Open world sci-fi action game Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora boasts a luscious and vibrant landscape, full of missions to complete and materials to collect. However, the sights you see on the way are just as rewarding. The planet Pandora is suffused with fantastical flora and fauna - offering journeys that amaze and delight as much as any of the game's destinations.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a luscious first-person adventure from Massive Entertainment. Set in the distant yet familiar future of James Cameron’s Avatar films, Ubisoft invited TechRadar Gaming to try out an early build ahead of its launch on December 7.
Your lanky, blue Na’vi protagonist doesn’t just look like an alien but moves like one, too. In Frontiers of Pandora, your character can perform precise leaps and rapid air dashes, giving your movement a sense of fluidity and responsiveness that rivals even some of the best Mario games.
Taking a leaf from Far Cry’s book, Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t spoon-feed you your objectives. You’ll need to manually mark waypoints on the map before heading towards your goal. Without any set routes, this becomes something of a platforming challenge, where the game’s generous jumping and dashing mechanics shine. An early mission had us scale a tree to bond with a native animal. Rather than slog my way through choreographed Horizon: Forbidden West handholds, I could instead leap and bound from branch to branch in a joyful sequence of balletic movement.
Vibrant plant life distracts and delights, capturing the visual spectacle of the James Cameron films with gusto. Fans of the movies will recognize Pandora’s distinctive bioluminescent flora and orange Helicoradians - spiral-shaped plants that retreat into the ground with a satisfying ‘pop’ when approached.
This is all matched by an immersive score that dispenses with typical Western orchestras, instead offering harmonic choirs and drum beats that layer beautifully on top of one another to create a sense of depth. Moreover, certain missions will have the soundtrack respond to your actions, letting the score build and intensify as you reach your objective. It’s these sorts of features that help Frontiers artfully capture the cinematic ambitions of the Avatar films.
Frontiers of Pandora is built around a strong central conceit. Your character, a Na’vi native of Pandora, was abducted as a child and raised by the exploitative and ruthless human-run Resources Development Administration (RDA). Now, having escaped from imprisonment, our hero is on a quest to reconnect with their heritage, all while possessing unique knowledge of how the RDA operates.
In one particularly striking set piece - attacking an RDA outpost - this mix of human insider knowledge and Na’vi combat prowess really shone. Patrolled by towering walkers as well as enemy troopers, I had my work cut out for me. Though the game’s stealth system is relatively simple, Frontiers skillfully captures a sense of asymmetrical warfare when going quiet goes pear-shaped. For example, ambush your enemies, and they’ll go down like flies; hit the weak points on enemy walkers, and you’ll be rewarded with devastating explosions. However, should the enemy get the drop on you, your elegant tribal garb will do little to repel bullets, and you’ll perish quickly. It was only by sticking to my Na'vi's strengths and avoiding their weaknesses that I was able to triumph.
This isn’t to say that your Na’vi is fragile in combat; rather, that survival is rooted in agility and cleverness instead of brute force. By using cover and taking advantage of the game’s generous movement systems, you can avoid the brunt of enemy fire while returning your own in kind. Your arrows are mighty, too - enough to smash open the cockpits of the RDA’s walkers, allowing you to snipe at the pilots inside.
If you want to go all out, you can switch to your assault rifle, abandoning any pretense of stealth for sheer firepower. Though an effective counter for much of the RDA’s arsenal, you’ll need to keep your ammo-hungry weapon satiated by looting fallen humans.
This becomes all the more engaging when you add the verticality afforded by your Ikran, a reptilian flying mount that you can use to take the fight to the enemy. The Ikran banks and dives with a pleasing weight, conserving momentum in a way that feels organic and believable. Swooping down onto RDA helicopters feels immensely satisfying. You can even call your mount in mid-air, a vital safety net should you bungle one of the game’s high-altitude platforming sections.
This land is our land
What does raise eyebrows, however, is the game’s attempt to tackle the difficult themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Avatar is, at its heart, an allegory for the excesses and atrocities of historical colonial powers in their quest for wealth. Frontiers of Pandora starts in an ambitious place, by having you step into the role of a “child of two worlds” with one foot in Na'vi culture and the other in human society. This will require a delicate touch from developer Massive Entertainment.
As I’ve only seen a glimpse of the game’s main story, the jury’s still out as to whether Frontiers of Pandora will do justice to these weighty themes. Though Frontiers’ nuanced approach to asymmetrical warfare suggests that Massive might have a decent understanding of the complex power dynamics at play, we shall have to see if the game can muster the nuance required to stick the landing - especially when you start to consider concerns of cultural appropriation.
Indeed, the Avatar franchise has often been criticized by indigenous voices. As Jeff Yang writes in CNN, the cultural trappings of the Na’vi, inspired as they are by indigenous cultures from the real world, are “extracted from their contexts, pounded into fragments and randomly sifted together,” erasing their “original meaning”. At times, I did feel uncomfortable playing Frontiers of Pandora. Though beautiful, the music, garb, and ritual of the Na’vi felt hollow - as if the meat of real-world cultures had been thrown into a blender and carelessly mushed together to produce aesthetically pleasing sterility.
That said, Frontiers of Pandora presents an opportunity for the franchise to turn all of this around. By focusing on a Na’vi character rather than an invader walking about in a Na’vi body like in the films, Frontiers has the opportunity to pursue authenticity and to move away from the series’ struggle with “white savior” narratives. Should Frontiers approach Na’vi culture from a more considerate angle, the game's novel mechanics and breathtaking visual spectacle could lead it to become the most thought-provoking, exciting, and well-realized Avatar adventure ever made.
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.
Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.