Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a game this writer has been waiting a long time for. In many ways, it is the Hogwarts Legacy for fans of big blue folk and vibrant alien worlds. But with that apt comparison and Ubisoft Massive at the helm, does it do enough to stand on its own two feet? Or is it nothing more than a pretty tour through Avatar’s greatest hits? While it certainly is pretty and it does its best to hit those Avatar beats, Frontiers of Pandora actually won us over with one of the most enchanting open-worlds available on PS5.
It’s easy to write that off as a given, considering the fervour cinema-goers had for the world of James Cameron’s mega-hit series. However, there was a lot Ubi Massive could have gotten wrong with this interpretation. Thankfully, though, Massive teamed up with Lightstorm, Cameron’s film company, to ensure that it doesn’t just look and feel like Pandora: it is Pandora.
Everything you see, touch, hear, and explore is canon to the Avatar universe, meaning it receives the same level of attention to detail and care for its lore as the main films do. What this results in is one of Ubisoft’s best open worlds to date — a setting that lives and breathes and is an utter delight to explore.
As a young Na’Vi child kidnapped and raised by the immoral RDA, you’ve spent your life in captivity — contained within grey steel walls. However, the events of the first film mean you're put into cryosleep and left in your slumber for 15 years. Awakened at the same time as the events of Avatar: The Way Of Water you are let loose in The Western Frontier, a new region to the universe.
This acts as the foundation for the game’s story, which sees your very own Na’Vi reconnecting with the ways of their people. From the outset, your task is to take the fight to the RDA who are spoiling the world for its resources. You’ll explore three regions, coming into contact with different tribes, each affected by the humans in their own ways. On this basis, Frontiers of Pandora is fine. There is an elevated sense of love and care to the story of the resistance, especially as you delve deeper into the ways of a clan like the Zeswa or Kame’Tire. However, when it comes to the big story moments, it goes about exactly as you would expect.
Instead, the real value of the game lies in your free-roaming experience. For one, it’s easily one of the best-looking games on PS5. We were continually impressed as we explored the depths of the Kinglor Forest or rode our Direhorse across the Upper Plains. The level of detail and the density of its foliage is an absolute wonder — and it certainly helps that our biggest performance issue was a slight bit of pop-in. The sound design too has to be mentioned, because it entirely encapsulates each of its three settings with finesse — made even better with a pair of Pulse headphones.
The magic of the Western Frontier isn’t just its technical feats, however. While sold as a thrilling action experience, Frontiers of Pandora is far more focused on harvesting and hunting. Bow combat is still incredibly fun and kicking a tiny human and watching them fly never gets old. We wish there was a bit more variety in the enemies, but combat always served as a decent challenge, even on the medium difficulty.
However, back to harvesting and hunting. Main missions and side content are level-gated. However, simply playing through the game and its content won’t net you XP or level boosters. Instead, your level is entirely dictated by the weapons and gear you carry, meaning it can go up and down depending on what you have equipped. You will find some gear in your travels and will be gifted a fair share by NPCs, but more often than not it’s up to you to kit yourself out.
This is when the game’s crafting system comes into play. We can be guilty of completely shirking crafting systems in action RPGs, but here it is essential to the experience. Each piece of gear, from chest armour to heavy bows, requires two ingredients. Seems simple enough, however, the later into the game you get the more important the quality of those ingredients is. The in-game hunting guide will provide you with a general area and condition required to find the rarer version of that ingredient, but then it’s up to you to go out and actually find it.
What makes this even more interesting is how it improves the checklist approach Ubisoft typically has for its open worlds. While the map is littered with various camps and outposts for you to capture — à la Far Cry — beating them isn’t just about getting one step closer to that 100% completion. Outposts will soak up the surrounding area's resources, and the larger the base the larger the affected area. These areas are sapped of all their colour, but more importantly, ruin and spoil all the flora, fauna, and wildlife within that area. So by completing these outposts, you reclaim a slice of Pandora and reopen the potential to hunt and harvest rare materials specific to that area.
It’s a really smart way to incentivize players into clearing out the map, as sometimes super valuable collectibles like Sarentu Ancestor Skills are untouchable unless you clear a nearby base. Not to mention, it’s great to see the colour return to an area and watch as nature reclaims the harsh steel bases.
The lack of focus on XP is a really refreshing aspect of the game’s experience. There are a series of skill trees still and while skill points are earned at the completion of missions, you’ll primarily earn them by finding Tarsyu Sapling, again feeding into exploration. The only issue with this approach is that some side activities felt a little fruitless as there wasn’t always an obvious reward. One side quest requiring us to find two rare ingredients took up a fair amount of time and the reward was a food recipe, which was disappointing to say the least.
The game also has an Exploration setting, which minimises the HUD, removes mission locations, and forces you to focus on area descriptors and the map to find your way around. We flitted between this and the Guided mode during our playthrough as it could get quite difficult to know where to go at times. However, we appreciated having the option there as it could drastically amp the immersive qualities of the game.
Speaking of immersive qualities, how does this serve as an experience for Avatar fans? As mentioned, the level of detail is second to none, so it was incredibly cool to see plants, creatures, or even vehicles from the movies. We were especially impressed when we were stormed by a Hammerhead, a creature from the first film that stalls its approach if you stand your ground. We tried out this method as it barrelled towards us to the same level of success as Jake Sully in the movie. It’s these smaller aspects that had us grinning ear to ear, as it felt like a fully realised version of this world.
Additionally, the soundtrack captures the feeling of James Horner’s original score brilliantly. There are times when it doesn’t quite hit, or sounds like an alternative version of the tracks you love from the film. But for the most part, it captures those swelling emotions and the magical intrigue that make Pandora a place you never want to leave.
Lastly, we have to mention the DualSense implementation because it is fantastic here. Whether you are peppering RDA mechs with an assault rifle or lining up a shot with your heavy bow, the details in the haptics and adaptive triggers are on the level of a Sony first-party title. It's really impressive.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an excellent open-world adventure. Thanks to Ubisoft Massive’s collaboration with Lightstorm, this is easily the best movie tie-in we’ve experienced. The level of detail is second to none, and fans of the series will have a whale of a time spotting little references here or there to the mainline films. However, we’d be tempted to say unlike Hogwarts Legacy, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora would be a good time even if you weren’t a fan of the series or haven’t seen the films. The game is certainly filled with tropes of the Ubisoft formula, but the lore and focus on harvesting and hunting elevates that open-world design to create an immersive and inviting setting that we happily lost ourselves in.