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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Written by Eric Hauter on 12/15/2023 for PS5  
More On: Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

I’m having the hardest time finding the correct approach for my analysis of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Not because it’s an outright bad game; there’s a pleasurable experience to be had here. It’s just that the fun in this game is hidden under so much glop that I would have surely bailed completely if I weren’t playing Frontiers of Pandora for review. This game has been a mix of pleasure and pain for me, and finding a way to properly convey that is tough.

In the Gaming Nexus Slack chat, I compared trying to find the fun in Avatar to an ape trying to open a coconut by hitting it with a rock. It was like I could see the delicious gooey center right inside, but I just could not crack the tough exterior no matter how hard I threw myself at the game. During the first ten hours of this game, I was just getting angrier and angrier at Frontiers of Pandora, and I kept seeing people on Twitter talking about how beautiful and fabulous the game is and wondering if they were playing the same game as me.

It's tough to put my finger on what I didn’t like about this game at first. It’s kind of everything. A million small irritants, all heaped on top of one another to the point where the thought of playing Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora made me itchy.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an unquestionably beautiful game. The sparkling world of Pandora is faithfully recreated here from the films, and is full of gorgeous detail. The game’s map is brimming with life, and you can hardly walk 100 yards without coming across some animal grazing, or a group of Na’vi hunters who will greet you and offer a small gift. There are dark caves full of poisonous pods, burbling rivers to swim and fish in, and of course, enormous trees to scale and explore. This game is a visual feast, which is no surprise considering the pedigree of the developer, the publisher, and the franchise on which the game is based.

Unfortunately, underneath the beauty is a mess of weird game systems that feel purposefully designed to stymy the player. Just off the top of my head, here’s a bunch of stuff that got on my nerves:

  • Tooltips that appear on-screen to explain game mechanics disappear before you get a chance to read them, and often show up when you are in the heat of battle or some other activity that prevents you from paying attention to them. Sure, you can go look them up in the game’s frilly menu, but I don’t want to.
  • The mechanic for picking fruits, mushrooms, and other plants is slow and cumbersome. You have to hold down the R2 button lightly, then use the right stick to find a “sweet spot” for picking the plant, then finish pushing down the R2 button. You can disable this mechanic in the game’s options, but doing so will prevent you from getting the best version of whatever you are picking. The game actually punishes you for turning off its annoying mechanics.
  • The ”Na’vi Sense” mechanic, which supposedly helps players detect points of interest (kinda like Geralt’s Witcher vision) is activated with the R1 button. If you activate it while moving, it halts any forward momentum the player had accumulated, and slows things to a crawl. With the exception of scents and marked enemies, any information revealed by Na’Vi Sense immediately disappears when you let go of the button.
  • The player is often tasked during quests to “investigate” an area using Na’vi Sense. The area of investigation is usually far larger than the actual area where “clues” are, leading to a lot of wandering in circles. The Na’Vi Sense seems very inconsistent in revealing clues, and the game is remarkably picky about which order you find them. You have to “activate” one clue, then find another clue to “link” to the first one. It’s all a big pain in the ass.
  • Almost every waypoint in the game that a player needs to reach is tucked away at the top of a cliff. Almost any character you need to talk to is perched at the top of an overlook (except for the one time the game told me a guy was "near a tree", which might as well have been "surrounded by air", or "somewhere on Pandora"). In practical terms, that means that before you gain the ability to fly with your Toruk, you spend ages looking for ways to scale (or walk around) sheer cliff faces. Sure, there are plants that let you climb, but they never seem to be around when you really need them.
  • Mission checkpoints are super shady. Sometimes they record your progress when you progress through a multi-phased mission, but sometimes they do not. There is nothing worse than coming to the end of a 15-minute quest line, just to have a random dude kill you with a pot shot that goes through your cover, only to have to start the entire quest over again at the beginning.
  • Progression is extremely obtuse. There is a number that kinda goes up when you equip new and better gear. Is it a battle-effectiveness number? Is it a level? Do I get experience for completing quests? Or just gear? If it's gear, is there any motivation to complete lower-level quests? It is all very mysterious.

All of these little annoyances are present almost constantly in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, but then something big would happen that would really set off my rage. Take my experience with the game's first large base mission, for example.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora does absolutely nothing to inform players about how to stealth in the game. Like a fool, I assumed that I would be able to attack an RDA post the way I would attack an outpost in a Far Cry game – by creeping around with a bow and picking dudes off. As a result of my misguided assumption, I sunk a lot of my early skill points into the stealth skill tree. This was an enormous mistake.

It turns out that as soon as you shoot one dude – even silently - the entire base goes on full alert, and even if you stay hidden for a half hour, that alert never ends. The alarm continues to shriek, and dudes continue to be on edge. The alarm also triggers a reinforcement transport to show up in 30 seconds, and no matter how many times you shoot it, you can’t blow the back-up transport out of the sky. It’s also important to note that even on Easy, the bad guys' bullets can chew you up in about 2.5 seconds, so you have to remain in cover almost constantly and only pop out long enough to take a few shots.

Your bow and assault rifle are okay against unarmored opponents, but against the game’s mech-like primary foes, you might as well be lobbing pebbles at a tank. The only way to succeed at combat in the early game is to find the incredibly overpowered shotgun, and then kneel-and-poke your way through the base, popping out of cover and blasting dudes into oblivion.

So, the first big storyline base found me trying every which way to attack it until I discovered the shotgun remedy. I must have thrown myself at this thing 20 times, approaching from every angle, trying to sneak, run-and-gun, and everything in between. Finally, I left long enough to find the shotgun, which unlocked the ability to actually win the encounter.

I wipe out all the dudes, open up the exhaust pipes (or whatever), and win the battle. I’m feeling pretty good about myself. After a short cut scene, the game shows me to a room full of chests, where I can loot my just rewards for a very hard-fought victory. And my character literally says out loud “They knew I was coming, and took all the good stuff. I’ll have to make less noise next time.” And then I get a bunch of mediocre, near-useless loot.

Excuse me. What? Whaaaat? Did this game do anything to teach me how to stealth these missions? Did this game even imply in any way that it was possible? Isn’t this the same game that sets off screaming alarms any time I kill a dude and then refuses to turn them off? And then it’s going to imply that I’m being punished with lesser loot for taking the wrong approach to the otherwise impossible mission? Are you SERIOUS?

So yes, if I were not playing Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora for review, this is the point where I would have bailed – thrown both middle fingers up in the air, walked away, and never looked back.

But I didn’t do that. I soldiered on, ignoring the weird and stilted dialogue and the strange quest missions, diligently cooking my food for combat bonuses, and engaging in the recruitment efforts to bring three Na’vi tribes together to fight the RDA.

And you know what? I eventually started to have fun. Picking up that shotgun and befriending my flying beast cracked the proverbial coconut with the proverbial rock. I started enjoying Frontiers of Pandora much more when I could just fly to my mission waypoints. Combat was a lot more enjoyable when I could actually win, and eventually I turned the difficulty back to “normal” when I realized that I was just walking through every encounter, beating mission bosses before the mission log could even ask me to do so. I completely abandoned any idea of stealthing, and just went full gonzo ultra-violence with every mission.

With more skill points, I was able to ease some of my frustrations regarding ammo levels, and I eventually got used to picking fruit. I turned off the game’s “hacking” minigame, which often left me feeling like a sitting duck, and made a few other adjustment’s to Avatar’s options. I tamed Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and ended up having a decent time with it.

But oh, did this game make me work to break through to the good stuff. In trying to simulate the life of a Na’vi, it made me realize that I don’t want to be a Na’vi. Being a Na’vi is freakin’ irritating when it comes to living on a day-to-day basis. I want the fantasy of being a Na’vi, and flying my dragon-thing into camps, blasting away at mechs and shooting helos out of the sky with my legendary shotgun. I want to yank dudes out of those mechs and toss them across camp like ragdolls.

It's awfully tough to recommend this game to general audiences, because I know that so many people will find it obtuse and frustrating. But inside this impenetrable shell, there actually is a pretty fun Far Cry-style game. But much like Jake Sully had to grow, change, and adapt to the Na’vi lifestyle, modern gamers can expect a struggle against their instincts to fully engage with what Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora has to offer.

While I eventually began having fun with Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, the game was a very difficult nut to crack. Rather than being open to the way I wanted to play it, Avatar pushed me to find the way it wanted to be played, and then kinda punished me for doing so. Frontiers of Pandora should feel free and flowing, but I've found a lot of the experience to be restrictive and near-punitive. Once I pushed through the game's many barriers to entry, I started having a good time, but don't expect to just jump in and have fun. Like Jake Sully, it's going to take a while to find your Avatar-legs.

Rating: 6.5 Below Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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