Massive's take on James Cameron's sci-fi series is here, but does it tread new ground like we've come to expect from the developer or is it instead a Far Cry from its typical work.
Avatar is unlike anything else in the entertainment space. Despite there only being two films of source material, it feels like every person knows, recognises and loves James Cameron's sci-fi series. There is also an expectation on the franchise that is beyond near anything else in a creative medium. For a rather new IP to be the first and third-highest grossing films of all-time, people expect greatness from the world of Avatar. So, when it was announced that Ubisoft Massive and Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment were working together on a big-budget, completely unique video game set in the Avatar universe, it didn't take long for people to start anticipating and building up their hopes and expectations for this game.
But Ubisoft did something that few likely would've expected. The French publisher barely showed the game off until essentially this year. Needless to say, this made many wonder why. But upon seeing gameplay and getting to go hands-on ourselves, we discovered it's likely because of the connections and similarities that Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora shares with Far Cry, a game series that people are starting to become a little tired of due to its predictable and very conservative format. The big question is, of course, whether or not the wonderful world of Pandora does enough to elevate the otherwise too familiar Far Cry setup?
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora takes players to an entirely new part of the alien moon. Set in the Western Frontier, the game is all about rediscovering your Na'vi roots, by going on a journey as a young warrior who spent their childhood trapped and being trained by the invading human RDA faction to ultimately be used as weapons against the indigenous people of Pandora. It's effectively the same story that the original Avatar looked to tell, except instead of the protagonist being a human in an Avatar body, you are an actual Na'vi that has been isolated and cut from their own world and heritage.
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The storyline works, but it's not exactly the main driving force for this game. You follow events that take you across the three major biomes of the Western Frontier to meet different clans and Na'vi warriors, all while working with 'good' humans to protect the planet from the RDA's destructive efforts. It's a narrative that slots in without concern but it also never really dares to surprise. Rather the game expects your exploration and experience in the open world of Pandora to be the primary wowing factor.
In the past, upon getting to see some gameplay back in the summer, I described Frontiers of Pandora as Mirror's Edge meets Far Cry. In a gameplay sense, that's pretty much bang on. But that generalised opinion shouldn't detract from how great this game feels to play. Pandora is a big world with lots of verticality, and the climbing and movement system is incredibly well designed and allows you to treat the world like one big playground. The combat on the other hand is all about using your warrior of two worlds setup to overcome threats. Between traditional Na'vi weapons that are great for more precise and stealthy attacks, to RDA firearms and explosives for when things get hairy, the combat is surprisingly deep, and challenging for that matter.
While Frontiers of Pandora may look like a Far Cry game, it doesn't really play like one in practice. This isn't a title where you can run and gun and blow up every problem. If you try, you will die. This game asks you to lean on Na'vi warrior skills and abilities to sneak, silently take down, and even use RDA tech to hack systems to overcome threats. With a bunch of skill trees packed with perks that further enhance the various different elements of how your Na'vi operates, you can really build out a play style that suits the way you want to approach the adventure.
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Yet there's a catch. Because while the core gameplay and its fundamentals work, the quest design and open world activities are about as Ubisoft as they get. What I mean is that you'll be expected to travel the broad open world to shut down RDA bases (which are often carbon copies of one another) and to interact with a whole bunch of collectible-like objects. Some of these will marginally improve your health on a permanent basis, whereas others are part of collection quests, or could be related to helping clean up the environment, or even to acquire additional skill points. The point is, after a few hours exploring the world, the allure of travelling between markers on the world map wears off, and instead you're left disjointed with how to spend your time beyond simply following the main quest line. Sure, there are side quests to explore, but don't expect to be wowed with broad and sprawling side stories here. They are usually quite basic and serve to simply bolster the duration of the game.
But here's the thing, despite it's rather elementary gameplay design that often leans too heavily on familiar Ubisoft open world tropes and exploration that is dependant on the player's ability and desire to wander off the beaten path, Frontiers of Pandora does manage to capture that sense of awe and wonder that has always managed to excel with this franchise. Even though there are only two films of source material to build from, Pandora feels instantly recognisable and homely. That first moment where you step out into the open world and get a breath of the Pandoran fresh air, or when you first reach a new major biome that makes you realise just how unique and varied this alien moon truly is, it's an experience and emotion that is about as Avatar as it can get. Massive's huge effort to make this world feel alive, vibrant and unique cannot go unnoticed. Frontiers of Pandora is an open world unlike anything I've ever seen before in a video game. Sure, the quest design and activities could have used more time in the oven or more creative hands behind them, but none of this detracts from the fact that Pandora bewilders, stuns, inspires, and fills you with that same sense of childlike wonder that we all experienced for the first time when Avatar opened in cinemas in 2009. Oh, and it's an enormous world too, so you won't run out of things to do.
The nostalgic emotions are bolstered when the entire Avatar experience kicks into effect. When you're scaling floating mountains to bond with your Ikran and the tribal and atmospheric music starts playing, it's masterful and awe-inspiring. When you reach the plains and the dense jungle is traded out for large open and lush fields where the wind whips through your hair and rustles the verdant grass, the intricate details of the wider environment are what make Frontiers of Pandora such a remarkable game to play. But, it must be said that this is the framework that Cameron laid out in the two movies, so these emotions are not exactly unique. Seeing Helicoradian plants retract when you get near, watching Fan Lizards delicately float through the air, it's all very thrilling to experience in first-person, but if you've seen the original film, you will have already processed all of these magical scenes beforehand alongside Jake Sully.
There is far more good than bad in this game. Gliding through the clouds on an Ikran, taking down massive creatures as humanely and quickly as possible, breaking and smashing up RDA tech of a behemoth size. It's all thoroughly and authentically Avatar and Massive hasn't missed a beat in this regard. Yet, there are other parts beyond the quest design and open world activities that don't fit. Why this game needed a tiered loot system baffles me. Why gear, items and resources need to have a rarity factor is beyond me, because it seems it is only present so that Massive can force you to hunt down the perfect version of a fruit or animal hide that you need to craft the exquisite version of that armour piece you've been after. Match this up with stealth that is pretty much instant fail (if you miss an arrow from 100 metres away, the RDA will instantly know precisely where you are, somehow...), and then the (admittedly fewer than expected) performance issues, which largely revolve around textures and objects popping in and character models disappearing, and you get a game that is propped up by its truly remarkable world design and core gameplay, and then held back by near every other factor.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has a lot going for it, and the game should be celebrated for that alone. If you adore or simply enjoy Cameron's sci-fi world, you will appreciate your time in this action-adventure title. But, if you were hoping that you would see the impact and talent of Massive shining through, introducing new, unique, and game changing mechanics and systems, you'll be sorely disappointed. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a fun and truly, truly beautiful game, one that has a very high attention to detail in how its world is offered, but beyond that, it can be a little hollow.
8 / 10
Pandora is absolutely stunning and designed to a remarkable detail. Core gameplay is very well designed. Soundtrack is brilliant. Loads of ways to fill your time. Combat has lots of depth and options.
Open world activities leave a lot to be desired. The quest design is a bit flat. Few performance issues. Bizarre inclusion of a tiered loot system. Clunky stealth.