If ever there was a game that could be a hit or a miss it is Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. And, just like the movies it’s based on, it’s a game that’s dividing opinion.
Fourteen years ago, James Cameron’s Avatar presented filmgoers with a visual feast: a vibrant alien world, an exciting, familiar, but sombre tale with an ecological message, cutting-edge visual effects, and all this in 3D. Around the same time, Ubisoft released an Avatar game in 3D. Like the movie, the game all but disappeared into the mists of time.
Last year we finally got a movie sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water. Much to the chagrin of the nay-saying millennial moviegoers, who deemed the first film to have had no cultural impact, the Avatar sequel did rather well, raking it in at the box office.
A little late to the party, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, allows players to revisit the movies’ magical world of Pandora, albeit in a different region. For this new open-world Avatar game, Ubisoft tapped The Division’s Massive Entertainment with their Snowdrop Engine to bring the Na’vi, the menacing human RDA, and the forests and plains of Pandora to life.
The game starts during the first movie’s time period, with the player as one of several young Na’vi being taught in a human RDA facility. As the prelude unfolds, there is a time jump of sixteen years to when the humans return to Pandora, setting off the events of the second movie, Avatar: The Way of Water.
As a young Na’vi separated from their people, players get to experience the world of Pandora through fresh eyes and experience the magic, wonder and perils of the planet first-hand, along with their character. It’s a good way to integrate the role-playing elements into the game as the young Na’vi discovers their heritage and skills.
Ubisoft hasn’t strayed far from its comfort zone. There’s a definite whiff of the Far Cry series about the game, especially if you’ve spent time playing the prehistoric Far Cry Primal. Ubisoft, is, however, playing to its strengths in giving us a massive seamless playground with no loading screens. The RDA installations are similar to the enemy settlements in pretty much every Far Cry game (and Assassin’s Creed game, for that matter), right down to highlighting enemy locations. The hunting and crafting mechanic is also a Ubisoft staple, but one found in many games these days.
The star of the show is the world of Pandora, which has been brought to life in a way that I didn’t believe possible. It looks straight out of the movies. The lush forest floor and open plains are rich with exotic plants, some familiar and some new. Some offer fruit and resources and others poison and pain. lumbering beasts and hungry predators roam amongst the skittish prey animals.
Huge trees and monolithic rock formations are entwined with massive vines. Gigantic hollow home trees accommodate the Na’vi just as they do in the first movie. At night, the environment lights up in Bioluminescence. It’s a breathtaking game to look at.
From your first clumsy steps to soaring in the skies, the game slowly reveals itself to the player. As your abilities improve so does your locomotion, the player learning the ways of the Na’vi in step with their character. Running, jumping, and climbing becomes easier and faster.
The game’s combat is pretty good. The RDA can come at you hard, so sometimes stealth is the way. I found it next to impossible to carry out sabotage missions without being spotted and all hell breaking loose. As well as a Na’vi bow, you get RDA explosives and rifles to use, evening out the fight. RDA grunts are like flies to your massive Na’vi, but the RDA exoskeletons and aerial attack craft put up a fight.
Your Na’vi vision can be used to find points of interest and highlight opponents’ weak spots and scents for tracking. You can also use it to “scan” plants, wildlife, and other objects for reference later.
As you start to master running and jumping, the first mount, the winged ikran (or banshee) unlocks and the sky is yours. At only a few hours in, I thought this was a bit early. And that it unlocks an hour or so before the more sedate direhorse is puzzling as well. This uneven pacing is not unusual in Ubisoft games and is likely down to the way they farm out elements to the different studios around the globe.
Avatar does seem to throw all its toys at you and demand that you play. In time, though, the game evens itself out. It did give me what I can only refer to as Ubisoft game exhaustion. It’s another massive Ubisoft game world, packed with things to do. The game is full of collectibles, side-quests, cooking, and crafting that can become a bit overwhelming.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Ubisoft’s huge games. I think they represent the best value-for-money games that you can buy. But I find I have to put them down after a while to for a rest. I tend to nibble at Ubisoft games like Assassin’s Creed for a couple of years after release. I can see Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora being the same.
For all its breathtaking beauty and immersive gameplay, there were times when did get a bit samey. The game progresses via a mission structure that is the bread and butter of Ubisoft games. There’s plenty of variety in the quests, though some elements can get repetitive. There’s always a side quest or some hunting or foraging if you fancy a break from the grind.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a great game if played in small bites. Extended playtimes start to reveal the game’s sometimes repetitive structure. It’s a breathtaking experience, though, offering players the chance to visit locations that look straight out of the movies. This is a game for Avatar and Ubisoft fans but others may not be quite so enamoured.
Rating: Very good