Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an open-world first-person action-adventure game developed by Massive Entertainment (the creators of The Division series) and published by Ubisoft. The game is based on the James Cameron Avatar films and takes place between the films. Although the Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora might appear as a rinse-and-repeat Ubisoft formula, in reality, it has a lot of depth to it and shows a lot of care went into it, making it worthy the journey.
Note – A key was provided for the purpose of this review.
Developer & Publisher // Massive Entertainment, Ubisoft
Platforms // PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S
MSRP & Release Date //$69.99, Dec. 7, 2023
Reviewed On // Xbox Series X
Surprisingly Competent Narrative
The story revolves around the Resources Development Administration (RDA). After discovering the planet Pandora, it sets out to extract its numerous natural resources. However, the RDA encounters local alien inhabitants known as the Na’vi. The RDA established a program known as The Ambassador Program (TAP) led by Dr. Alma Cortez and RDA Director John Mercer. Its objective is to train five young Na’vi children, including the player (referred to as “the Sarentu”), Ri’nela, Aha’ri, Teylan, and Nor, to become Na’vi-human ambassadors.
However, the Na’vi children were taken forcibly from their clans and resent Mercer’s strict teachings and attempt to escape. In response, Mercer shoots and kills Aha’ri to intimidate the others.
Eight years later, following the RDA’s defeat against Jake’s army (From the first Avatar movie), the remaining RDA forces must evacuate Pandora. Mercer orders the adult Na’vi students to be executed due to their perceived liability. But Alma defies him and leads the students to a cryogenic life-suspension chamber to ensure their safety in hiding.
After 16 years, the students are awakened with the help of Na’vi resistance fighters who collaborate with Alma. They manage to narrowly evade the facility just as Mercer, leading an RDA force, arrives intending to eliminate the students. The Sarentu successfully escapes and regroups with their friends. The students then join Alma and her team consisting of former RDA personnel and form the current resistance against the RDA.
Adding More Context to the World
To my surprise, the story was actually decent. No, it wasn’t the most compelling narrative, but it did a lot to flesh out about the world of Pandora, the RDA, and the different Na’vi tribes. It also touched base about the idiosyncrasies between the different in a way the movies never could. Most of the characters did their job but were one-dimensional for the most part. Teylan, in particular, stood out the most, because he still wanted reconciliation between humans and the Na’vi, but was more sympathetic towards the RDA.
The story’s pacing was consistent throughout and I never felt the game overstayed its welcome. With the exception of the hard progression roadblocks (more on that below). So kudos to Massive for creating a serviceable story within a fascinating world and franchise.
Player, I Mean, Na’vi Creation
When customizing your character, there are multiple customization options available to you. This includes hair style/color, eye shape, voice, and even your Na’vi’s Bioluminescence patterns (aka the glowing body/face dots commonly found on Na’vi) and intensity. While it may not be as in-depth as other recent games like Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s decent at its core. All the while providing plenty of customization options for your Sarentu Na’vi character.
Pandora Brought to Life
When Avatars: Frontiers of Pandora was first unveiled, many assumed that it was a Far Cry game with an Avatar skin. In some ways it is, but taking a deeper look, there’s more to it below the surface. That is because Pandora is one of the best map and level designs ever created in a Ubisoft game.
The entire map oozes with attention to detail that beckons you to explore it. Everything from the dynamic weather, swaying fauna/plant life, and numerous wildlife helps bring Pandora to life. Such as viper wolves that often stalked prey in packs. Or the commonly found Kinglor forest vein pod – which looks like a giant green egg (no ham) – that bursts and damages when you approach them.
The game also achieves a sense of verticality we haven’t seen in a Ubisoft game for a while. Thanks to trees that eclipse the sky and archipelagos of floating mountains create a dense and convincing world even in higher altitudes. It’s easy to just fly around on your trust Ikran and get lost in the sky. Or if you prefer a more grounded experience, there’s plenty of wildlife to hunt, ruined RDA facilities to explore, or crafting materials to gather. Then it’s up to you to decide whether you want to use your game to cook, craft new gear, or donate it to one of the number of Na’vi tribes.
Na’vi tribes are numerous in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Each has a distinct history, culture, and relations to the other tribes. Your tribe, the Serantu, is an old and respected tribe and was one of the earlier Na’vi societies that came into contact with Sky People aka the RDA. As a result, they saw the full brunt of their violence, manipulation, and greed to extract resources from Pandora. But the tribe that stood out to me the most has to be the Zeswa.
The Zeswa are a nomadic people that live off the lands in the Upper Plains. What’s unique about them is that they follow around giant mammoth-like creatures known as the Zakru. They essentially pitch up their tents wherever the Zakru flock decides to rest. Then the Zeswa pack it all up and move along with them.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Quests
Story quests are predicated on your combat score. Combat score is important because it essentially gates your main story quest progress. Players will undoubtedly reach points where they must increase their combat score before progressing to the main storyline. So in a way, they superficially create progression barriers. However, increasing your combat score can be a slog. Luckily, it’s not as bad as other Ubisoft games, but they still felt like a hurdle to progressing the main storyline.
Quests and activities involve attacking and capturing RDA installations, investigations, hacking, and different forms of fetch quests. Hacking is a mini-game where you have to use your hacking tool to guide a cursor across a maze. There are locks that you have to unlock in parts of the maze. There are even electric sections that will send you back to the start of the maze. It wasn’t overly complicated and I enjoyed the visual aspect while hacking.
The game does feature co-op, but no matchmaking. In other words, you have to invite your friends who have Ubisoft accounts in order to link up.
Investigations that will always send you to a location where you have to figure out what exactly happened. You’ll rely on your Na’vi sense to scope out for clues. Then you’ll have to link clues to create context about what occurred.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
By far the most annoying quest types were the ones that involved investigations. Not because I didn’t like to play the role of Sherlock Holmes and undercover a mystery. No, it’s because it’s so easy to overlook tiny clues that might take you more time than you’d like to admit just to find it.
I can’t express how much time I have wasted looking for clues that sometimes didn’t boot up properly so it caused me to reload my save file. For instance, in one quest called “Crush” I couldn’t find the last clue to wrap up the investigation section. So, I decided to quit out of the game and jump back in. I had to redo the entire investigation section again, but this time the last clue appeared, which was a bunch of footprints in the mud. I always sighed after completing an investigation and tried to get them out of the way ASAP.
Fetch Quests Ahead
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is also rife with fetch quests. Some quests will ask you to craft certain armor sets to donate to Na’vi tribes. They will require you to do some research on where to find said crafting materials. While other fetch quests will ask you to find certain people – which usually involves the dreaded investigation. The armor donations were a headache on their own and I tried to avoid them as much as invesitgation-based quests as well. I would only complete donations if I already had all the materials in my inventory. Otherwise, I tried to avoid them when possible.
Luckily, it’s easy to track all the quests as the game does a good job of organizing quest logs. Fetch questions are found in the Exploration Quest Tab in the main menu. While the main story and side quests are located in the Quest tabs.
Icons Under Control
It seems that Ubisoft has taken feedback well and hasn’t littered the map with a bunch of icons for the game’s different activities. Instead, if you come across a point of interest such as Bellsprig trees (increase HP), or Ancestor Trees (unlocks new passive skills and provides skill points), your Na’vi sense will have a glowing inductor to find them, which I loved. No doubt, this helped maintain the feeling of exploration. While RDA facilities are easily distinguished as the land surrounding them is a reddish-brown color.
Combat is Tight, But Don’t Expect a Cake Walk
Weapon variety is a little more sparse in AFP. There are Na’vi weapons that include a different variation of bows, staff slings that shoot out traps and explosives, a spear thrower, and a few guns. Bows come in three flavors, shortbow (short-range and quick firing), longbow (medium range with medium draw), and heavy bows (long-range bows). Firearms only come in 2 variants: the Assault Rifle and Shotgun. Though there are RPGs that players can pick up off from the ground, is a one-time-use weapon that isn’t part of your arsenal.
When it comes to combat, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora plays very similarly to Far Cry Primal than other titles, despite it being built on the Snowdrop Engine. The same engine that The Division franchise uses. Overall, I was content with the game’s combat system.
The guns and Na’vi weapons controls felt tight and were satisfying to use. Each had a distinct feel to it that helped differentiate them. This also applied to the different bows available in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. For instance, the shortbow can shoot off up to 3 arrows in quick succession. While the heavy bow had a much longer draw time but could shoot from farther distances.
At first, I didn’t consider using the shortbow, because I didn’t feel it suited my style of play. But to my surprise, by the end of my playthrough, it became a regular in my loadout. If you ever played any previous Far Cry game from the past 10 years, then you’ll know exactly how weapons handle, and that in my book is a good thing.
One thing that did surprise me about Avatar is the combat difficulty. Make no mistake, the game’s combat will punish you if you go in guns blazing at first. The RDA is equipped with some high-tech weapons, AMP ( mech) suits, turrets, and helicopters. They will easily drain your health within split seconds if you’re not careful. Even normal marines, who are tiny compared to your sprawling Na’vi height, can be deceptively a nuisance that can sneak up and dish out the hurt.
However, I felt this made the game more engaging and combat scenarios meaningful because every fight could be your last (or at least make you reload a checkpoint). The whole context of the game is that you as a Na’vi are undergoing a resistance to the RDA’s colonization and resource extraction of Pandora. So, on a thematic level, it suits that combat emphasizes stealth and hit-and-run tactics as it complements the guerrilla resistance concept beautifully. However, by the end of the game, you’ll undoubtedly net some high-tiered loot that will combat a little easier. Speaking of loot.
Tiered Loot and Gear Finds Its Way in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
Avatar Frontiers of Pandora does feature tiered loot systems. You got your basic green up to yellow tier levels for armor pieces and weapons. In addition, you can also outfit your armor and weapons with mods that can change passive status effects such as increased damage to RDA. Even mods are tiered as well. All of these tiered gear and weapons tie into your combat score.
Skills and Upgrades
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t have your tried-and-true experience point to increase your combat score. Instead, it’s all tied to your gear and partially to your skill upgrades. There are 5 main skill trees (known as memories in the game) where players can allocate their skill points: Memories of the Survivor, Warrior, Hunter, Maker, and Rider. Each focuses on different mechanics of the game such as weapon expertise, stealth, Ikran-related passive abilities, etc. It’s all quite familiar except for the way skill points are earned.
Players can earn skill points from some quests, collecting them from Tarsyu Saplings, or Ancestor Skills (they always net your 2 skill points). However, I felt that when I hit a combat score roadblock, I always felt frustrated. But I eventually learned that it was more effective to seek higher-powered gear than skill points. So by mid-game, many of the skills I unlocked became afterthoughts after unlocking on my preferred health/healing and damage-based skills.
A Surprisingly Deep Crafting System
Similar to other Ubisoft titles, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora does feature its tried-and-true crafting system. Players can craft weapons and armor. You can even cook food to replenish energy and provide additional buffs such as increased stealth etc.
Surprisingly, crafting materials are tiered as well. So, if you craft/cook with higher-tiered materials/ingredients will net you passive stats or prolong buff periods. It was a clever way to incentivize you to seek higher crafting materials. Though it wasn’t exactly clear where to find higher-tiered ingredients at first, traversing to newer regions usually nets you with higher-quality materials. I did feel that the game could have better explained where to find higher-tiered crafting materials. But for the most part, you’ll eventually find them in new areas of the map.
The Hunter’s Guide, A Handy Tool
The Hunter’s Guide was an essential tool to help you track crafting materials and ingredients. The guide revealed which regions to find the material you’re after, while also hinting at the specific location you’re likely to find certain materials. For example, certain barks are found high in trees or specific eggs can only be found in floating mountains. Honestly, it was much deeper than I anticipated, and the Hunter Guide proved beyond useful with quests that tasked you with crafting certain items.
Of Course, There Are Microtransactions
Unsurprisingly, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora does feature a shop where players can buy tokens to buy skins for their gear and Ikran. A vast majority of the store consists of various skins, decals, and other forms of cosmetics. US$4.99 will net you 500 tokens. While US$9.99 gets you 1000 tokens with a bonus of 50 thrown into the mix.
Players can also choose to buy gear sets as well. They include weapons, mods, and armor pieces. However, they aren’t necessarily pay-to-win as they are mainly blue and purple-tiered equipment. They might help early on in the game, but the gear sets are useless from id-game onwards, where you’re likely to be seeking exquisite yellow gear. Fortunately, it was not as egregious as it was during the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey days, where the grind was artificially pumped up to incentivize buying XP boosts.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Graphics and Art Style
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is simply gorgeous. Even in performance mode on the Xbox Series X, the game is a true looker. The environment looks dense and rich. The tree and fauna are exquisitely rendered. In contrast, RDA-controlled areas pollute their surroundings reducing everything to a brown and Grey color palate as the land becomes withered and dead.
There are different biomes but they are not entirely too distinctive from one another. The starting area, Kinglar Forest is flush with sprawling trees, plant life, floating mountains, and wild alien animals. While northern Upper Plains have dense wild grass that goes on forever. The western side of the map features the Clouded Forest is filled with tree-littered mountains, valleys, and ravines. The environments look familiar, but up close, you are reminded that Pandora is still indeed an alien world.
Scale is Important
Character models keep the same aesthetic and scale as the movies. The Na’vi, standing at 3 meters tall (10 feet) easily tower over their human counterparts. Many of the RDA facilities that you will come across will require you to crouch to explore them. While avatar Na’vis have 5 fingers on each hand, unlike natural Na’vis that have 4 digits. In addition, even the way the Na’vi use bows where they invert the draw hand is exactly the same as in the films. These distinctions help immerse you in the world of Pandora.
Human characters still have to don breathers to go outside in Pandora’s harsh atmosphere. Even the different RDA AMP suits, helicopters, and soldiers look accurately represented. However, it’s worth noting that Avatar did use reuse assets from The Division 2, with the most painstaking obvious one being from a well-known drill from the Warlords of New York expansion.
Despite the asset recycling, it was evident that consultants from 20th Century Fox had a lot of input when it came to Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Especially with the clear authenticity from the source material showing a lot of care and consideration that went into the game’s visuals and aesthetics.
One criticism that I continually find in several Ubisoft games is the overreliance on highlights. Using your Na’vi sense to highlight key points of interest, trails of predators or key areas, and items is useful, but it does create an oversaturated UI that can detract from the beauty of Pandora.
Volumetric fog looked decent on the Xbox Series X in performance mode. While smoke from the many RDA facilities often looked flat from a distance.
Animations and Mount Controls
When it comes to the animation department, AFP was on point. Everything from the Navi to the human movement was smooth. Even the bulkier AMP suits and turrets moved and functioned as expected.
Controlling your Ikran and direhorse was also tight and felt responsive, as expected from Ubisoft’s penchant for vehicle/mount mechanics. Both the Ikran and dire horse animations were all exquisitely executed. Everything from, mid-air mounting to your Ikran fishing to get some extra energy was all animated well and nothing looked out of place. However, when riding a dire horse, your character’s arms will stiffly stay to the side and looked comically awkward. But other than that, the game excelled in the animations and mount controls.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Decent Overall Performance
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora provides two visual fidelity modes: a quality mode that targets 4K at 30 FPS and a performance mode that prioritizes 60 FPS. I stuck with performance mode during my playthrough and overall, I was not disappointed. The game’s frame rate kept up for most of the time. However, there were certain instances where chaotic fights would cause the frames to dip and also there were occasional instances where the FPS would get stuck at below 60 FPS (around 40ish FPS) despite what was going on the screen. When the latter happened, I had to quit out of the game and restart it to remedy it.
During one cutscene towards the end of the game, a lantern in the background would violently shake side-to-side. Without going into spoilers, the shaking lantern essentially ruined the scene since it was a very emotional scene involving the death of one of the characters introduced early in the game.
In terms of technical issues, for the most part, AFP was on point. There was one instance during a gunfight with several AMP suits when their bullets would pass through objects and obstacles and hit me. This was frustrating and I once again had to quit out of the game to sort the glitch. Fortunately, this issue didn’t repeat itself.
Other strange instances also occurred during combat when AMP suits in particular would randomly shift vertically. These instances only occurred maybe a half dozen number of times in my 35-hour playthrough, so it didn’t detract too much from the experience.
Both the soundtrack and sound design were on point in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. The musical score consisted mainly of choirs and polyrhythmic tribal scores that complemented the game’s ambiance and aesthetics. It would even suit nicely for future movie sequels because the firearms and bow sound effects were all on point.
The ambient sounds of the forests and living plant life added to the game’s soundscape and truly brought Pandora to life. The ambiance created within the Kinglor forest made it feel like it was lived in. Sounds like birds chirping in the distance or strange noises you’d hear when traversing the jungle added to the game’s immersion. Even the damage and explosion sound effects had resonance to them, which is always critical for immersion purposes.
Final Thoughts on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an exercise to not judge a book by its cover. Many, including me, assumed it would be Far Cry, except with Na’vi. But in reality, the game is a meticulously crafted game that stands on its own from its source material. It doesn’t bring many new features to the table, but it does provide a solid experience that brings Pandora to life in ways well beyond what movies are capable of.