Platform: PC, Xbox Series X
Developer: Massive Entertainment
Notwithstanding the fact it’s one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, I’ve never seen Avatar. All I know about it is what’s filtered down into pop culture – which means that I know there’s a bunch of giant blue aliens who I think are fighting off human colonizers. Also, I think it’s possibly got an environmentalist message?
In other words, I went into Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora pretty much blind, only knowing it was an open-world game from Ubisoft. Given that’s exactly the kind of game I was after, I was okay with going in without too much context or background, figuring that the game would tell me what I needed to know.
And, unsurprisingly, it did. The plot in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is hardly complicated. In fact, it’s literally exactly what I thought it would be: you’re one of those big blue aliens fighting off human colonizers. The game even helpfully mentions at the beginning that the events of the movie are taking place somewhere else on the planet, so this is entirely a self-contained world, for all intents and purposes.
As for the environmentalist message, that’s also pretty easy to follow. The humans are polluting Pandora, and you need to destroy their bases and let nature reclaim them. If you come across an area where the wildlife and vegetation are dying, chances are good a base in need of destruction is nearby.
To Frontiers of Pandora’s credit, it portrays those living parts of the eponymous planet incredibly well, for the most part. Everywhere you turn, you see all kinds of crazy flora and fauna, all lovingly rendered in great detail. This game’s open world is absolutely massive, and if you just feel like exploring, ignoring the plot entirely, you can do that. You won’t find a lot (which I’ll get to in a moment), but this world is pretty richly imagined, and you can put together quite the botanical or bestiary if you’re so inclined.
There are a few downsides to this, though. The first is that, as mentioned, the world is kind of empty. When you’re in a base or near some other point of interest, there are some of the usual Ubisoft open world collectibles, but out in the wild, you don’t stumble across much. You’ll find some abandoned pots or boxes to gather a scant few items (which highlights another problem I had with the game), but the focus here is uncovering plants and animals. While that’s more realistic (to the extent a game about blue aliens on another planet could be realistic, of course), it means you spend a lot of time with nothing to do as you’re moving around the world, and it makes it very hard to navigate the enormous world with little in the way of signposts or markers.
Without those obvious ways to help you navigate, you’re forced to use some kind of special Na’vi-vision that highlights important features of the world around you, as well as your goal. The challenge this adds is two-fold: first, it also obscures everything else, which means you’ll find walking around a little difficult, and second, it doesn’t give you a good idea of how far away your goal is – you just see a glowing object somewhere in the distance, regardless of what’s between you and it. It can be awfully confusing.
On top of that, Frontiers of Pandora also occasionally struggles to run at shows off its impressive environments. I tried playing on the Legion Go, but my playtime was marred by constant skipping (though that could be a side effect of the fact the Legion Go is kind of lousy). Even after switching to PS5, though, while the game generally performed better, there were definitely moments where you could see the system struggling to show everything as the odd piece of scenery would suddenly pop into existence. Still, this is a gorgeous game that clearly uses the power of current-gen consoles to full effect, so it’s hard to complain too much about that.
There’s plenty of other stuff to complain about, though.
A lot of the complaints come down to the fact that it constantly feels like the game is trying to punish players. You start off with barely any health and since there are so few pick-up opportunities, I found that my character was constantly on the verge of death. The game makes a big deal early on about having you find a specific plant to help heal an ailing fellow Na’vi, except you can only use the plant to heal your armour, not address your flashing red health metre.
The game’s save system is also beyond worthless. There are no manual saves here, so you’re at the mercy of an autosave system that seems to pick the moment just before you die as your checkpoint. (The alternative is turning autosave off, which means the game only saves at specific points, and you lose even more progress.) This means that you’ll die for whatever reason, and then, if you’ve been in a firefight with the evil humans of the Resource Development Administration, you’ll come back to the moment shortly before your death, just without whatever ammo and items you may have used. It gets awfully easy to get stuck in an impossible loop. Similarly, at one point early on I had to stop playing mid-mission, and somehow the game had forgotten that I’d picked up a bow and a gun. This meant that I had no choice but to restart from the very beginning, or else face a situation where I’d have to run at the enemy soldiers and punch them all, rather than having any weapons at my disposal.
The big problem with that, in turn, is that Frontiers of Pandora is very much geared towards a weird kind of stealth gameplay, in which you have to pick off soldiers one by one – but spaced out, since the moment you kill one, suddenly all the others become aware, and you have to run away until they forget they’re looking for you. At that point, you pick off another one, and start the cycle over again. As satisfying as it was to pick off a soldier from a distance with a bow and arrow, it got really tedious to spend so much time running away.
Admittedly, you can also use a gun, but they feel much less powerful than arrows – and on top of that, there’s so much recoil, your aim is far worse than with an arrow, and you waste all kinds of bullets. Also, it feels like there’s something fundamentally weird about having these giant, nature-loving aliens strapped with machine guns, blowing away enemy soldiers and mechs.
With all these complaints, you might think I hate Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, but I don’t. I mean, I don’t love it, but given such a huge, richly imagined world, it’s hard to be too annoyed with it. There are definitely plenty of improvements that would make it more enjoyable to play, but as it stands, it’s a perfectly serviceable open world adventure.
Ubisoft provided us with an Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora PS5 and PC codes for review purposes.