You can call it an action/adventure, an open-world shooter, a gathering and crafting title, or maybe even an environmental activist’s dream game. But whatever else it is, the new Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is definitely a movie tie-in game. And it’s flat-out the best way to swoop through James Cameron’s beautiful world of Pandora with a game controller in your mitt.
Fans of the movie franchise should note that this game’s story runs concurrently with what’s been on the big screen. We never meet the hero, Jake Sully, but we do see how his choices impact the human’s Resource Development Administration and the Na’vi tribes of Pandora.
Gamers play as a male or female Na’vi, and are part of a small group captured as children and forced into a reeducation program. The goal of the program was to raise up human-friendly natives that could be used to either persuade or fight against the indigenous residents of Pandora. But that program is shut down when things go sideways (thanks to Jake Sully’s in-movie actions).
The surviving kids are hidden away in hibernation pods by a caring human and then, 16 years later, escape to rediscover their heritage and their people’s connection to nature.
Gameplay focuses on climbing, running and leaping through the dense and beautiful open world of Pandora—a sprawling vista of jungles, plains, mountains and caves. The goal initially is to meet and interact with Na’vi tribe members; reconnect with the enviro-spiritual world at large; and explore and craft weapons, tools, food and protective clothing from the incredibly expansive biome around you.
In fact, Frontiers of Pandora pretty much demands that players engage with the game’s hunting, gathering, crafting and cooking mechanics to move forward in the story.
The other side of play is the shooter/combat interaction. Your Na’vi may be experimenting with this new world, but you’re constantly reminded that those evil humans are still polluting and corrupting the environmental goodness of the land. So along with hunting meat, you’re using bows, assault rifles, swooping in with winged mountain banshees called ikran and applying a massive amount of melee strength to destroy the RDA and its evildoers.
You’ll need to go online to set up the game, but after that, players can game offline. After completing an early quest, gamers can also play co-op with a friend, which does require an internet connection.
The biggest positive for Frontiers of Pandora is its beautiful and majestic world, and the joy of climbing, leaping and flying through it. The traversal system is fluid and smooth and a number of bouncing and swinging plants and trees aid your parkour-like progress.
The Na’vi characters and interactions are well-designed and crafted. The story is immersive and focused on valuing and maintaining the lush beauty of our environment and its animal inhabitants. …
… That said, the game can sometimes feel militantly focused on the environmental ills and misdeeds of humanity. As with the movies, humans are definitely vile villains here, except for a few who side with the Na’vis’ environmental cause. And even the good humans repeatedly complain about how humanity let the Earth die away.
It can feel strange to be so fervently focused on impaling, shooting, pounding and burning humans. The battles with those human foes are intense and lethal, though generally bloodless.
And this is definitely a one-sided tale. The humans of the RDA are seemingly focused solely on decimating the indigenous population and raping the mineral-rich world at large. Gamers play and see things through the Na’vi, portrayed as completely innocent, pure and spiritually in tune.
The spiritual beliefs of the Na’vi’s often seem to echo those of Native American religions as well. The Na’vi worship a goddess known as Eywa, the Great Mother, a deity that seems both personal (the Na’vi pray to her) as well as encompassing the collective energy of Pandora’s living creatures. The Na’vi also lift up a prayer of thanks to an animal they kill.
As mentioned above, it should also be repeated that the crafting and hunting side of play is central to this game. Those who aren’t so excited about the gathering of a wide variety of tree bark, mosses and animal hides will find some of the game to be rather grinding.
We hear uses of the s-word, “a–hole,” “d–mit” and some misuses of God’s name in the dialogue.
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a fun, questing romp through a beautiful world. But it also has a lot to say about how terrible we humans are.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.