Ubisoft and Avatar have a strange relationship. I remember watching in horror as James Cameron took the stage during E3 2009, explaining his upcoming CGI blockbuster in the most boring way possible. There was a tie-in game around that time as well, which I’m still not convinced actually existed. With the second movie finally coming out, Ubisoft has tried the tie-in thing again albeit with a much bigger budget this time. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is as expensive-looking as it is shallow, a cynical AAA video game that checks all the blockbuster boxes as if it was bolted together on an assembly line.
Frontiers of Pandora starts with a hook that stops just short of being interesting. In the background of the movie timeline, another division of RDA is working on an ostensibly less violent method to colonize Pandora. TAP is a sort of corporate conversion project; a small group of Na’vi children are kidnapped (after their whole clan is wiped out), then raised with the end goal of stamping out their indigenous culture and replacing it with good ol’ American Kool-Aid.
Subtext is for cowards
The big bad, Mercer, is screaming like a cartoon villain and murdering the protagonist’s sister before the story even tries to present him as charismatic or deceptive. The game tells you he is those things in text instead. But there’s no reason to believe it, no matter how much one of the Na’vi kids is unbelievably conflicted about the situation. Things go loud of course, and your crew ends up joining a human resistance movement attempting to usurp RDA’s mech suits and evil pollution towers.
Once the game gets going, Frontiers of Pandora quickly becomes a Far Cry game with a hazy, blue filter superimposed on the screen. There’s a massive overworld, tons of crafting ingredients scattered across the wilderness, towers to attack and wild animals to chase. There’s a story in there too about learning the ways of the Na’vi people and the conflicts that presents with the human found family element, but it’s full of either generic movie beats or weird mysticism stuff that makes the game’s setting (the Western Frontier, I kid you not) about as eye-rollingly problematic-slash-banal as it gets.
This game really betrays the biggest problems with Avatar as a property. It’s all about pushing wild, exotic visual fidelity over top of painfully uncreative storytelling. And while it’s certainly possible to deliver familiar tropes in compelling fashion, nothing with “Avatar” on the box succeeds. The infamous “Unobtanium” gets a dialogue nod here, which says everything by itself.
A new kind of problem is presented with the open world Far Cry-style video game version. Avatar is very colorful, very otherworldly and very noisy. Most of this game is about picking things up, taking them to gimmick tables and smashing them together to make your numbers go up. The rest is about chasing points on a huge map and occasionally fighting bad guys. Now imagine running through dense forest environments, comprising very little that makes intuitive, real-world sense.
Everything looks exotic and is hyperbolically colorful, no matter what direction you’re facing. When you stand still and look around, it sure does look pretty! But then the game tells you to pay attention to your surroundings and not only navigate, but dig through things so you can grab ingredients to craft equipment, cook food, and store ammunition. See the problem yet? The developers sure did, as you largely have to rely on Frontiers of Pandora’s version of Batman Detective Vision to actually have a clue what you’re looking at and for. But of course it has to be on brand, so holding the right bumper to find objects of interest makes the screen go blurrier and bluer than it is by default.
But hey, at least you can discern what plants are background decorations, which ones hurt to touch, which ones you can actually pick up, and which ones just fill out the lore menus! Bungling around the forests of Pandora trying to, well, do anything reminded me of playing Silver Surfer on the NES. There’s no intuitive way to tell what’s what, so you either pass over background elements, or crash into an actual obstacle while trying to avoid a murderous space duck. That wasn't a joke; Silver Surfer fights ducks and frogs in that game. Some things never change, I guess.
There’s also a bizarre energy mechanic, something that seems to be a take on a “stamina” system, like in a Breath of the Wild derivative. Here, your energy meter regenerates health. The parameters or rules thereof are bizarrely unclear though, making knowing when you should pay attention to energy a mystery. Fast travel takes huge chunks, presumably to force you to engage with cooking. But other times during regular gameplay, it was surprisingly difficult to determine what actions consumed energy. It was never a real hindrance, more standing out because of how odd it was.
At the end of the day, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora just feels like a game that’s been made a million times before. You run around and grab resources, craft items, fill out skill trees, shoot bad guys, and search for sets of similar landmarks as you explore a massive map. But it’s all Avatar-flavored, so it’s blue and there are giant cat people running around alongside the humans.
The problem is that other, similar games have done this dance with more satisfying results. Take the alien exoticism away and you’ve got the “Ubisoft checklist game” that doesn’t even do that thing as well as the last several of those. Even in the licensed game space, titles like Mad Max are practically identical in a framework sense, but so much more fun to engage with.
It helps that you can see what you’re doing when you’re driving around a desert.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is available on December 7, 2023 for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. A Ubisoft Connect code for the PC version was provided by the publisher for review.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
- Lots of pretty colors!
- Plentiful options on PC; seems to accommodate suboptimal hardware fairly well
- Aesthetics clash with gameplay in disastrous fashion
- Rote, uninteresting storytelling; a "Western Frontier" is not a good starting point for so many reasons!
- Boilerplate AAA, open world action/adventure gameplay loop bringing nothing new or interesting to the table
Lucas White posted a new article, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora review: The mild, mild west
So...pretty much exactly what we were all expecting out of a Ubisoft Avatar game.
Are the towers underwater?
Average reviews. Farcry but Pandora.