After my time spent with open world action adventure Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora, all I wanted was a jeep, maybe a jet to get around quicker. The jungles and the plains might be wonderful to look at, but they're too vast, filled with boring tasks, and overly reliant on level-gating to force a sense of progress. Sure, there's some spectacle in narrow escapes from the nasty humans - and their factories that make the plants droopy - but throughout the rebellion I ditched my bow for a shotgun with extended mags and a muzzle brake. For a game that's all, "the humans are bad", I was ready to defect. At least I would've been able to keep my shotgun.
The game's setup is built for folks like me who know nothing about the films. As a tall blue person (the Na'vi), you were taken from your family and raised as a human by the RDA, a military force led by a mean man called John Mercer. After a minor rebellion, you manage to escape the RDA's confines and are then placed in cryosleep for 15 years. Sod's law means that when you wake up the RDA are stronger than ever, and threatening to colonise your lovely lands.
Mercer's army has set up smoke-spewing camps and factories that not only enforce his colonisation efforts, but also corrupt the forest around them. Na'vi clans dotted around Pandora are suffering, so your job is to find them, earn their trust, and unite them all against the man in the crisp white shirt. You'll attack these camps with bows and spear-throwers for 'stealthier' approaches or guns if you'd rather pepper Mercer's soldiers and mechs with bullets.
When it's not all turned to brown mulch from Mercer's operations, Pandora is a genuine stunner and is home to, perhaps, one of the most beautiful jungles I've ever explored in a game. The way light diffuses through canopies, the way bright fronds retreat back into the earth as you approach, and the sheer density of the flora gives you such a wonderful sense of place. Outside of the jungle Pandora is an enormous space, hosting different, similarly dazzling biomes like vast plains and shaded woodland. But my generosity only extends so far, as their spectacle soon gives way to fatigue.
Your first big sigh will stem from the simple act of figuring out where to go. Play on Guided mode and you'll be granted the pleasure of quest markers on a map that doesn't let you zoom in very far, making it a gigantic pain to find an individual in, say, a crowded base. Even if you're out in the jungle, you'll find yourself frequently activating your Na'vi scan-o-vision to keep track of the glowy blue outlines of your objective… before it disappears and you have to reactivate it again. It's honestly baffling to me how anyone could play on Exploration mode, which removes markers and has you rely on environmental clues instead.
Your second sigh will stem from the simple act of travel. For far too long Frontiers Of Pandora has you sprint absolutely everywhere because, presumably, it wants you to learn the ins and outs of basic world interactions like parkour, snapping fruit off trees correctly, and hunting wildlife. Fair enough, but by the time you've done these things you simply can't wait to bypass the jungles and the plains entirely. When you finally get an Ikran (lizard bird), it's a relief to soar through the skies and get around quicker, but somehow the wings of your knockoff pterodactyl still aren't fast enough. The irony is, I would've much rather the game gave me a jeep or let me pilot an RDA fighter jet. Anything to speed up the process.
The "process" being the mold Ubisoft have applied to Far Cry and Assassin's Creed for years now. Avatar's Pandora is an overly vast map where things aren't so much organic, but feel like they're governed by a simplistic algorithm. To progress is to up your level, determined by the stats of your gear and where they sit on the rarity rainbow. As the main quest marches on, it steadily increases a recommended level, forcing you to sidequest for stronger waistcloths and bows. To buy better equipment you need to earn clan favour. Discoveries are more like tick boxes, where magic plants and totems grant you skill points. As a goblin whose brain gets warm and fuzzy when presented with higher numbers, the chase for a better level was probably the only source of motivation.
The sad truth, though, is that your time mingling with Pandora's clans is diluted by the figures, where learning about their culture can't be anything but a run between five mountain flutes or the collection of three alien pineapples or being pinballed between two or three blue folks before it inevitably ends in a frustrating investigation. And I can't stand the investigations, which have you 'link' together 'clues' by interacting with objects in the correct order, some of which blend into mud frustratingly well. Once the linking is done, you almost always have to follow a scent for ages, until you stumble into the person you're after who's like, "Hey, I'll meet you several thousand miles away, cheers for finding us lol", or "You better kill the three hounds that are collapsing on this location, I'll just return to camp that's also several thousand miles away".
And the main missions? Yeah, they tend to culminate in an attack on RDA strongholds that are basically bigger versions of the usual bases, but with yet more number crunching: destroy the three pipes, pull the two levers. While there's a slight element of spectacle to dismantling a fortress of metal and oil, it's mostly undone by Avatar's inability to decide whether it's a stealth game or an FPS. Instead of committing to one, it commits to neither, and makes any raid a genuine nightmare.
Sling an arrow into a soldier from the safety of a bush and you'll likely alert everyone. But then there are inconsistencies, where sometimes you get away with it and no-one's alerted! There are times when you're rewarded for using your scan-o-vision to highlight snipers, sneak around behind them, then drop them without folks knowing. But more often than not, buildings and patrol patterns aren't built for skulking about in clever ways. In the end, it's less annoying to whip out an assault rifle or shotgun and take advantage of the enemies' awful AI. I beat missions with higher recommended levels than my own by hiding at the top of stairs and waiting for mechs - one of few enemy types - to wander up for a battering.
As you destroy these bases and make the plants happy, you'll soon realise it all comes back to the RDA. Then you'll realise it's because that's as far as Avatar's story can go. It's not capable of anything more than, "The sky people, back at again with their fossil fuels", which makes almost every story beat so predictable you'll mouth "RDA" in time with the angry Na'vi in cutscenes.
Honestly, I'm glad I don't have to play any more Avatar: Frontiers Of Pandora. It lures you in with a stunning map and some lovely parkour around the trees, maybe a touch of shooting, a touch of looting. But as things progress, the Ubisoft algorithm kicks in and the excitement plateaus. Everything you do is predictable and everything you find, another tally mark. Give me a jeep and let me call in an airstrike, then maybe I'd change my mind.