When the first two Avatar films came out, they broke records by earning billions of dollars. Despite their impressive office success, Cameron’s recent sci-fi epics never achieved the insane cultural zeitgeist as his earlier films like The Terminator and Titanic. The reason may be due to the lack of expanded media and merchandise such as books, toys, and video games.
The first movie had a few tie-in games when it was new, but James Cameron did not keep it flowing to keep the public’s interest. There should have been some Avatar media between the films and perhaps this would have helped it maintain relevancy in an age where information moves as fast as death. RoboCop fans flocked to play RoboCop: Rogue City because there have been games, shows, comics, and various merch keeping it relevant.
Avatar is finally getting a new game since 2009. This time, Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment are attempting one of the most ambitious and technically impressive movie tie-in video game ever developed. Does Ubisoft’s penchant for open-world bloat choke like a miasma of RDA smog? Find out in this Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora review!
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
Developer: Massive Entertainment
Platforms: Windows PC, Amazon Luna, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release Date: December 7, 2023
Price: $69.99 USD
Pandora is a moon where bioluminescent flora pulsates like a neon fever dream. It’s where six-legged hammerheads the size of Hummers scar plains, where dragons strafe the skies and the air cracks with the mating calls of creatures beyond the comprehension of the most seasoned monster hunter. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is so visually intoxicating, that you’d think you stepped into a Roger Dean album cover.
The Snowdrop engine conjures landscapes so magnificent, they’d make the Grand Canyon weep tears of molten rock. Floating mountains pierce the psychedelic heavens, their peaks crowned with wispy clouds that whisper secrets on the wind. Steamy jungles festooned with writhing vines release the heady perfume of exotic blooms, while colossal trees, taller than the Empire State Building, stand like silent sentinels – for an open-world action-adventure set in an alien biosphere, Frontiers of Pandora manages to be one of the most realized ecosystems implemented into a video game.
The visuals come to life thanks to the countless effects. The characters appear so sweaty they could wring out enough bioluminescent goo to light a rave. Shadows undulate like phantoms, painted by the technicolor vomit of alien flora that glows like a Vegas casino on acid.
From the glistening scales of a six-legged hammerhead strafing the skies to the iridescent veins pulsing beneath a Pandoran panther’s skin, it’s like someone dipped the entire game world in a vat of LSD. This is a visual feast so intense it’ll make a PlayStation 5 crunch harder than a Na’vi war party after a five-gallon keg of fermented Eywa berries.
Wild rivers roar like a banshee choir on a bender. The shaded areas are illuminated by bounce light from the bioluminescent plants which also glimmer in the crashing crests of a nearby rushing river. Frontiers of Pandora is no slouch in its visuals and ranks as one of the most impressive displays of visual fidelity on PlayStation 5.
This is a stealthy action RPG, a first-person shooter on steroids. The guns spit fire like angry sun gods, knocked arrows cut wind like Whoopie Goldberg after a Taco Bell binge, and there are enough explosions to light up a whole rainforest. The only alien language you speak is “sneak-sneak” and “pew-pew,” but the visuals alone are worth the price of admission.
The RDA-choked wastelands here, landscapes so ravaged they’d make a chain-smoking cyborg cough up rusty gears. The air hangs thick with smog, a toxic cocktail of corporate greed and industrial puke, enough to turn a Na’vi warrior green (and not the good kind). Twisted husks of trees claw at the poisoned sky, while the ground beneath your feet becomes a bedrock of shrapnel from junked RDA bombers.
Invading these factories is like the encampments in Far Cry, where every outpost is a festering pustule on Pandora’s beautiful hide. Like ghosts in the smog players must slip past laser turrets, blow up AMP suits, hack their control panels like picking the locks, and watch these industrial monstrosities get devoured by Eywa’s green inferno.
Pandora does not stay as a jungle playground for long when you get your flying dragon. The floating mountains and bioluminescent waterfalls open up more possibilities as you strafe and dodge RDA gunships like a hummingbird on a sugar bender. It isn’t as intense as it appears in the films, but the fact that the developers achieved this at all is impressive.
Frontiers of Pandora has five goddamn skill trees, each one funnels players toward a play style. The early hours might force you to pick your poison, but by the time the sun sets twice on Pandora, you’ll be a walking Swiss Army knife of carnage. You’ll be double-jumping off floating mountains, raining fire from the back of a bioluminescent dragon, and scaling cliffs like a squirrel with a jetpack fueled by pure adrenaline.
Even the cooking is impressively robust and takes cues from Tears of the Kingdom‘s ingredient system. Some dishes grant buffs and timed bonuses to make epic treks through the Pandoran bush easier or give a helping hand when going toe-to-toe with a seasoned marine in a robot suit.
Stalking through the bioluminescent jungle, sweat dripping like neon rain down your face, every rustle in the leaves a potential predator’s signal of doom. Hunting, scavenging, and crafting your damn weapons on the fly like MacGyver. Survival on Pandora is a primal battle with the unknown, where every meal is a victory and every sunrise a goddamn miracle… at least for a little while.
This is an Ubisoft open-world game and that means the tedium starts slithering in like a marauder looking for a victim to ravish. The thrill of the unknown fades, replaced by the predictable rhythm of quests and objectives that make the setting reveal its artifice and limitations. Every RDA factory is destroyed with the same few methods recycled and remixed, while a majority of the main quests are merely following the marker.
After a while, the allure of Pandora will diminish as the generic design of Ubisoft’s design philosophy makes the gameplay feel like a chore. The unimaginative scenario is further emphasized by the game’s boring writing that does nothing with the material.
Frontier of Pandora was a chance to flesh out the universe in ways the films couldn’t. Unfortunately, its story commits the same narrative sins as James Cameron’s movies, saddling itself with a mustache-twirling caricature of a villain and Na’vi characters devoid of any flaws or internal conflict. Every Na’vi speaks and looks alike, further exacerbating the issue and making several scenes hard to follow.
The game also wastes the potential of human-raised Na’vi. Despite being reared by the RDA, they still spout the same “unga bunga” dialect, squandering the opportunity to speak like any average human. Adding complexity to their language and mannerisms could have enriched the narrative and prevented them from blurring into the background.
The protagonist is a blank slate with zero characterization, cursed with the worst voice-acting performance regardless of the player’s chosen sex. Their monotone and flat line delivery is enough to make a banshee on a bender sound eloquent.
For all its spectacle and impressive technology that realizes some of the most dazzling depictions of an alien jungle and real-time weather effects, Frontiers of Pandora lacks an emotional hook to draw gamers into its world. This is its real problem because despite how technically proficient every aspect of the game is, without an emotional core, all of the effort poured into realizing Pandora is wasted.
From the outset, the story aims to immerse players in the clash between human and Na’vi cultures, creating a sense of being caught between two worlds. However, the starkly contrasting portrayals of the RDA as purely evil and the Na’vi as inherently virtuous weaken the narrative’s complexity.
The few friendly humans depicted as bumbling fools lacking long-term goals and doomed to succumb to Pandora’s harshness further limit the story’s potential. To truly engage players, the story could benefit from exploring the nuances of both sides.
The Na’vi could exhibit the capacity for cruelty and barbarity alongside their admirable traits, while some RDA executives could possess genuine compassion and ethical considerations. Additionally, emphasizing the potential for natural disasters and extinction-level events independent of human intervention could add depth and complexity to the narrative’s exploration of environmental themes.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will please fans of the films and gamers who enjoyed the likes of Crysis and Far Cry. The action is solid and the visuals will blow you away, but don’t expect to get invested in the story or characters. It still falls victim to the same flaws as the source material and the games that inspired it, but for a movie tie-in game, Frontiers of Pandora is a pretty epic 25 hours and is otherwise safe and harmless.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a code provided by Ubisoft. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is now available for Windows PC (via Ubisoft), Amazon Luna, Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5.