The Avatar film franchise has been a special series for moviegoers worldwide, grossing over $5 billion in just two films. With such massive appeal for James Cameron’s iconic epic science fiction, I was skeptical about it getting a game. Here is my review of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
It’s Time to Wake Up
This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten to review an Avatar property. This time last year, The Way of Water came out, and while it was a delightful experience, there were just enough flaws to remind me that sometimes what I like isn’t perfect. But the idea of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora being realized as a Far Cry-adjacent experience was a fabulous prospect.
Imagine: instead of a fictionalized real-world-ish remote region like Kyrat or Hope County, you get a big chunk of the moon of Pandora. You’re in the Alpha Centauri system, living as a Na’vi, the moon’s proud indigenous race trying to buck the colonialist whims of Earth’s humans who wish to subjugate them. But then you realize: it’s time to wake up, as you emerge from stasis after the Battle of the Hallelujah Mountains, and you roam Pandora in a new era.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a first-person shooter with an open world and other AAA features including skill trees, a massive explorable map, and various Na’vi societies you must unite in your cause. The humans have grown bolder and will shoot you on sight, so you must prepare weapons, craft healing, and food supplies. Get ready for intense guerrilla battles as you brave deadly opponents including everything from foot soldiers to AMP suits, and more, and if you’re familiar with Far Cry, this will be more or less what you’re used to.
However, there are a few adjustments: Na’vi are naturally athletic and extremely strong, thanks to their stature. You tower over humans, and can kill them with one punch, but must remain crouched to walk inside their halls until you reach your home and the lush open terrain of Pandora. Welcome home; you’ll need to fight to protect it.
I Owe You A Death
As you can already tell, I went into this experience as a somewhat shameless Avatar fan. Yes, it’s derivative, but it’s also visually spectacular, and I enjoy the lore, and naming conventions notwithstanding (come on, Unobtanium?) But I knew this concept of a Far Cry: Pandora experience was a solid idea, I just needed to see the execution in motion. My experience with it tells me that while it’s a great concept, it’s got some kinks to iron out.
The game does a good job at causing fans’ hearts to go aflutter such as in the opening sequence that features a Bethesda-style walk-out moment where you see Pandora, and it’s breathtaking. But it also goes into that typical formulaic spin. You’re young, being indoctrinated in a quasi-residential school, and when your classmates realize how twisted this arrangement is, uprisings happen, and things get messy. You grow up to meet with your old connections following this and unite against the bastard who did this, in this case, a man by the name of Mercer.
Despite the developer, Massive Entertainment, not having officially seemed to help a Far Cry game’s development since Far Cry 3, the formula is all over this game. That being said, Mercer, a typical white-collar RDA official with a disregard for alien life, is a bit bland compared to Giovanni Ribisi’s infinitely more quotable Parker Selfridge character from the first movie he’s trying to emulate.
But Mercer creates a pretty clear vendetta for you. Without spoiling things, I knew from early on that I would track down Mercer and say, “You owe me a death.”
Nothing’s Over While I’m Breathin’
The gameplay loop can be somewhat repetitive between finding RDA outposts and facilities, clearing and shutting them down, and advancing the story. But it’s still quite fun, and AMP suits are a particular highlight of each encounter just as they were in the first film. I found that this was a more difficult experience than a typical Far Cry game, with enemies possessing immaculate aim and alertness. I found I’d die pretty often with my crafting-heavy build in the early-to-middle portions of the game.
But nothing’s over while I’m breathin’, and every time I’d die, I wanted to get right back in to get a shot at advancing the story, clearing the RDA’s corruption of Pandora’s soil, and finding new territory.
It’ll Be Humane, More or Less
Fighting back against the RDA means sporting a varied arsenal of weapons. While the Na’vi weapons are arguably pretty fun, with bows being as much of a highlight as I always knew they’d be in an Avatar game (Na’vi arrows are roughly 7 feet long, imagine firing those at your enemies!) you also have to use human weapons like assault rifles and shotguns. They are bad, they feel like they’re from a previous console generation, and wielding them is a bore.
It’s not enough to sour the experience of playing this game entirely, but I would always grimace when I knew even my armor-piercing Heavy Bow wasn’t going to cut it when the enemy was on the move. I found myself pushed to choose weapons for which I care little to get the job done, and while I would aim to get the clean kills such as shooting AMP suit weak spots, sometimes I just had to ditch finesse, pretending that “it’ll be humane, more or less.” Especially less when you find camps where they’re keeping Pandoran wildlife brutally locked up.
To go into detail on the game’s guns, they simply feel bland to wield. Aiming is only marginally better than hip fire, and everything from the reticule to the textures of the weapons and reload animations feels outdated and inauthentic. While I appreciate what the game is doing by giving you ammo options to fit the situation, the balancing is odd between the types. Shotgun alternate ammunition trivializes AMP suits, although the first time you break the canopy and rip a pilot out is pretty cool.
Why So Blue?
Aside from gripes about formulaic gameplay structure pushing you in a certain direction, there are certain highlights. You can get mounts, and the moment you bond with and fly your ikran (and name it) is genuinely magical. The terrain, biomes, and concept of clearing pollution are a bit of a dopamine rush for new and returning Avatar fans, and it has been so far the best gaming experience of the franchise.
But on the other hand, the game’s experience was a rocky one, with performance issues and stuttering at the worst possible moments.
There were minor issues in the game throughout, and I can chalk several up to just being a bad PC port a few patches away from being fine. Things like the mouse cursor suddenly appearing after closing a menu and lingering over the UI breaking immersion are mild annoyances, but other occasions such as closing the game would strangely cause my PC to have an existential crisis and the game frequently stalls out while you close it.
I’ve gone over my frustration with knowing I’d have to swap to guns I don’t like to take out the enemies bearing on my position. But what I hadn’t mentioned to this point was how often the game would completely freeze up on me for what would feel like an eternity, but the enemy AI would track me down and kill me. This was infuriating and didn’t happen just once. But with the addictive nature of the gameplay and the tantalizing beauty of Pandora, it makes me enjoy it nonetheless.
You might see this, then, and ask “Why so blue?” Is it that these flaws are more frustrating than I’m letting on? Is it that I’ve been quoting Miles Quaritch this whole time and you’ve said nothing about it? A little. But Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is fun even with its flaws, and I can love a game even if it taunts me with how close it is to being exactly what I wanted, and that’s okay. That’s something to build upon further.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora may be imperfect, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with a Far Cry formula in almost a decade. Not since Far Cry 3 and 4 have I dived so intently into a Ubisoft game world and enjoyed it for its visuals, concepts, and characters.
The idea of Avatar being mixed into this formula is great, and when you’re flying on your ikran, it’s an intoxicating experience, even if aspects of the combat and game stability leave something to be desired.
This review was made possible by Ubisoft, with a complimentary copy of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, scheduled for wide release on December 7, 2023.