The events of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora run parallel to Avatar: The Way of Water, during the second RDA invasion of the titular forest moon. In it, you play as one of the last surviving members of the Sarentu Clan of Na’Vi, who survived the RDA’s genocidal rampage because you were part of the TAP program, someone’s bright idea to pacify and ingratiate the native population by kidnapping their children and forcing them to be more human. The actual humans are dug in like ticks, with various industrial facilities systematically destroying Pandora and its semi-sentient living network of flora and fauna. In true Ubisoft style you find yourself joining the Resistance against the RDA, and must recruit other clans and groups to the cause.
You can customise your Na’Vi, but the choices of features and skin markings are very samey, regardless of gender. Once this is done, you’re launched into a short intro where you’ll be taught the basics. One thing it took me a while to get my head around was the natural height of Pandora’s indigenous people. It feels similar to playing Halo as Master Chief, staring down at the puny human marines in their big old helmets.
One of the main focus points for the story is the Kinglor, a species of hamster-sized moths essential to keeping the ecosystem alive. Much of the campaign centres on saving and protecting the Kinglor instead of going at them with attack helicopters and flamethrowers like a sensible person. And this being a Ubisoft open world, that means busy work. Lots and lots of it. But while that sounds like an immediate negative, I should point out that, as a movie tie-in, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora absolutely works. It’s also one of the best open world shooters I’ve played in quite some time.
Boiled down to its basic ingredients, this is Far Cry by way of Horizon: Forbidden West, as you traverse some truly stunning environments to take the fight back to the RDA. Once you’re let loose in the forest, which happens pretty early on, it has a fairly standard Ubisoft structure and doesn’t deviate much from their formula. You can follow the critical path and advance the story (useful, as most of the new abilities and weapons are unlocked here), or you can simply go and explore the forest, picking up side quests or hunting for permanent power ups and new gear.
Foraging plays a major part. Pandora is a world teeming with wildlife and bizarre, almost intelligent flora. Plants recoil away from you, or follow you with their unsettling buds twitching and spitting poison. Often getting close is difficult, but you’ll need to in order to harvest berries, nuts, and other crafting or cooking materials. The Na’Vi apparently metabolise like the Incredible Hulk on a low carb diet and so you’ll need to eat pretty regularly – even more so if you fast travel, which causes time to pass when you do. You can eat raw ingredients, or combine them in groups of two at cooking stations to create dishes that boost your stats for a time.
Everything in the game has a colour system from fine (green) to exquisite (orange), and these factors combine even as you cook to generate better buffs. The same applies to crafting gear, weapons, mods, or ammunition. It’s a fairly robust system, only let down by the fact that the standard Na’Vi dresses in scraps of tree bark and bandages so there’s not much room to store 18 yellow avocados the size of a human head. As such, you’re almost always carrying too many items and will need to drop some if they’re not edible. The problem this then throws up is that, perhaps because Frontiers of Pandora facilitates co-op, dropping anything creates a huge, immersion-breaking icon pointing to the offending item like it’s trying to name and shame it.
That said, the crafting and gathering system at play here is pretty solid, though there are a lot of plants you can’t harvest and whether a given plant will have a fruit on it is decided by some kind of behind-the-scenes coin toss. Smaller animals can be killed but don’t drop anything, and only larger prey is worth killing and stripping for parts. Given the Na’Vi’s connection to nature, you’re rewarded more for clean, one-shot weak spot kills and punished for simply mowing through wildlife with an assault rifle. There’s a sense the game wants you to think about your actions, and gently coerces you into a comfortable state of passive role-playing. It’s hard not to care about what you’re doing.
Partly this is because Pandora is absolutely gorgeous. There’s a tremendous sense of scale and height, and ascending one of the gargantuan trees to look down upon the forest below is never less than impressive. It struggles with textures now and then perhaps as a result, but it’s arguably worth it. Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment have created a stunning, vibrant world that’s beautiful in the day and often breath-taking at night, as the forest comes alive with bioluminescent flora.
Here and there you’ll stumble on a corrupted area where all the fruits and materials are polluted, and that will lead you attacking and cleansing the nearby RDA installation. These vary in structure but are largely similar, and analogous to capturing outposts in other Ubisoft games. At a certain point in the story you’ll acquire the ability to fly, and engage the RDA from the back of your own Ikran, which adds another dimension to the combat. Flight is handled smoothly, similar in form and function to Aloy’s aerial athletics in Horizon: Forbidden West.
Unsurprisingly, combat makes up a fair amount of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. You’ll mix various types of bow with mines, grenades, and scavenged RDA weapons. There’s a weirdly satisfying punchiness to taking out huge AMP suits with a bow and arrow, but combat is balanced so that you have to keep your head down to stay alive, even if your assault rifle does take the RDA apart like Lego in a tumble dryer. Although I did die in combat occasionally, it was usually when up against the type of AMP suit that can launch a string of grenades roughly the length of a standard city block. Combat is more about using the environment, hitting and running, and using stealth where possible. Unfortunately I found that once the RDA can see you, they hit the trigger and don’t let go until you’re a blue smear on the scenery.
Alongside gathering specific items for each of the many, many Na’Vi camps around the enormous game-world, searching for secrets, completing side quests, treasure hunts, and hacking mini games, or taking out aerial units and sabotaging RDA installations across Pandora, you’ll also lose hours to just exploring the world. Or at least I did. There are hidden caches, clan murals to find, and research stations to power that open up further quests. It’s a Ubisoft checklist, for sure, but one of the more interesting versions of that I’ve played. There are dozens of skills and abilities to unlock across several disciplines such as Warrior, Hunter, Maker, and Survivor. You can also unlock special Ancestor abilities, and ultimately achieve powerful Apex skills by filling a skill tree and completing a unique challenge.
As for the story, it slots seamlessly into the Avatar timeline and mostly avoids name-dropping events and characters from the movies. It’s very much its own entity, but absolutely nails the atmosphere and sense of epic scale the movies are famous for. The cost of such extravagance is the framerate and texturing, though. As mentioned, the latter can simply fail to load on certain characters and menu items, while the former will occasionally tank for a second or two when there’s a lot going on. It’s never enough to ruin the game but it’s always noticeable.
What I found impressive was that the different biomes use similar plants, but manage to look visually distinct. I’d often travel some distance and realise that the world looked very different. It wasn’t enough to find my way around by sight alone or anything, but I never got tired of the environment, especially given how vertical it is in some areas. It could have used more variety in the larger wildlife, as it doesn’t really add anything that we didn’t see in the movies, but it was never enough of an issue to take me out of the moment.
If you want to, you can play through Frontiers of Pandora in co-op mode, but a distinct lack of big world boss encounters or really challenging enemies means it’s more about exploring together and trading items than MMO-ing your way through content.
It’s easy to knock Ubisoft every time they produce a new sandbox to muck around in, but Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora does an admirable job of recreating the sense of wonder and natural beauty of the source material, and mixes in exciting combat and an absolute smorgasbord of activities, gear, and story moments to create a game that feels faithful to Cameron’s series while also offering something fresh enough to hold your interest. None of it feels rushed, and the world is so expansive and full of things to explore that you can lose hours and hours just wandering the forests. It’s not without its flaws, but Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is one of Ubisoft’s better offerings of recent years.
Loads to do
Enemy AI can behave weirdly