The Avatar films are great fun but have never blown me away with original storytelling. Instead, the translation of familiar formulas into a vibrant and visually arresting alien world elevates the films. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora follows that same tack, featuring first-person exploration and combat that borrows liberally from franchises like Far Cry. But here, an enormous and detailed fantasy world breathes life into the experience, making it both more engaging and sometimes needlessly obtuse – but always with a flair for the source material.
While concurrent with the movies, Frontiers of Pandora tells a separate standalone story about a small group of young Na’vi raised by the villainous and ecologically reckless RDA, and one individual Na’vi’s gradual rediscovery of their heritage and connection to nature. The overt environmental themes of the franchise are accentuated by a pointed indictment of child separation and forced re-education among indigenous populations. Developer Massive Entertainment has done a phenomenal job capturing the unique fictional nuances of the Na’vi, adding several fresh wrinkles in the form of new clans and individuals. It’s a genuine treat for franchise fans that adds substantially to the lore.
Gameplay is all about running and leaping through dense jungles, plains, and caves, while simultaneously learning the many secrets of Pandora’s flora and fauna. The richness of the ecosystems is unmatched in any game I’ve encountered. I had fun learning the properties and potential of the many strange living things along my path. As I did, new skills and gear enhanced my Na’vi’s potential, and I steadily climbed to mastery.
The visual presentation is gorgeous and does justice to the many colors and majestic natural backdrops from the films. Surprisingly, the lush and detailed world was both a joy and hindrance. Sometimes, the onscreen visuals are so overgrown and hard to parse that the game becomes visually confusing. I frequently became lost in the overwhelming stimuli, often missing key objects or clues amid the clutter.
Moving through these richly presented landscapes is great fun, thanks to a generous traversal system of climbing, jumping, sliding, and environmental objects (like plants that bounce you high into the air) that combine to memorable effect and lead to smooth and parkour-like navigation. Enhancing exploration is your dragon-like Ikran mount, allowing you to fly across the vast map easily and quickly.
Along the way, combat using bows and assault rifles adds punch to the action, often accompanied by the chance to take an alternate stealthy route instead. I found both experiences good but not great. Too few tools and abilities allow for stealth approaches, so taking my chances with a fast and direct approach was usually more expeditious. The battles themselves are intense and lethal but rarely elevated above an attempt to peek from behind cover points for pot shots at bad guys. Active close-range melees align more with the expectations established by the movies, but that approach is usually not viable.
Hunting, gathering, crafting, and cooking are central features. There’s a lot to experiment with, and creating that great new chest piece or fish dish can sometimes be thrilling. But I eventually found the breadth of options overwhelming. Dozens of different tree barks, mosses, animal hides, and pine cones – many of which can only be optimally gathered at certain times of day or weather conditions – eventually began to swim together in my mind. The game virtually demands that you engage with these mechanics to make meaningful progress, and I frequently found it got in the way of narrative pacing, or it became too frustrating to track down the things I wanted.
In between the action and exploration, Frontiers of Pandora puts a wealth of more minor mechanics and systems in your way. Again, these often hamper the fun as frequently as adding to it. Hacking constant power systems and doors, tedious investigations for forensic clues in a scene, tracking multiple currencies and favor with the clans – there’s so much here that it sometimes distracts from what’s genuinely fun: the action and discovery of a breathtaking alien landscape.
Even so, I found a lot to love in Frontiers of Pandora, including the welcome addition of two-player online cooperative play, which lets players enjoy the game with a friend. With time, the many interlocking features started to make sense, and I pushed past any frustrations to find a remarkably large and rewarding game. Enter Pandora’s vast wilderness with patience and a willingness for a measured march to understanding, and I suspect you’ll uncover what I did – a flawed but still praiseworthy addition to this growing science fiction universe.