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Known for Pandora’s visually rich worldbuilding over its predictable stories, the Avatar films fleshed out an ecosystem perfect for video games. And while this isn’t their first video game adaptation, none match the sheer scale of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Developed by Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment, the Far Cry comparisons arrived alongside the first trailers.
The Ubisoft formula lends itself to Pandora. To my surprise, the game allows you to get lost, free from the handholding of its spiritual predecessors. Impossible vistas, lore-accurate wildlife, and a new focus on sustainability let Avatar author a new take on its radio tower-capturing cousin. And while exploration, crafting, and outposts are on the menu, their ingredients are different enough to refill your stamina instead of exhausting it.
As a Na’vi orphan trained by the human RDA (Resources Development Administration), your custom character wakes up in an abandoned facility after a 15-year stasis alongside a young band of Sarentu clanmates. With the RDA still on pollution and land exploitation duty, your journey will take you across the Western Frontier as you assemble the Na’vi tribes for one final fight. The usual ‘unlikely allies and likely twists’ charade didn’t hold me captive despite some excellent voice acting (even as Na’vi), hamstrung by a one-note antagonist who can’t compete with Far Cry’s Vaas or Pagan Min. But look past the story and Avatar’s vivid world pulls you in.
Abandoning map markers is the first step toward Avatar’s new sense of freedom. Pandora’s sensory overload takes center stage as the game’s icons fade when you sprint and leap through its jungles, caves, and floating mountains. It’s rare to find sights so majestic, let alone in a video game. Like an intangible dream, Pandora owes no explanation to its viewers. Sure, your Na’vi senses can keep you moored to the path with a glowing blue marker, but choosing to just listen to directions like ‘head southwest of Resistance HQ’ and ‘follow the kites’ instead was far more compelling.
Even after I got accustomed to the world’s kaleidoscopic colors, the whims of its reactive flora and fauna felt like a mystery. Some plants don’t affect gameplay while others serve as bioluminescent jump pads, traps, and organic elevators. While some may want more interactions, I see Pandora as a world that will thrive with or without you. With all kinds of colors on display based on the weather and time of day, my eyes took a while to stop moving about like they were on a billiards table.
Your ears alert you to prowling predators and RDA patrols as well. The whirring of helicopter blades scared me more than the combat music’s war drums. Shifting from bewilderment at the world’s lack of markers towards a semblance of understanding is a fulfilling pursuit I didn’t expect from a Ubisoft title. This leans into the core narrative of finding yourself between two worlds.
While I didn’t meet unique RDA-flavored threats or radio towers across Avatar’s three regions, their landscapes and mini-ecosystems didn’t take long to leave an imprint in my memory. Learning how each Na’vi faction interacts with their surroundings was far more interesting than the villains with no nuanced motivations. Perhaps that was the point. The idea of a biological neural network that can be synced across species is a fascinating idea. Mounts like the Direhorse and flying ikran bond with you this way, with the latter having an elaborate platforming quest at a roostery to win their favor.
Flying feels exhilarating with an ikran, especially when you summon them to catch you after jumping from a great height. And you’ll be flying often towards objectives or even certain collectibles. Throwing experience bars out and replacing them with a hunt for skill points from Tarsyu saplings rewards exploration in ways few games do. And the paths to these power-ups are seldom painted out for you. As for the mounts, you’ll discover how to bond with them as you meet the Na’vi clans scattered across the Western Frontier.
Without entering spoiler territory, the three Na’vi clans live in unique locations, each with its own wildlife and set of circumstances that shape their respective cultures. One consists of once-renowned healers while another travels light with massive but docile creatures whose lifecycle is connected with the clan itself. Spirituality is a core tenet of the Na’vi, one that the human resistance’s science is constantly at odds with. The RDA’s cruelty brings about ecological imbalances that affect these ecosystems, gnawing at them in the name of profit. The Kinglor Forest, Upper Plains, and the Clouded Forest are fairly recognizable thanks to the selection of living beings that inhabit them. Pulling this off with bioluminescent plants and animals is a design triumph.
As you take part in Na’vi customs to preserve their traditions, you’ll watch the shadow of the RDA’s pollution creep over Pandora. Every RDA foothold turns its perimeter into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Suffocated animals fall from torched vegetation into oil spills while feral RDA experiments assault you amidst the grim fog. These locations demand focus and clear execution unlike the open-world segments, making for a nice change in pace.
Crossing corridors of steel and cable-laden walkways felt alien after exploring Pandora’s untamed assortment of vegetation and terrain. The SID device, used to hack into enemy computers and AMP suits, was another point of contrast compared to organic threats. Clearing a timed maze with a proximity-based tool to disable an RDA patrol was a tense dance that always felt satisfying to pull off. With the right skill upgrades, sneaking as a 9ft tall blue Na’vi is feasible since most human doors require you to crouch anyway. Entering these regions filled me with a sense of unease that lifted only after I cleared an outpost’s objectives.
Many such moments rise like toxic foam across Pandora’s ecological turmoil. One particular moment had me finding the perfect angle to analyze a hidden Sarentu totem under massive stone arches between mountains. The protagonist’s musings of their clan connecting the others took a dark turn when an RDA excavation instantly blew the arches apart. A random activity out of sync with the narrative had a bigger emotional impact on me than much of Avatar’s story.
This sense of being backed into a corner bleeds into Avatar’s combat and survival mechanics. While your first Longbow kill will have you feeling like a Crysis protagonist, the RDA will quickly tear your health bar to shreds, even on medium difficulty. AMP suits with grenade launchers, machine guns, and flamethrowers make short work of Na’vi tenacity unless it’s backed up by quick thinking. Avatar offers a variety of Na’vi weapons to pick from, ranging from stealthy bows to explosive slings and spear throwers. While I was hesitant to use RDA assault rifles and shotguns, relenting in the final mission made enemy encounters go from unforgiving to bearable. But I’d blame the ill-placed checkpoints more than the armored foes.
The survival aspects of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora are like its collectible pollen, scattered and of varying quality. Having a stamina bar that depletes with movement while regenerating health felt shoehorned in to capitalize on its cooking mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, I love how ingredient combinations result in different dishes, complete with animations and buffs. Tiny moments like these help build a sense of belonging in an alien world. It’s just that scrounging for materials to craft ammo and gear felt more useful.
Plant gathering is now a mini-game that tasks you with figuring out the optimal way to harvest them. Doing so at the right time of day and weather conditions gives you rarer item varieties that translate into better gear. This extends to hunting animals as well, with the player chanting a prayer to Eywa as they gather materials from their bodies. Don’t expect Far Cry’s frequency of one animal attack every 10 seconds though. While you’ll stumble into animal packs minding their own business, hunting usually involves tracking their scents beforehand.
Activities like powering up Field Labs to track climate change and reliving Memory Puzzles provide a nice mix of human and Na’vi excursions. The RDA’s disregard and the Na’vi’s love for nature collide as you soothe an animal before removing an RDA dart, preventing it from going feral. As you progress along the story and clear clan-specific side missions, you earn Clan Favor. This can then be traded for items and gear blueprints, grounding you in the game’s themes of patriotism and cross-cultural contributions. There’s a lot to do in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and none of it feels forced. Instead of the laundry lists of its spiritual predecessors, players get to pick tasks that go beyond mere material benefits. Helping some Na’vi celebrate their reunion with your clan felt like its own reward.
Look past Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora’s dull story and you’ll find spectacle and freedom lurking in its Na’vi customs and breathtaking ecosystems. Watching the sunrise atop a flying ikran as you approach a poisonous RDA outpost is an exquisite experience. The lack of exploration markers can be seen as either a lack of structure or a deliberate decision to gain a blue-skinned identity built on player agency. I’m inclined towards the latter.
Hiding locations behind simple instructions is by no means novel or groundbreaking. Assassin’s Creed has done it on occasion too. But by hiding the beaten path from view, Avatar asks players to let go of decades of muscle memory and rely on their senses instead. I hope Massive Entertainment’s gorgeous rendition of Pandoran exploration inspires the next generation of Ubisoft-likes in the right ways.
Reviewed on PC. Game provided by publisher.