In December 2009, James Cameron released his newest cinematic epic, Avatar upon the world. And, before long, everyone was caught up in Avatar mania. The mixture of live-action and CGI animation was blended perfectly to create a world that captured people’s minds and imagination, and with 3D movies making their grand return, Avatar was the perfect movie to push it. It wouldn’t be long before Cameron’s fantasy epic smashed all box office records and, to this day, boasts the top lifetime gross worldwide.
The tale of human Jake Sully and his journey into becoming one with the Na’vi - a humanoid species nestled on the moon of Pandora - was a great one. The drama perfectly captured the feel of someone caught between two worlds, that of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) and the Na’vi. This battle of capitalism and environmentalism would go on to become the central theme of the series. Amazingly, it would be a long 13 years before this smash hit would see a sequel, Avatar: Way of Water and, showing that the fanbase was eager for more Na’vi lore, it became one of the top movies at the box office.
Despite Avatar‘s success as a movie, it was never truly capitalized on in video game form until now. There was a tie-in game around the launch of the first movie, *James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game* which, despite looking great for the time, didn’t do much to dissuade people from the notion that all games based on movies were bland, rushed cash-ins.
Fortunately, one thing you certainly can’t hold against Frontiers of Pandora, is the effort and budget that has gone into it!
With the right specs, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora can look stunning at times.
Initially announced back in March 2017, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was originally scheduled to be released alongside movie sequel, Way of Water back in December 2022. As often can happen with video games, however, it was delayed until its eventual release date of December 2023. This is a shame, as I do think releasing alongside Way of Water would have helped Frontiers of Pandora a lot, capitalizing on that same enthusiasm for a new Avatar movie. Fortunately, it’s been worth the extra wait, as what we’ve ended up with is a title well worth your time.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is set in the western frontier of Pandora, an Earth-like habitable moon in the Alpha Centauri System and is the first time it has been featured in the Avatar universe. Publisher Ubisoft has announced that Frontiers of Pandora is a canonical part of the movie universe - a declaration that should excite fans of the series (who are clearly the target audience). The opening hour of Frontiers of Pandora speeds by, introducing a young Na’vi who is part of the RDA’s TAP program, set up to have Na’vi become ambassadors for humans. This narrative is set eight years before Jake Sully’s arrival on Pandora and it’s not long before it all goes wrong during the events of the first movie.
Fast-forward 16 years and our protagonist awakens during the chaotic events of the Avatar movie, where the hostilities between the RDA and the Na’vi are at their worst. The problem you have? You were raised in a human facility without the ways and knowledge of the Na’vi and it’s now time to adapt and survive in this new world outside of the labs you once called home. This sets the backdrop of the game, as you look to meet the other clans of Pandora’s western frontier, experience what it means to be Na’vi and learn the vital skills needed to take the fight to the RDA.
There’s no better place to start with Frontiers of Pandora than with the exploration of the western frontier itself. At its heart, this is the core experience of the game and where it shines best.
Overall, the story is nothing spectacular, but it competently gets you invested in the conflict and the world, with the western frontier itself becoming the true star of the show. It’s a simple story of the RDA looking to continue its destruction of the environment, with the various Na’vi clans looking to hit back. The clans themselves, of which there are three featured (one for each major region) each have differences in their way of life, something that is appreciated, and the subtle alterations in their appearance go a long way toward making each clan feel as if it exists as part of the wider Avatar universe.
There’s no better place to start in Frontiers of Pandora than with the exploration of the western frontier itself. At its heart, this is the core experience of the game and where it shines best. I was originally wary of the move to make this a first-person game - I would have much preferred it to be third-person title - but shortly after getting my hands on the game, I changed my mind quickly. The opening region of the Kinglor Forest captures the feel and tone of the movies perfectly and, with the first-person perspective, you really feel like you’re deep in the lush forests of Pandora. Massive Entertainment has gone all out with the flora and fauna of the planet, and this focus has paid off massively (no pun intended), because the most joy I got from Frontiers of Pandora was during exploration.
You'll find plenty of different types of locale to explore. (left), gathering requires you to pull at the plant in a specific direction to avoid damaging it. (right)
As with most Ubisoft games these days, you’ll get the option at the start for a “Guided” or “Exploration” experience when in the open world, and even in the Guided mode, while you’ll be able to see quest objectives when you open your map, it won’t show in the game world until you use your Na’vi senses. This is a double-edged sword and one that may divide players.
For myself, this was very welcome, as I’m personally worn out with open-world games that are littered with map markers (something Ubisoft themselves are notorious for). Additionally, as noted above, the Western Frontier is just so fantastically designed that I loved setting off in one direction to see what I can find, gather, and hunt. On the other hand, it can be easy to get lost in Frontiers of Pandora, especially in the Kinglor Forest - as it is dense with flora as far as the eye can see. For those of you who play the Ubisoft games as more of a completionist “checklist simulator”, you’re going to find that this design may work against the methods that you’re used to.
To touch more on that point, you won’t find lists of collectibles, or activities available in an area when you hover over it on the map. Instead, it’s up to you to go out into the wider world and seek out that knowledge for yourself. Indeed, the map itself is only uncovered by traversing the land. There are no towers for you to ascend here that will uncover large chunks of the map or mark points of interest, Assassin’s Creed-style. I found this refreshing, as many of my complaints about open-world design have been sidestepped here, allowing the exploration of the Western Frontier to take center stage.
In Frontiers of Pandora, gathering, crafting, and hunting take on great importance. There are an abundance of plants you can interact and gather with, and when interacting with them, you’ll need to pull at them in a specific direction to avoid damaging them and thus, obtaining higher rarity versions of the material. The world’s day and night system - along with the weather for the biomes - will also come into play as specific flora will have better conditions for gathering (and thus, increasing rarity) or might not be available for gathering at all under certain weather conditions. These climate mechanics makes the Western Frontier feel alive and believable, and setting off into the wilds to track down a specific fiber or other crafting material is an enjoyable escapade.
You'll get your hands on an Ikran to soar the skies on near the end of the first major region.
“Na’vi Sense” is another feature that plays nicely into this loop, serving a similar function as Assassin’s Creed’s Eagle Vision ability. However, unlike that ability, where that will highlight the immediate surroundings, here you will only see in the direction you’re facing. While you’re using your Na’vi Senses, highlighted items - such as plants and wildlife - can be examined to discover their various uses. This is very handy considering you will encounter many different plants, creatures, and enemies throughout your adventure. You can then use your Hunter’s Guide to track anything on there, which is useful for those times when you want to craft a new piece of armor or weapon.
Now, it’s difficult to speak about Ubisoft’s open-world games without noticing their similarities. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has drawn a lot of comparisons to the Far Cry series in the way it utilizes many of its mechanics, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some notable comparisons. The crafting system, for example, is very reminiscent of the way it is handled there by going out into the world to hunt or gather materials and use them to craft better gear. I did find hunter-gathering less of a chore here, simply because I enjoyed being part of the lively, colorful world so much, but it is hard to deny the similarities.
Gear also takes on greater importance here too, as Frontiers of Pandora does away with levels and instead goes with a Combat Strength number. In theory, this works the same way as a level would in other games; quests come with a recommended Combat Strength as do the enemies and creatures you encounter. Your Combat Strength is based on all of your equipped gear (for which there are five armor slots and four weapon slots), the skills you’ve invested in, and any other bonuses such as health upgrades from Bellsprigs hidden in the world. For the most part, it doesn’t matter too much, but if you decide to beeline the story, you’ll find that you fall behind in Combat Strength quite quickly, so experience is key.
There are no towers to ascend here in order to uncover large chunks of the map or mark points of interest.
You have various combat options at your disposal in both Na’vi and human styles, capitalizing on your teachings from both species. Na’vi weaponry includes a variety of bows, while the RDA rely on more standard firepower such as Assault Rifles and Shotguns. You’ll notice familiarity in combat when engaging the various RDA Facilities and Outposts as these sequences play out exactly how you’d expect from a Far Cry outpost. Fortunately, if that type of quest is not your style, there are only a few that you will have to ultimately engage with during the campaign.
You can use your Na'vi Senses to highlight important objects and creatures (left), You can connect with Tarsyu Flowers to learn special Ancestor Skills. (right)
If you do decide that you want to undertake all of the various activities in the world though, you’ll need to deal with them all as these RDA facilities will pollute the surrounding area, preventing you from gathering anything due to the nature of the environment. You’ll also find key pieces of equipment, so if you’re a fan of this type of content, you’ll more than get your fill here. This seems to be the theme of Frontiers of Pandora in general; there are plenty of different activities and quests for you to undertake.
Each of Frontier of Pandora‘s three clans has a “Favor” system, one that functions the same way as reputation does in other games. As you take on various side quests or choose to generously donate to each clan’s basket, you’ll accrue Favor which you can then choose to spend on various equipment or ingredients from the merchants in each settlement. I found this system useful, since it felt like every action I undertook had some value to my overall progression. Be sure to acquire the “Ancestor” skill, which will increase the amount of Favor earned from quests and activities.
Speaking of skills, you’ll find plenty for you to look over in Avatar, with there being five skill categories (one of which is locked at the start). You’ll find skills that increase your gathering capabilities, stealth ability, damage output, and how many health pouches you can carry. There’s a large variety on offer here and, should you get all skills in a single tree, there’s a final powerful skill that requires an “Apex Challenge”, tasks that puts the tree’s skills to use. You’ll earn skill points from a variety of activities, so it always feels like you’re unlocking new skills and improving your abilities.
Outposts play out very similar to how they would in a Far Cry (left), Even down to be able to use Assault Rifles and Shotguns. (right)
I was fortunate to play Frontiers of Pandora on a powerful PC with a GTX 4090, so I was able to test the game at its highest settings. At times, Frontiers of Pandora is a real looker. I never really suffered many frame drops and got a stable 60-80fps in 4K, but I appreciate that our setup is one that not many players might have. Another member of our Gamer Guides team played on a GTX 3080, and the recommended specifications, high as they are, meant that he had to drop the settings for a stable framerate.
It’s a shame, as there are some truly breathtaking vistas at times - climbing the Ikran Rookery to the top and looking at the Kinglor Forest below is one of the highlights of my experience.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora can be a very lengthy game if you want it to be. Those who enjoy getting lost in the world, exploring, gathering, and just taking in the wonderful sights and sounds will find a lot of playtime within. Completing just the first region alone can easily take around 10 hours if you take the time to venture off the beaten path a little. My biggest takeaway from my time in Pandora was I found myself almost wishing this was a true survival game, and that’s great tribute to Massive Entertainment as the gathering, crafting, and exploration loop here was so enjoyable that I was left wanting more.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora might not win any Game of the Year awards, or massively change the mold of how open-world games are designed, but it’s undoubtedly a fun time I can see myself returning to often - if only to have a run around the luscious wilds of Pandora. You’ll get that over-familiar Far Cry feeling when it comes to the combat, but the Western Frontier’s pull is such that there is always something new to discover.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a gorgeous open-world adventure that, despite having some similarities to Ubisoft’s own Far Cry, has its own identity that begs you to explore every nook and cranny. That exploration won’t be for everyone, but for those of you tired of having your hands held, there’s a lot to see, do, and enjoy.