently has on, simply substituting the appearance with no stats being affected. The same can be said for the weapon skins and Ikran skins. The outfits on display here cost 700 tokens to acquire; to put that in perspective, it costs about £17.49 ($22.22 USD) per 3250 tokens. I don't know about you, but I am not touching this store, thank you very much.
There are also daily and weekly challenges you can complete to acquire resources called "Sàtare Beads", which are needed to purchase special gear from the travelling merchant known as Kukulope. Personally, I am okay with the inclusion of this sort of thing, as when a player gets past the main story, it is nice to still have goals to work towards.
Overall, I am impressed with what Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment have accomplished with this title. You truly feel like a Na'vi when out hunting and exploring the wonders of Pandora. I am thoroughly enjoying my time wandering the forests and plains, learning about the environment, and being a rebel against the industrial tyranny of the invading humans. There is room for improvement, yes, but the biggest issues I feel will be overcome as the game moves forward. As a result, I would say that Massive Entertainment was successful in breaking the trend I grew up with. There is so much to do and see in the world they have created. From saving trapped wild animals to disrupting drilling operations, you will always come across something interesting during your journey.
I will also briefly mention that the game features a co-op mode that can be unlocked after completing the quest "The Aranahe Clan". This co-op mode allows players to visit each other's playthroughs, work together, and then return to their own game, having acquired loot and experience during the team-up. Co-op is online only, meaning no split-screening, and is available cross-platform.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora releases on the 7th of December 2023 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Amazon Luna, and PC. For those purchasing the Gold or Ultimate Editions, you are given access to the game's Seasons Pass, which includes a day-one bonus quest called "Familiar Echos", as well as access to both upcoming story packs, "The Skybreaker", and "Secrets of the Spires", coming later in 2024.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a fantastic addition to the world James Cameron brought to life in the films. If you love the Na’vi and Pandora, you won’t be disappointed with this one.