Avatar made a big splash when it hit screens in late 2009, and Ubisoft Massive is aiming to continue the momentum of its sequel, The Way of Water, with the new open-world action-adventure game Frontiers of Pandora. A clear showcase for both PC hardware and Ubisoft’s own Snowdrop engine, the game is already proving to be both a visual treat and rather demanding to run, so let’s open Pandora’s box and see what happens.
A Frosty Reception
Ubisoft Massive’s Snowdrop Engine was a big hit back in 2013 with its impressive E3 demo for The Division. Although that game never quite hit those heights, it was a technical pioneer on the eighth-gen consoles and PC, offering full time of day, dynamic precomputed irradiance, dynamic weather, dense volumetrics, complex AI, and online integration.
Snowdrop has evolved over the years, and although many of those core elements have remained, the team has embraced the current generation with new features as well. The current big-ticket item is ray tracing, which is now included on the toolkit. Supporting ray-traced global illumination and reflections is a core pillar for the game’s visual requirements, delivering bounce lighting with diffuse color, which is critical to the art aesthetic of the Avatar movies and games.
The solution enables light to react inside caves, across flowing flora fields, and into dense wooded overgrowth, giving the game a striking and organic look. This is backed up by the game’s shifting time and weather patterns, which rely on volumetrics. Be they clouds, lights, or fog, it adds depth and solidity to the world of Pandora. Some sections can see you wading through heavy fog during battle, or flying high through the clouds as the stratospheric water volumes engulf your steed, not unlike Horizon Forbidden West.
This is where my first critique arises from a visual perspective: the movement of flora and fauna combined with the stylized lighting, fog volumes, ray-traced global illumination, and sheer micro density of the world is staggeringly impressive. Even on medium settings, the recreation of the movie’s landscape with relatively minimal level-of-detail pop-in is worthy of much praise.
What We Said About Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora features a stunning alien world to explore with a refreshingly uncluttered approach to navigation, countless enemy bases to destroy and Na’vi clan sidequests to complete, and no shortage of exotic flora and fauna to harvest and hunt. However, its combat is pretty one-dimensional, its mission design is a bit on the repetitive side, and its environment is generally lacking in any major surprises beyond visual splendor, meaning that Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a solid shooting adventure that’s more inside the box than truly out of this world. – Tristan Ogilvie, December 6, 2023
Read the full Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora review
The issue I have is with the character rendering, as materials and animation are not of the same quality, and it can be jarring when you battle or talk to characters in the game. This is impacted by the stop/start nature of the real-time cinematics, as they often commence with a fade to black. I enjoy the fact that they almost always remain in first person, but the shadows, physically-based rendering quality on skin and hair, and lack of expressive emotion can be mixed depending on the scene or character. Humans fare worse – even if they are not seen often, it still stands out. But the Na’vi can also be of a mixed motion and quality level, and compounded by the first-person view and spline-based locomotion during these sequences, they can lose some of the cinematic impact that the game is aspiring for.
Nothing here is terrible, and it often flows and feels like a Far Cry game, specifically Far Cry Primal, even if those were built within the Dunia Engine. Ultimately you spend much of your time alone enjoying the gorgeous, dense, and above all dynamic world that can be broken down, traversed, and flown above freely. I just hoped that the mix of story and gameplay would be far more symbiotic than it is, with many NPC simply repeating the same cycle of animations and actions with little regard for ongoing crises. Memory demands are high – 8GB and even 10GB cards can struggle with low mip maps, but even on my 16GB RX 6800 some of the textures and materials were low fidelity and definition, which added to some weaker moments during play.
You are NA’VI going to run this.
The PC version offers excellent scalability with a preset of Low through Ultra and a myriad of options within to tweak further. Ray-traced reflections and global illumination are integral, as even on consoles these are a core element, including on the Series S. Scaling options are paramount if you want 60fps levels of performance, as I had difficulty achieving a locked 60fps on an RTX 3080 and Ryzen 7 5800X3D with DLSS enabled. Using my RX 6800 and Ryzen 5 5600X at 4K, dropping from Ultra to High nets you a 41% performance increase. Knocking down to Medium delivers a further 12% on that, with Low offering a small but possibly meaningful 6% increase over that.
Image quality has three options: the core TAA of the engine, Nvidia’s DLSS if you have an Nvidia GPU, and AMD’s wider supported FSR3. These are vital to deliver good performance, and by enabling 4K Balanced at the same High settings at 4K, we gain superior performance and image quality over Low, giving us approximately a 56% increase on that previous 31fps reading, which is still insufficient for a locked 60fps, but enough for a smooth 30 or 40fps. As a minimum the medium preset is as low as I recommend – lower than that and the impact to visual quality is not worth the performance gains.
One final choice is the use of frame interpolation that both offer, which can double performance over the base target. Both disable V-sync by default so a reliance on VRR or G-sync is required. That said, the solution requires the game to render thre frames minimum ahead of display, e.g. Frames 1 and 3 are rendered before Frame 2, as this frame is generated from the interpolated delta between them. As such, a minimum or close to 16ms frame-time is required due to frame persistence and the increased input latency it adds. With a mouse and keyboard this is a big problem, as it can present some visual artifacts in cases such as when underwater or in fast pixel movement. Therefore, for slow-moving camera presentation, as I show in the video, it is an excellent solution to improve fluidity. But in general gameplay the benefits it offers can be mixed. I wouldn’t recommend using it if you’re using mouse and keyboard, but for controller players it may be worth it, so long as you can hit 60fps without it.
In this section I’ll be covering how to get the best balance of performance and visual quality on three hardware configurations. Starting with the medium spec of my RTX 2070 paired with 32GB of DDR4 RAM, a fast SSD, and a Ryzen 7 2700 8c/16t CPU @3.8Ghz, a locked 60fps is not really an option, as the visual and resolution cutbacks impact the games quality heavily. Which means for this specification and below I recommend a 30fps or 40fps cap if you have a 120Hz capable screen, with a mix of Medium and a few High settings (See Medium PC Spec Optimised table) at a 1440p output via FSR3 Balanced. This renders approximately 1488×837 base resolution with a bias set to enable up to 1080p scaling factor. This achieves a consistent 30 to 40 fps readout across dense forests, real time cutscenes, and sky-high escapades. This provides most of the visual quality and the most stable and consistent performance rate on this hardware spec.
For the high-end spec, I’m using an RX 6800 to represent AMD and an RTX 3080 for Nvidia, both paired with 32GB of fast DDR4 RAM with SSDs. At this level, my recommended settings for a smooth 60fps target are a slight mix of Medium and High (See High PC Spec Optimised Table), with more weight to High on lighting, density and shadows which can provide more than 17% increase over High settings with negligible visual impact. The 5600X CPU has a lower view range than my 5800X3D CPU, which helps reduce pop-in. My RX 6800 targets an 1800p FSR3 Performance output with a bias to a ceiling of approx 1440p base resolution.
Whilst my RTX 3080 can do the same at 4K Balanced (1271p base), again with a bias to approx 1620p ceiling. This can still have dips below 60 in certain segments, such as streaming, dense foliage and larger explosions, which was true of all my tested machines, but in general play it feels very smooth, and above all solid on a mouse or controller input, which is vital for a first person shooter.
Beyond these GPU levels I would recommend scaling resolution to the FSR or DLSS 4K Ultra Quality without touching my recommended settings. There’s also a hidden “Unobtanium” setting that can be enabled from the command options within the Ubisoft launcher. This cranks everything to the absolute maximum, and is really only meant to be a test for future hardware, so you shouldn’t turn it on. The setting offers far higher ray counts, pixel sampling, increased shadow cascade, LoD and is so demanding that to hit 4K 60fps natively would require a GPU beyond anything available today. Still, I am very happy the team included this setting as a future-proof option, and I am sure it may become a future game to test GPU scaling when the next generation of GPUs comes around.
Bugs In The Forest
Although not the worst we have seen this year I did find many consistent bugs throughout my play, even after several launch patches dropped. Objects would often pop in and out of existence, flickering and dithered levels of detail, and light maps and even NPCs could appear and disappear instantly. The game crashed to the desktop a few times on my RTX 2070 as well, which may have been memory related, but the error trap was non-operational and was simply a hung application. Worse were the gameplay issues that came up: characters would face the wrong way during dialogue, and physics could flick and jump around at times. AI would lock into poses or simply warp around during battles into animation sets with little to no blending, and I had a few quest-breaking sections. One of the worst involved connecting to your beast – if you take too long. you can never mount it and you get flung to your death and fall through the map. In the end I had to rush this section as it appears to time out on the fade to black cutscene trigger. Although these issues were not frequent, I encountered them enough that it was worth noting.
The world and audio quality is excellent: landscape creation, art, and lighting are certainly worthy of praise, as is the sound mix and audio propagation that likely utilizes ray tracing to allow sounds to occlude, reverb, originate, and generally bounce around you – a real highlight with the correct sound set-up. However, many aspects of the visual and presentation package do not align with that quality. Cutscenes are rarely more than a face-to-face chat, and big epic action sequences have no impact to them and can look incomplete. But worst of all, the models, materials, and animation are mixed with some last-generation levels as opposed to the incredibly lush and full world of Pandora you are thrust within. It crossed my mind often while playing that it all looks and plays very much like a Far Cry game in the Avatar universe, and I could never shake the feeling that was its original pitch. Even when compared to those games it looks mostly like an improved version of the Dunia engine, rather than the Snowdrop cogs that turn underneath this brand-new world.