Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Review

If ever there was a pairing made for each other it’s Ubisoft and Avatar. Think about it for a second, both are highly stylized, both prefer characters who are bland without a flicker of charismatic charm, and both possess a gratuitous tendency to be remarkably pretentious. Now that Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is here, can it be anything more than the sum of its parts, or is it merely victimized by its creators? 

Cast your minds back fourteen years ago to 2009 for a second. This is when James Cameron unleashed a brand-new cinematic tour de force upon us all, where blue smurf/human hybrids buzzed through luscious organic natural landscapes trying to protect their habitat from evil human forces attempting to lay waste to it. Along with Avatar’s cinema release, an official videogame was launched alongside it and it was decidedly mediocre – as is usually the case for cash-hoovering licensed games.

Now, Ubisoft have taken the helm for an all-original Avatar tale, and despite gracing us with arguably Ubisoft’s most seductively gorgeous looking game to date, is yet another one of their forgettable and pedestrian open-world games, devoid of charisma and a reason to care about any of the characters or goings on within. Much like a handful of Ubisoft games in the past decade, it’s serviceable and doesn’t commit any cardinal sins of game design; it’s just sinfully bland.  

Avatar as a franchise has predominantly put across the notion that nature is vibrant, blissful and pristinely perfect, and the human invaders come swooping into their beautiful planet uninvited with their armoured grunts and brutish mech hellraisers, and actively working to rip apart peace and tranquillity. Themes of ecology and “saving the planet” are presented with a sense if graciousness that’s pleasant if you ignore how preachy it can come across. Frontiers of Pandora retains this identity to a staggeringly precise degree, so your tolerance of Ubisoft’s latest hinges on your adhesion or lack thereof to the source material.

We did attempt to get screenshots of something other than the world, but that is the best part of the game – honestly, just look at it!

You play as a random imprisoned and customizable Na’vi labelled “The Sarentu”, who aims to break out of an RDA facility of which them and their flock are held captive. Y’see The Sarentu and company have each individually been abducted at a young age, so that the RDA could twist them into replicating normal human behaviours, meaning they can be pawns in RDA’s mission for supremacy over Pandora.  

Frontiers of Pandora‘s yarn does compel you forward as you meet a range of Na’vi comrades, each of whom have their own personalities, turmoil and inner squabbles. Yet despite their differing concerns, they unify in just how uncharismatic and plain-minded they are. One Na’vi you meet early on prattles on like a disgruntled daughter who spends her waking hours running her mouth at an unwilling hostage who is tied and gagged. Sure, some of the characters are pleasant and accommodating, yet the drab personalities force you to pay attention to the gameplay and the events of the story, rather than these irritable blue-skinned conservationists. Suffice to say that like the films, if you aren’t already immersed in the Pandora/RDA struggle, you’ll find it very hard to care about the story being woven.

You know the drill when it comes to a modern Ubisoft open-world game. There’s a huge verdant and impressive looking world to explore, where you can either follow the main path to experience the crux of the story and all it has to offer, or you can complete side-missions for fellow Na’vi disciples, so that you can accrue experience points to plant into an upgrade tree. Admittedly, there aren’t as many map-markers as you’d find in other Ubi open-world monoliths such as Far Cry and Watch Dogs, but make no mistake, Frontiers of Pandora is still a typical open-world game by Ubisoft standards.

Be prepared to bolt across the map often to reach mission markers, all the while admiring some of the most visually delicious scenery you’ll ever cross in an Ubisoft game, and picking herbs for crafting. When Frontiers of Pandora isn’t sequestering you to perform rudimentary tasks, it can feel rather liberating, and the platforming, while quite confusing at times because it can become difficult to reach objective markers easily when you need to scale seismic peaks, aligns quite well with the hunter aesthetic of the game.

 Sometimes though, silly stuff can get in the way. For example, fiddling with the right analogue stick to pick fruits from tree branches. Holding buttons to complete actions and tweaking the analogue stick to retrieve a fruit is an utterly fruitless mechanic (no pun intended), forcing you to twiddle a thumbstick for such a rudimentary and basic actions wastes players’ time that you’ll wish Ubi could temper their design idiosyncrasies just for straightforward ease of use. 

Where Ubi has catered to accessibility is through The Hunter’s Guide, a trusty companion you’ll refer to time and again, pieces of which you can collect up on your travels. This encyclopaedia is an invaluable tool to garner information on the wildlife, plants and edibles in the game, and you can tag items within it to make your hunts a tad easier. 

If you want to interact with your Na’vi brethren, you’ll need to track down and locate one of the main hubs in the game such as The Hometree. Here you can watch Na’vi communicating each other, purchase  ammunition for weapons, stock up on healing items from a merchant, and craft new gear and items to help you out in the vast swathes of vegetation-strewn jungle. 

Hometree is a nice and pleasant resting stop, but conversations with other Na’vi are disappointingly absent, unless you’re undertaking a quest, in which case they’ll be talking your ears off about their problems, and like an obedient and trusty Sarantu, you go out and address their problems by taking the necessary actions, before you return to them for a job well done and a couple of experience points if luck permits. 

With regard to the upgrade system, Frontiers of Pandora contains branches of upgrades pertaining to survival, hunting, crafting and warrior combat. In addition, there are special Ancestor Skills which you can obtain by interacting with special Tarsyu flowers scattered throughout the game.

Generic skills regrettably slip into the throngs of similar Ubisoft titles, meaning they’re minor enhancements that don’t make you feel like a badass, and actually would’ve been better served as already-acquired skills from the start of the game. While perks such as maintaining silence during stealth a are reasonable, an enhancement where you inflict fifteen-percent more damage to enemies you tag is unexciting and doesn’t convey a sense of empowerment, merely an incremental feeling of garnering more strength at a slower rate.

Conversely, Ancestor Skills are rarer, but they grant you a greater emphasis of power and autonomy. The ability to leap anywhere without fall damage is great, and ripping RDA grunts from their mechs is satisfying, but these would’ve been far better served as base-level perks, rather than tied to a collectible.

Frontiers of Pandora‘s waywardness persists with how it plays as well. This latest Avatar can be likened to a Ubisoft’s greatest hits compilation. Predominantly you’ve got Far Cry‘s shooting mechanics, running and jumping, but hints of Assassin’s Creed are peppered in there when investigation bits enter the fray, and a sniff of Watch Dogs when you’re subjected to wholly unnecessary hacking minigames. The Ubisoft identity is laid thick here, and much like the rest of the game, it’s passable, but flawed and not very exciting.

Your primary task throughout Frontiers of Pandora is to tear down the RDA’s operations through means of stealth or utilizing an arsenal of firearms. In stealth you can opt to equip a bow to take out RDA scourge silently, which is an ideal approach, unless the inconsistent A.I makes it a hassle. There are no stealth takedowns, so your best option is to skulk in tall grasses and pick your moment to strike at long-range – but if it all goes to pot there’s always meaty firearms to fall back on. 

Guns don’t feel cohesive with what the Na’vi stand for with all their eco-friendly living standards, but when you do get to use them they are chunky and feel heavy – quite unwieldy actually. Let’s hope you don’t like iron sights though, because Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t allow you to point and shoot in a conventional FPS manner. Instead, you shoot with a reticule that foregoes accuracy for an imprecise rangy alternative that just doesn’t feel right, in fact it’s quite a terrible alternative to iron sights.

Enemies don’t pose much of a threat either, unless your minuscule health bars and exploding toxic plants put pay to your ballistic efforts. Sometimes enemies can get stuck on the environment, and it’s far easier to punch them out than it is to garner any form of accuracy from unloading bullets. They’re rank and file grunts who bring their mech-walkers with them to feel more secure, they are nothing to fear. 

Investigation sections are a big deal in Frontiers of Pandora, but to a far more groan-inducing degree than they ought to be. The Sarentu will typically follow a marker to the location of a scene, whereby they try to connect the events of what has happened, using their blue vision cone to identify objects and matters of interest, then linking them together until a bar on the objective HUD fills completely. The Sarentu will remark with uncertainty and disapproval if you don’t match the correct pieces of evidence, so it’s a little amusing to laugh at the game when they express their annoying bewilderments. 

Playing Frontiers of Pandora feels like a cobbled-together experience, where all the pieces are indicative of other Ubisoft games, so it fails to standout on its own accord. Again, it’s a fine and balanced offer with some variety, but it’s all charmless unless you’ve not played an Ubisoft open-world before, in which case it’ll feel like a breath of fresh Pandorian air…but still largely charmless. 

Second Opinion
I’ve had a pretty fun time with Frontiers of Pandora over the last few weeks. I’m a bit of a sucker for Ubisoft open world-style games – especially Far Cry – and this has scratched that itch for the most part. The world is huge, stunning to look at, and there’s a fair amount of activities (from hunting to foraging, side missions, and those always enjoyable bases to clear out) to find. The main missions so far (I’m about 15 hours in) are decent, though I feel like even after this amount of time I’m still in the drip feed of new skills and tutorials. Granted, I’ve gone off the beaten path more than once, but also only unlocked my Ikran after about 12 hours which makes getting about the huge map way easier.

As mentioned, this reminds me heavily of Far Cry, and it’s in using the environment and vantage points to stealth in and take out a base without being seen that I really enjoy both games. Combat is a weak point for me, my Na’Vi easily mown down by even a puny grunt far too quickly for my liking, especially early on. The guns also don’t feel especially exciting to use, and I mainly fall back on one of my Bows to do my work.

It can feel a little too huge at times; there’s crafting for armour and items, a basic need for food to keep our stamina up, a vast array of food and animals to find and hunt, shrines, extra plants that’ll grant us bonuses, extras hidden caches and more. I do find I’m ignoring some aspects purely because I don’t have time to do everything, but if you’re into really digging into one game at a time then there’s plenty here to keep you going.

Overall, I’m enjoying the game and am going to keep plugging away at Frontiers of Pandora over the next few weeks. It’s easy enough to dip in and out of, but also deep enough to really sink your teeth into if you so wish. It’s also one of the prettiest games I’ve ever seen, and will be a tech showcase for sometime yet.

Jamie – EIC

There are two praiseworthy parts that Ubisoft deserves commendations for however, its strides regarding videogame accessibility, and the stunning artistic and graphical work. 

On the accessibility front, there are a myriad of options that cater to a range of disabilities and impairments. There are various lighting, audio and gameplay options that tweak everything from Night Mode that brings out the audible details suitable for night-time play, to an option that enables or disables tinnitus sound effects. There are various colour cues and colour blind-aiding options as well. For all of the kinks we see in Ubisoft games, there’s no denying they care about their players enough for them to enjoy their experiences as much as they can through the litany of options that make their games more approachable.

Now, for as lukewarm as Frontiers of Pandora is, there’s no mistaking the sheer dedication to their craft when it comes to representing a thoroughly striking Avatar experience. Gaze in awe at the ominous clouds as downpours sweep the landscape and sweat the vegetation. Behold the awe-inspiring vistas, and the glistening nature-imbued valleys and organic life-evoking elements. The world created in Frontiers of Pandora is stunning, and could be considered one of the best looking games on the Series X.

Conclusion

Bearing the eyes of scorn at another open-world Ubisoft game is an easy thing to do and is tough to resist. Frontiers of Pandora very often fall foul of trying so hard to be other Ubisoft games, that it forgets to be its own game, but even within the flickering attempts it makes to be itself it’s irksomely bland and lacking a reason to truly stake its claim as anything other than a companion piece to James Cameron’s Avatar films. The missions and the general gameplay are merely competent, stealth is workable but unsatisfying, investigations are boring and forgettable, and generally it’s hard to want to keep on persisting through Frontiers of Pandora. Accessibility options and the game’s visual identity are superb, but they fail to mask predictable Ubisoft trappings. Avatar fans will likely fall in love with this one, but everyone else will echo disgruntled sighs at  yet another generic Ubisoft game. Ubisoft know they can do much better, they’ve shown that various times in the past, but Frontiers of Pandora is helplessly mediocre, wallowing in better Ubisoft franchises in a vain attempt to conceal the disappointingly stale reality that it’s just not good enough to be anything more.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.

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Good
  • Some of the best visuals on current-gen hardware
  • Pleasing accessibility options
  • Generally competent
Bad
  • Bland characters and forgettable story
  • Unengaging and snore-worthy investigation sections
  • Using firearms doesn't feel good
5.8
Average
Written by
Although the genesis of my videogame addiction began with a PS1 and an N64 in the mid-late 90s as a widdle boy, Xbox has managed to hook me in and consume most of my videogame time thanks to its hardcore multiplayer fanaticism and consistency. I tend to play anything from shooters and action adventures to genres I'm not so good at like sports, RTS and puzzle games.

2 Comments

  1. I like the second opinion option here, good stuff.

    Reply
    • I do like to try and get second opinions when we can 🙂

      Reply

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