Despite receiving an early copy of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora late last week, my time with the game pre-release has been uneven, to say the very least: Full on system crashes, poor performance, and bizarre progress erasing interface bugs (namely a perpetually grayed out “continue” button that only works when the game is deleted and subsequently reinstalled) have made getting any meaningful time with Frontiers of Pandora extremely difficult.
Nevertheless, I’ve been able to log roughly a dozen hours in Pandora’s Western Frontier, and while I have plenty of issues with both performance and Ubisoft’s spin on the world of Avatar (and I am a staunch defender of both films), I’m optimistic that this could be the best Far Cry game Ubisoft has ever published.
Much like Far Cry, resource gathering is the primary means by which you source special ammunition and crafting materials for new gear, but Frontiers of Pandora puts an environmentally conscious twist on what would otherwise be a purely extractive (colonial, even) approach to harvesting. Killing a deer quickly or gently removing the fruit from a tree will yield higher quality resources, which can be donated to the communal baskets at the various Na’vi clan hometrees.
I did roll my eyes when I took down a Sturmbeast (a six legged dinosaur buffalo) for the first time and my Na’vi said a short prayer to Eywa, thanking her for sharing her gifts—this stuff is really corny, especially when you say a solemn prayer after punching a dog in the back of the head eight times and then kick it down a ridge.
The minimalist user interface and emphasis on exploration is a welcome departure from Ubisoft’s traditional approach to open world design. Objective markers only show up when you engage Na’vi senses (detective vision), which has made my time on Pandora a mostly peaceful one, occasionally punctuated by intense combat.
Your arsenal is a blend of Na’vi and human weaponry: longbows and bigger, heavier longbows, lacrosse sticks that lob grenades and poison traps, as well as assault rifles and shotguns. It’s a really fun mix of weapons that each fill a particular niche. Remember the mech suits from the first movie? Those are most of what you’ll be fighting across Pandora. They’re total pushovers if you can isolate one, but having to deal with even two at once was enough to get me to start thinking about combat strategically.
There was a great moment early on where I had to face down five mech suits that had me quickly switching between weapons a la Doom eternal—lobbing grenades to knock them off balance, cracking their dumb Ford F-150 windshields with arrows, and then spraying down the pilot with a quick burst from my AR all while bobbing and weaving between deafening volleys of autocannon fire was easily the highlight of my playtime. Even a dozen hours in, Frontiers of Pandora has been pretty slow to start, so I hope that encounters like this one are more common in the second and third act.
Na’vi physiology brings with it a whole suite of changes to the Far Cry formula, the best being a charge and double jump that takes advantage of Pandora’s density. Navigating Pandora is a total joy, sprinting at mach five across the forest floor and parkouring across the serpentine tree roots that connect dense jungle brush to wide open plateaus.
These environments, by the way, are jaw dropping. Avatar’s psychedelic “Ecco the Dolphin color palette meets Starship Troopers industrial sci-fi” look is translated beautifully from film to game, and the skyboxes especially are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The audio is also standout, with a score that dynamically shifts from ambient strings that accent the natural sounds of Pandora to pulsating drums and droning synths during combat.
The stellar presentation has been substantially undercut by the usual suite of technical issues that accompany big multi-platform releases—frequent hitching, FPS drops (AMD Adrenaline says I’m getting 90, but it looks a feels a lot more like 45), and blurry FSR3 scaling, which Ubisoft has attributed to a lack of Day 1 drivers. I’m hopeful that this is actually true and that fixes are on the way—the final version of this review will reflect that if so—but at present, Frontiers of Pandora should be a hard pass from anyone who doesn’t have a high-end machine.
A far cry from the movies
So far, Frontiers of Pandora’s first act has not won me over with its jarring, awkwardly written, and tone-deaf narrative. At the first human resistance base, your Na’vi character will be subjected to endless inane babbling—there’s constant gawking and cracks about the differences between human and Na’vi physiology, and without the option to push back, it just comes off as a thoughtless backing track of microaggressions that will likely be uncomfortably familiar to any Indigenous person.
Worst of all is a nuclear-weapon level title drop which identifies the Na’vi ambassador program that your character is raised in as a “Residential School”. That label is totally misapplied, and Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t capture the extreme range of abuse present at these “schools” with its depiction. It’s tasteless and irresponsible.
The invading RDA, who in the films are a modern day mining company run by a neoconservative Judge Holden, also feel like they’ve had all their edges sanded off. Their unflinching brutality is only ever alluded to with Na’vi occasionally mentioning they’ve gotten word of “village massacres.” They’re so bereft of that psychotic imperialism that it’s easy to forget that the RDA got kicked off Pandora after a failed “shock and awe” military operation designed to, quote, “blast a hole in their racial memory”. It’s satisfying to see these guys get murdered by tie-dye colored dragons precisely because they are Glanton gang members with MBAs. Without the confidence to draw meaningful parallels between the RDA and both modern and historical imperialism, some of modern sci-fi’s best villains have been reduced to mall security guards in powerloaders.
The issue of cultural appropriation and impropriety in the context of Avatar is needly—for what’s it worth, I’m Indigenous and have been ride or die for these movies since the first one came out in 2007. But Frontiers of Pandora’s stiffly delivered, eye roll inducing dialogue is way out of step with both films, and the need to undercut everything with a smarmy joke consistently fails to portray some of the most interesting aspects of both human and Na’vi culture. A point from the first film that I’ve always appreciated is how the Na’vi see industrial society as a type of mass insanity, an idea that so far has been left unexplored in my unfinished playthrough of the game.
Frontiers of Pandora hasn’t added anything to Cameron’s world at this point, and I’ve even noticed a few things that conflict with the film. Remember the big “Dragon” gunship? There’s a few of those in Frontiers of Pandora despite it being a rare, one-off military surplus vehicle. Combined with a poor handling of sensitive subjects and an overly sardonic tone, I felt like I was constantly getting pulled out of a setting I have a deep fondness for.
Though the narrative that Ubisoft has crafted to stand alongside Cameron’s is at best baffling and at worst offensive, the consistently engaging and immersive open world feels like a massive step forward from a publisher whose open world games often seem intent on wasting your time. Though my time on Pandora has been rife with bugs and performance issues, it’s been the most fun I’ve had with one of these games since Far Cry 3. Fingers crossed that the day 1 patch resolves most of the technical issues that I’ve run into, and that the rest of the main quest is less insensitive than the opening.