I didn’t like the first Avatar movie. A controversial take, I know, but while the technology and visual effects were impressive for its time, I felt the blockbuster nature of Jake Sully’s heroic quest detracted from the experience. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t check out The Way of Water and remained skeptical about Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, despite it offering a completely original story set around the same time. Of course, Massive being involved was also somewhat odd since it’s known more for its third-person looter shooter series, The Division.
After a somewhat slow start, I’m happy to say that most of my fears are allayed. Its open-world mechanics are solid, but Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora succeeds foremost in delivering an immersive experience by delving more into Pandora’s tribes and depicting them with care.
"Your character is someone raised by the RDA to become a tool."
Jake’s story was that of a human torn between two worlds. The lack of nuance left something to be desired, but thankfully, Frontiers of Pandora takes a different approach. The player is raised by the RDA as part of The Ambassador Program or TAP. Taken from your tribe, the Sarentu, at a young age, you’re raised to serve as ambassadors for the RDA under John Mercer. When Jake’s war against the RDA breaks out, Mercer looks to wipe out TAP and the player with it.
With the help of Alma, the player goes into suspended animation within cryopods. They awaken 16 years later, rescued by Alma and warrior So’lek, with the RDA returning for mysterious purposes. A hop, skip and jump later, and the player joins with the human resistance on Pandora to push back against the interlopers, eventually convening with three clans – the Aranahe, Zeswa and Kame’tire.
From the outset, the personal journey offers significant stakes. Your character is someone raised by the RDA to become a tool. On gaining freedom, your clan is seemingly gone. It’s a great perspective that tackles the colonialist themes of the movie in a more personal way, portraying the suffering, challenges and displacement that the characters face.
This is reflected in your companions. Teylan has a knack for technology and machines and is the only one who bought into Mercer’s agenda (even after everything that’s happened). Nor is keen on fighting back against the RDA. Ri’nela wants to be free but isn’t fully comfortable, especially after all the years isolated from her people. Then you have So’lek, who doesn’t fully trust the humans and believes that he and the player character are on a journey for their purpose.
"It’s also incredible to stop and observe settlements, hear idle chatter about their daily woes, watch a few Zeswa dance-fights and fashion kites, and so on."
Each character is nuanced and developed well throughout the story, with reasonable takes on identity and purpose (except for maybe Teylan). Even those like Priya, who helps with communication and tech at the resistance, or Nefika, who alternates between opportunistic and smug, are fun to interact with.
Credit to the writing team for not overdoing the quips and banter and showing some restraint where it matters, even if the RDA can still come off as comically evil at times. While taking some time to get off the ground, the main story is told well, mixing some genuinely heart-breaking and incredible moments while maintaining a strong pace past the opening.
There is exceptional attention to detail for each clan, whether it’s in the way they dress, their mannerisms or customs. The Aranahe have an air of calm which permeates the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Zeswa are bold, with that energy felt throughout their bustling camp.
It’s also incredible to stop and observe settlements, hear idle chatter about their daily woes, watch a few Zeswa dance-fights and fashion kites, and so on. The voice-acting is on point for all of this, even if some lines are repeated depending on your actions. I also appreciated little details, like my character putting Priya on hold to fend off some wild animals and then picking it up again.
"You have a general sense of where to go and must find your way. Sense and movement options help in this regard, with your character capable of jumping and climbing in the environment."
Of course, the other appeal is simply venturing through the world of Pandora with its flora and fauna. Everything, from the water to the forests and plains, looks gorgeous. The soundtrack is good, adapting its orchestral tracks to the mood. Performance is also solid on PC with no major glitches or bugs, not counting the one time I tried to slide into an opening and got stuck, necessitating a reload or the few animation issues that arise. However, AMD FSR 2 is seemingly mandatory to ensure smoother performance, so keep that in mind.
Even in Guided Mode, the world can be disorienting as you struggle to find resources to make arrows and distinguish between plants that explode and shock you, vines that can lift you into the trees and flowers emitting fumes to boost your speed. You eventually acclimate to it, though there will be plenty of times that sense – which allows for tagging enemies and wildlife, viewing scent trails and highlighting objectives – is spammed to orient yourself in the right direction.
However, that is a core part of exploration and discovery. You have a general sense of where to go and must find your way. Sense and movement options help in this regard, with your character capable of jumping and climbing in the environment. The traversal feels great, and that feeling of bounding across the landscape is amazing.
There are no towers to unlock points of interest, and while you may discover plants that grant skill points and increased max HP, they’re indicated by small dots on the map. Finding them is another matter entirely, though their positions are easy enough to deduce if you observe the environment.
"Tracking down materials, especially after pinning them, can be tedious sometimes, especially when rarer items appear in specific locations."
It’s incredibly enticing to set a random waypoint on the map and see what’s in store. There are abandoned research labs where restoring the power (courtesy of your handheld hacking device SID) will open comms and new requests. You can also use these and other settlements to cook food, boost your damage, maximum health, sneaking and damage reduction, and contribute to a clan, each requesting specific items. Accumulate enough favor, and you can spend it to earn stronger weapons, gear, mods, ingredients and much more.
When you’re out gathering, moss, fiber, fruit and other materials have different conditions to fulfil and specific controls for plucking them. You can’t just yoink every branch the same way, and some fruit require breaking the outer shell with melee attacks to remove them. Animals must also be killed efficiently to harvest their materials for cooking or crafting. Guns are a no-go since they ruin the prey and effectively give no materials. Striking their weak points results in clean kills and a higher chance at better materials. At least, theoretically.
Tracking down materials, especially after pinning them, can be tedious sometimes, especially when rarer items appear in specific locations. As new regions open up, higher rarity materials become more common, but you’ll still need to track them down based purely on details from your Wildlife Guide. Higher-level gear and even some quests require specific rarities of materials and can become a drag if you don’t know where to look.
"Combat feels good, whether it’s the responsiveness from arrows and spears or the destructive power of explosives and shotgun blasts."
Taking down tougher wildlife can be challenging if you don’t have good enough gear or armor-breaking spears. Unfortunately, fulfilled conditions don’t always guarantee a higher rarity. It’s baffling to pelt a group of Viperwolves with arrows in an intense fight, neither showing mercy nor getting a clean kill and receiving Exquisite materials. Other times, you gather moss ad nauseam in the rain and pristine condition but get nothing but Fine materials.
As for combat, specifically against the RDA, you assault outposts like gas collectors, drilling towers and bases teeming with anti-aircraft guns, both in the open world and story. This is where the game defaults to more of a Far Cry style of gameplay. You can sneak about, hacking doors and completing objectives while stealthily taking down targets, or go guns and arrows blazing, wiping out everyone on the base.
Combat feels good, whether it’s the responsiveness from arrows and spears or the destructive power of explosives and shotgun blasts. I also like how the player weapons favor more precision damage while the RDA weapons are more capable of sustained fire and close-up damage.
The AI has some gaffes now and again, especially the RDA’s AMP mechs, which can sometimes walk into walls. Nevertheless, it’s mostly effective, especially when they start bringing out snipers to target you from afar and flamethrowers to deal with close-range attacks. However, a good chunk of the challenge comes from not being properly geared, and enemies out-leveling you.
"Of course, the other problem is that even at one or two Power levels ahead, enemies can shred you, even when turning the difficulty down and reducing incoming damage."
While it’s easy to defeat human enemies with a single arrow, AMPs can take longer, especially if you miss the weak points on their back. As you progress through the story, armored variants of the mechs also start showing up and become an even bigger chore. Yes, you have an Explosive Sling and Armor-Breaking Spears, which work wonders against AMPs, but their ammo is limited and requires specific materials for crafting.
Of course, the other problem is that even at one or two Power levels ahead, enemies can shred you, even when turning the difficulty down and reducing incoming damage. This probably wouldn’t be an issue in a game like, say, The Division, where gear is plentiful and drops from enemies frequently, to say nothing of crafting materials.
That’s not the case in Avatar, as you need to either search for materials or accumulate Favor to acquire better gear (and that can be quickly outdated depending on mission rewards). The low material costs are offset by the rarity RNG and having to invest time to find them.
There’s also the problem of RDA weaponry since you can’t craft them. They must be discovered or purchased from the resistance base with Spare Parts – the same Spare Parts used for your explosive slings and other special ammo, by the way, and which requires venturing through the world, clearing out camps and outposts, destroying floating platforms and more, that too for piddly material gains. It’s not a problem in the early going, but as things become more demanding, better gear becomes all the more important. You can’t just focus on and enjoy the story.
"While it doesn’t follow all the tenets of a typical open world, bloating your map with icons and collectibles, a large chunk of it is still very much in line with the same."
While I can appreciate Massive for not trying to go full looter mode, the fact that you have to discard loot for items that raise your Power, even if they have worse stats or undesirable perks, is a problem. Perhaps there will be changes to clan contributions to make it easier to buy the things you want or Spare Parts drops to at least ensure your RDA weapons and other mods are up to date. Exiting an emotional mission and prepping for the next big battle feels less exciting upon realizing you need to grind some gear.
Also, while you can unlock new Skills, which afford teenie amounts of Power gain, some options could be more exciting (like, say, the perks on some gear). I like cooking a potential second meal for free, but a five percent increase in base damage is far from exciting, especially when similar Skills appear further down the tree. It would also be nice if there was a page detailing my stats.
How is my ranged resistance benefiting me? What’s my max health? How is five percent stealth helping me? All of this seems like it should be a given to explain. Also, more inventory space and the crafting table pulling from my stash when crafting would be great.
Another thing to keep in mind, which can be a plus or minus depending on the player, is the open-world structure. While it doesn’t follow all the tenets of a typical open world, bloating your map with icons and collectibles, a large chunk of it is still very much in line with the same. There is a good chunk of side quests, which devolve into fetch quests and require looking for materials or collecting items. It isn’t representative of all quests in the game, and I genuinely like the fleshed-out characters and their stories, but they make the fetching part stand out that much.
"Massive’s attention and love to the material and how they portray it, from details in the world to the characters and story, gives the game its charm."
Though removing RDA tags from wild animals and freeing them from captivity serve as decent random events, I would appreciate more variety. Happening across different characters and hearing their conversations is great (even if some of the same kinds can pop up throughout the Western Frontier). Joining them on impromptu hunts or fighting off the RDA as they attack different settlements would also be nice, and breathe even more life into the world.
For all its faults, many issues in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora fade into the background when I come across a Memory Painting and attempt to match the movements on screen or frantically run around, trying to find the right spot to observe a Sarentu Totem, or even galloping across the plains on a Direhorse, or revisiting destroyed RDA outposts and finding them reclaimed by nature. Even exploring random locations, discovering various flora and fauna to gather/hunt and getting lost in the world can be fun.
Without the Avatar license, this would probably be a solid open-world game with gorgeous graphics. Which is fine but not the biggest standout, especially in a year like this. Massive’s attention and love to the material and how they portray it, from details in the world to the characters and story, gives the game its charm. Some quality-of-life changes and improvements are needed, but as it stands, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an open-world adventure worth checking out.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Gorgeous environments and meticulous attention to detail, whether it's in the flora or fauna. Solid combat and stealth mechanics that go hand in hand with strong traversal. Interesting twists on exploration and resource gathering, especially when you need to track down materials. Well-paced story with fully realized characters. Excellent soundtrack.
No dedicated page for viewing stats. Resource gathering can get tedious sometimes. Some Skills could be more exciting while certain side quests, despite good characterization, default towards fetch questing. Power grinding can be annoying, especially with the focus on crafting over drops. Fulfilling conditions for material rarity tend to be iffy.