Great videogame adaptations of films are few and far between. There are some obvious successes, but these games rarely stand aside or even rise above the films they’re based on. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora tries to do things differently. While it still takes place in James Cameron’s immensely successful universe and film franchise, it’s released on its own schedule and takes place in its own little corner of Pandora. But while it’s completely separate from the film and undoubtedly a visual feast, the question remains whether the Na’vi experience translates well to a videogame. Even more so is the question of whether Ubisoft can do better than their 2009 prequel. The short answer to both questions is yes, but the long answer is slightly more complicated.
Frontiers of Pandora takes place about a year before the events of the second film. You play as a young Na’vi enrolled in a program to raise Na’vi in the human cultural sphere. The RDA, the human faction running the program, has ulterior motives, and as the relationship between the Na’vi and the RDA sours, the program is abandoned. You escape the twisted academy of sorts and are let loose onto the Western Frontier of Pandora, plunging yourself into a mission to reunite the clans and fight the RDA to prevent them from exploiting the planet’s natural resources.
Unfortunately, while the story is told in a similar ilk to the films, it lacks any significant surprises. I’d hoped that more would be done with the player character in the game, especially given the unique “origin” story that they had, but the way the story progresses in Frontiers of Pandora is pretty unremarkable. If you’ve not seen the films before, you might find the plot here a bit more novel, but it feels like a typical story about colonialism. Those who have seen the films will appreciate some of the nods to those events, though nothing significant ties into the movie, so the game is just as approachable without prior knowledge.
This thread continues with how Frontiers of Pandora plays, too. When first revealed, many understandably compared the game to others from Ubisoft, like Far Cry. While the uniqueness of Pandora’s setting cannot be underestimated, the core gameplay loop hidden within Frontiers of Pandora feels remarkably familiar. The general gist of the world is that it’s been polluted by RDA facilities, which you’ll infiltrate to shut down and restore colour to that area. Activities appear on the map, some optional, and you can complete them at your leisure.
Does this sound familiar? That’s because it is. It’s a quintessential Ubisoft open-world experience, and how much you still enjoy that formula will influence just how much you’ll enjoy Frontiers of Pandora. It’s by no means bad by any stretch, but if this is a formula you’re beginning to tire of, that will influence how much you’ll enjoy this.
Besides the outposts, bigger than a typical Far Cry game, another central point of difference with Frontiers of Pandora is how it handles its crafting systems. Tying in perfectly with the theme of conservation that runs deep within the world of Avatar, you’re encouraged to harvest items from Pandora responsibly. Grabbing roots from the ground is fine, but ripping them out correctly and in the right conditions will lead to a more potent yield. It’s a nice change that feels at home with the game thematically.
Similarly, hunting sees your Na’vi using their abilities to track down particular creatures in the environment. A comprehensive hunter’s guide can show you where each creature you’ve previously encountered is and what parts they yield when hunted. Hitting them only in their weak points and even killing them in one shot will produce better quality materials, too, as the creature didn’t suffer as it died. In a similar fashion to how harvesting works, killing too many animals senselessly will shut off your Na’vi senses, so it’s essential to only take what you need and not overharvest.
Much of the components you’ll find or harvest can be used to craft new gear and weapons, but most will be used in the cooking system. Much like the recent Zelda games, you can mix certain ingredients to create meals that impart special effects on your Na’vi. Being well-fed can give you better health regeneration and provide specific resistance to help you come out on top during more intense firefights. It’s nowhere near as intrusive of a hunger system as your typical survival game, which is a relief given how much typically I’m not too fond of these kinds of systems.
Cooking also plays a part in keeping your Ikran happy. Also called Banshees, you’ll find one to bond with, and it’ll be your main source of transport throughout Pandora. A flying dragon-like predator, the Ikran can cover great distances fast. Feeding the Ikran is important during more extended flights, so having lots of food on hand is essential. While there are other mounts that you’ll come across later in the game, the Ikram is easily the best and helps to make traversing the frontiers so much more fun than it has any right to be.
In fact, one area that Frontiers of Pandora ostensibly nails is the traversal and movement systems in the game. This side of Pandora is dense, so getting through it and around quickly is nice. Owing to the Na’vi’s incredible athleticism, you can jump long and high to move great distances vertically and horizontally. You can mantle up on edges, too, and it’s so incredibly forgiving that there was rarely a time when I found an area I couldn’t climb. The platforming is similarly well done, especially given how this game is a first-person affair, though the option to switch to third-person would be much more appreciated for those who might struggle with the perspective offered.
Combat is similar to what you’d expect from a Far Cry game. Weapons are split into two types – the Na’vi types and the RDA types. Na’vi weapons are primarily primitive and much quieter but still pack a punch when used precisely. RDA weapons are pretty typical fare – assault rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers. Using them in hunting will lead to poorer yields, but they pack an incredible punch against the numerous RDA enemies you’ll find throughout the game. While there is an excellent selection and a reasonable degree of customization here, I still prefer the Na’vi weapons, which are more suited to a stealthier approach than anything else.
Other optional activities can be completed in exchange for clan favour, an invisible currency that can then be exchanged at specific points for equipment and gear. You can even donate your older gear to the communities, again, in exchange for clan favour. There’s not a lot of variety to the extra activities here – though the memory painting is a serene and meditative activity that really stood out for me here – otherwise, it’s the same kind of side quest design that we’ve come to expect from most games.
But without a doubt, Frontiers of Pandora is one of the most remarkable-looking games I’ve ever played. Playing on PC, I was taken aback by just how lush and dense the jungles of Pandora are. How thick the atmosphere is in the Clouded Forest. How serene and peaceful the world makes you feel while exploring the Upper Plains. It’s an incredible achievement, on a technical level, just how much the team at Massive have managed to create a digital copy of Pandora that feels like it’s literally living and breathing. I can’t stress this enough: it’s a beautiful game.
On consoles, the game looks almost as good. There’s some blurring in the distance, especially when playing in the performance favouring 60fps mode, but overall, the experience is similar to playing on a PC, which is a relief given how dense this game is visually. The music is particularly fantastic, too, creating some standout scenes where I felt nothing short of wonder as a soundtrack filled with an intoxicating mix of booming percussion and heavy chanting helped pull me into the world of Pandora.
There is so much going on in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora from a presentation standpoint. It’s an incredibly lush world that washes over you every time you play it, even more so with the more time you spend in it. But something is missing. A spark. Perhaps it’s just that the formula has been done to death at this point, the story is predictable, or even the game takes a little bit to get going. It’s not a bad experience by any means, but it is just one that purely exists.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora successfully brings the world of Pandora to video games in a big way. It’s lush and vibrant and without a doubt one of the most luxuriant open worlds that Ubisoft has ever created. Its gameplay, on the other hand, is lacking the spark that makes great open worlds sing. Fans of the franchise will absolutely adore exploring everything this previously unexplored side of Pandora has to offer, just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.
Lush and dense world to explore
Novel crafting mechanics that tie into the themes of Avatar