Humans are horrible. You don’t need an allegory about the environment filled with blue aliens to tell you that. However, the joy of James Cameron’s Avatar isn’t in its humans, or the azure Na’vi, it’s in the vibrant, living world of Pandora. From the instant you start Frontiers of Pandora, it’s clear that Ubisoft has done an incredible job bringing this world to life, and while you bathe in the neon glow of its incredible wildlife, you’ll discover a people whose lives and culture you’ll want to protect.
Update 19/12/23 – This is now our final scored review of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
The opening of our tale sees you experience some severe childhood trauma, as you’re ‘saved’ by the RDA, who are conducting a human/Na’vi programme that’s supposed to be about intertwining cultures but is mostly about training Na’vi to be soldiers within the human military complex. This is less about protection and more about abduction, but when Jake Sully starts a revolution, this little experiment is supposed to meet a vicious end. Fortunately, you’re saved by your tutor, and put into a cryogenic slumber until the time is right for you to be extracted. As it turns out, that’s at the exact moment that the RDA also make their return to this part of Pandora, and you’re suddenly a part of the resistance fighting them off.
That mention of Jake Sully may, if you’ve watched the Avatar movies, make you think that this is part of the mainline Avatar storyline, but while it’s set in the same period and has the occasional nod to or mention of Jake’s disruptive shenanigans, this is a separate storyline set on the other side of the planet. It’s a good decision, not least because Jake’s somewhat worthy fight has already been played out across many hours of cinema, but because you can forge your own identity within the Na’vi people.
You’re a member of the Sarentu, a tribe that was thought destroyed, but whose lineage as diplomats, storytellers and peacekeepers make you an ideal choice to travel the western continent, building relationships and gaining the support of the disparate tribes who live there. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora lives and dies on these interactions, and I found myself thoroughly drawn into the conversations, asides and side-quests that each tribe gives to you. Some are petty squabbles or family disputes, while others, such as an early quest when you’re learning to hunt, are poignant, emotional and moving.
This continent of Pandora is immense. Overwhelmingly so. At first, you’ll worry that Ubisoft have pulled that open-world trick of spreading things too thin and that the huge map is going to be covered in a spread of meaningless objective markers, and yet, that feeling never materialises. The key to that is your Ikran, a winged mount that you are paired with after the opening hours – the ceremony of which is a wonderful highlight, with swelling music and nail-biting drops below – which opens the entire map up to be explored. There are allied and enemy outposts, current quest markers, and then specific plantlife that help to upgrade your character and that’s fundamentally it. This fairly narrowed focus helps each objective to feel realistic and obtainable, and avoids the bloat that we’ve seen in other Ubisoft franchises.
James Cameron’s environmental message is handled with more nuance than in the Avatar films, with this vibrant alien ecosystem proving to be utterly beguiling as you learn to live and embed yourself within it. Those parallels between American settlers and the indigenous people are given more room to breathe, and you’ll come to revile the unthinking militaristic pioneers who are at odds with nature and the Na’vi who live in harmony with it.
It into the Avatar fiction with a series of crafting and survival systems that feel unnecessary at first, but soon become central to your progression and to how you interact with the landscape. Gathering food and materials is key to that, and as you use your Na’vi vision to scan the environment you can learn about many of the plants and creatures that inhabit Pandora. Animals must be killed cleanly and mercifully for the materials you gather from them to be the finest quality. At the same time, the plantlife and fungi will have specific periods when they’re at their best, whether during the day or night, or when it’s clear or during rainfall. On top of that, you have to complete a minigame to pick them correctly, gently removing them from their position to get the most out of them.
What makes this even more involving is that you have to refer to your Hunting Guide to find out where they are located, and genuinely search and forage for them. While there’s an abundance of plantlife, the key items are few and far between, leaving you to explore, and often coming across something else useful as you do, whether that’s an abandoned RDA outpost or a life-giving plant that’ll permanently increase your health.
In all honesty, I disliked the freedom that Frontiers of Pandora gave me at first. There’s no trail directing you to the next marker, and you have to manually place waypoints on the map for anywhere you want to go, or rely on your Na’vi instincts as you close in on something important. However, I soon came to feel that this was an important part of the fiction, truly making you become a Na’vi warrior who is at one with the planet and with the world around you. The times when you feel stuck invariably mean there’s a root to find, a tree to climb, or a vine to shoot up, and before long you’re zipping through the world, replicating the Na’vi you’ve seen in the films.
There is a war going on though, and the humans aren’t just trampling across Pandora, they’re polluting it, leaving the plant life blackened and brown and the exotic wildlife dead. This obviously cannot stand, and you have to take apart the RDA’s construction sites with surety and stealth. Or, in fact, with massive arrows and explosions.
Either approach is valid, but I did find mixing the two together to be the most enticing, silently slipping through their defences to switch systems off and hack their turrets, before engaging in a fiery spot of combat against their troops, whether on foot or leaping onto your Ikram to attack from the air. Frontiers of Pandora can hit hard, so some caution is always important, but on the regular difficulty setting you’ll feel like a blue alien commando at the height of their powers from the off, replicating the explosive action of Cameron’s cinematic outings. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, whether it’s the legacy of the Far Cry series or other open-world shooters like Rage 2, but it’s well done, weighty, and utterly in keeping with the overarching fiction.
That said, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is perhaps the quietest and calmest FPS I’ve ever played. The action reaches a peak during your forays into the RDA’s increasingly large bases, but so much of the rest of your time here is spent exploring, meandering, admiring, foraging, and just experiencing the world. It’s refreshing and fascinating in equal measure, and while this could have just been ‘Far Cry with blue aliens’, it’s so much more than that.
You can play the entirety of the campaign in co-op – after completing the opening section solo – with cross-platform connectivity and cross-save both in place thanks to Ubisoft Connect. It means that this is a world that’s open to everyone, and which maximises the chance of finding a friend to explore the frontier with. While the difficulty is supposed to scale, approaching these missions together certainly feels easier, but then that feels more realistic too, rather than suddenly turning enemy soldiers into bullet/arrow sponges. It’s well worth pairing up, sharing responsibility for finding materials or searching for upgrades, and creating a new Sarentu tribe together.
We also have to give time to discuss the exceptional visuals that Massive Entertainment and Lightstorm Entertainment have crafted. While there’s no way of recreating the stunning 3D effects of the movies – a shame that such functionality disappeared with the PS3 – the gloriously vibrant and alien world of Pandora comes to life like never before. Whether it’s the myriad of different plants swaying in the breeze, the clouds darkening before rain lashes down, or the array of distinctive native creatures, this is a remarkable achievement. The Snowdrop engine has arguably never been put to better use, with the various development teams crafting one of the most beautiful ecosystems we’ve ever seen.