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Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review - a stunning yet shallow FPS

The beauty of James Cameron’s Avatar becomes an FPS, and our Frontiers of Pandora review explores why the translation doesn’t quite work.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: A Na'vi drawing back the string of a large bow while riding an Ikran..

Our Verdict

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora gives you the strength and stamina of the Na’vi, but not the consistency and depth of their homeworld. Unless you’re an avid fan who wants every morsel of storytelling, Ubisoft's latest open world doesn’t always justify the trip.

James Cameron would make a great game developer. You can easily imagine his love for creative technology and sense of worldbuilding translating to an epic sandbox on the level of Rockstar Games or CD Projekt Red. Pandora, the setting of the Avatar movies, is so gorgeously realized on the big screen that it makes going to the cinema feel like a literal step through the looking glass. Alas, Cameron is a film director, and Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a videogame made by Ubisoft that captures just a fraction of the majesty and spirit of his brainchild while being stifled by troublesome design.

A spinoff featuring original characters, Frontiers of Pandora involves you taking control of a Na’vi orphan who’s been held captive by humans on a Resources Development Administration (RDA) base. Once Jake Sully’s rebellion from the first film puts a dent in the RDA’s stronghold, our protagonist manages to break free and wander out into Pandora, joining the resistance against the encroaching space colonists.

Anyone who’s played a recent Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed game will instantly recognize Ubisoft’s approach. You’re dropped into a large, first-person open-world game that rewards lots of climbing and poking through bush, gathering collectibles for stats and lore amid the ongoing story missions. Your main weapon is a bow and arrow, and you need to become savvy to the wilderness to survive.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: Third-person view of a Na'vi flying through the air on the back of an Ikran during daytime.

So far, so Ubisoft. But as cookie-cutter as this sounds, it fundamentally works for the property in question. Pandora is the thing from which everything else in the Avatar franchise blooms, and a game allowing one to sink into that world and become part of the ecosystem is exactly the kind of thing avid fans crave.

Your attention is split between two poles: a human-Na’vi settlement that wishes to broker peace between the species, and the native population, who continue to suffer losses at the hands of the RDA. Some tribes distrust any humans, but you come from a particularly respected tribe, and know the goodness in people, making you an ideal negotiator.

The clans each offer slivers of mythology, as well as a small list of side quests you can use to curry favor. As in the Avatar films, Pandora’s indigenous history is something to be admired, understood, and embraced. You move forward by approaching traditions with an open mind, and trusting that what they give you will be useful.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: First-person view of a Na'vi creeping through the forest with a bow and arrow.

At risk of giving plaudits for doing the bare minimum, Frontiers of Pandora has a firmly anti-colonial stance. There’s some both-sides-ism, but the fact the RDA is so clearly depicted as soul-suckingly evil brings an inherent gratification to their gradual defeat.

Rest assured, this is no talking sim, and negotiations happen using arrows, bombs, bullets, and the ferocious Ikran, flying creatures that allow you to ride on their backs. The RDA sucks the life out of Pandora through mining facilities you have to dismantle. Yes, you’re an environmental terrorist, an endeavor that’s more glorious than it sounds.

The camps are heavily fortified, by foot patrol, turrets, and armored mech suits, all protecting a selection of switches you need to pull to turn off whatever drill you’re targeting. You need to finesse your way in using stealth and your heightened Na’vi attributes, including parkour and spatial awareness for enemy detection and objects of interest you can turn on and off at will.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: First-person view of a Na'vi firing a bow and arrow at a mech.

I found these missions relatively difficult at first because I was trying to beat them using Far Cry logic, where I’d go in all guns blazing (or all bows blazing). Frontiers of Pandora requires you to be more tactile than that, using everything in your inventory and moving as quickly and quietly as possible.

A handy bomb catapult joins the bow to form a hefty combination once you understand the strengths and limitations of both. The bow has high accuracy despite being slow, and the sling lets you quietly set mines for enemies, causing deadly diversions when placed just right. There’s some joy in figuring them out, which is good because they’re the only truly rewarding aspect of RDA strongholds. The layouts and patterns are repetitive, and the enemies suffer from an irritating trope I call ‘spotlight AI.’

Essentially, when one NPC spots you, every other guard in the vicinity instantly knows where you are and auto-aims in your direction. Once you’re spotted, it’s hard to gain back control of the mission because there’s so slight a delay between one person seeing you and the whole platoon being alerted, pushing you to either retreat or die and reset. Every attempt at storming an RDA outpost became a rendition of Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, just dying until I understood enough to eke out the win.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: third-person view of a Na'vi firing at an RDA aircraft with a bow and arrow.

Besides every enemy being kitted with a personal Eye of Sauron, they’d also call in reinforcements the minute they caught wind a Na’vi was on the premises. I generally found it easiest to pick off enemies at a distance with quick arrow shots in the hope of felling the lot before they could summon an army of mechs.

I understand the design principles: the RDA is so belligerent toward the Na’vi and so paranoid about a bloody coup that they jump at the chance to stamp out the Pandoran population. But they seem more cowardly than arrogant here, more incompetent than well-oiled.

You’re left wondering how they got this far. The underlying philosophy of a colonial machine like the RDA is shallow and pathetic, but they do wield some level of military strength that should be taken seriously. The RDA in Frontiers of Pandora just doesn’t seem like something that requires all that much effort to push back.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: A drained and grey forest suffering the impact of RDA mining.

These set-pieces undercut potent execution elsewhere. As they drain the life force out of the surrounding nature, forests and animals near RDA placements become discolored and die. There’s something striking about wandering towards the next mission and encountering a creature suffocating to death due to polluted air.

I was actually disappointed I couldn’t send one buffalo-like wildebeest back to Eywa, like I can with anything I hunt for meat and crafting supplies. Frontiers of Pandora is disarmingly effective at channeling the environmentalism strewn throughout Cameron’s vision.

Once you’ve stopped the gas and oil drilling in any one spot, the ecosystem returns to its vibrant self. Purple, pink, blue, white, and yellow plants spring forth, full of critters big and small. Rendered in the Snowdrop engine, Pandora looks incredible, inviting you to go for a hike and see what you find.

You need to be wary, though, because some animals are just shy of being feral. Running through a pack of Pandoran wolves will put the entire pack on your tail until you reach the vicinity of your next quest. I was once scoping out an RDA landing sight, only to suddenly start taking damage from some dogs I thought I outran several minutes prior.

A minor annoyance on its own, joining the other problems it just serves to remind you this isn’t an all-encompassing tour of Pandora. This is a good facsimile of the cinematic universe that’s trampled box office records twice now, but it’s ultimately just a pretty distraction to bridge the gap to Avatar 3.

Avatar Frontiers of Pandora review: Third-person view of a Na'vi flying through the air on the back of an Ikran during nightime.

I don’t want to accuse Frontiers of Pandora of being cynical; the supporting cast is as memorable as anyone else in the franchise (take that how you will), and the political affiliations are clear and contextualized. But given how aspects here are apparently going to be referenced in the upcoming third movie, I expected more.

I was hoping to truly indulge in Pandora’s valleys and mountains, to get a real sense of the landscape and what it holds. A licensed game this may be, it’s a licensed project that has bearing on the overall narrative, and it’s the rare Avatar spinoff that’s actually come to fruition.

There are certain moments where the game gets close to that magic, but it never quite manages full immersion. Avatar fanatics may find plenty to dig into among all the data entries. Even then, it’s a stopgap. A very pretty stopgap, but a stopgap nonetheless.