"The two-player mode offers small amounts of dumb fun, but otherwise, The Burning Earth is ultimately shallow, problematic, and frustrating. Go for it if you've got room in your heart for another licensed brawler. Otherwise, you're better off bending air elsewhere."
Confession time: I have absolutely no personal investment in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Going into this game, all I knew about Avatar was that it was a Nickelodeon show with an unusually large following among lonely 30-year-old fanfiction writers who have an unhealthy fixation on what the show's male characters really think about each other. Also it stars some bald kid who can manipulate the elements, or something.
Now that I've played the game...I'm still no more wiser as to what this Avatar thing is all about. Characters fly in and out of gameplay with little or no introduction, and cutscenes are filled with what seem to be inside jokes and references to the series (Chicken pox? More like Pentapox! Ha ha...wait, what?).
As the second entry in the Avatar series of video games, though, this is to be expected. If you buy The Burning Earth, you're already expecting this stuff, and odds are that you're going to eat it up. Gameplay-wise, though, you may end up slightly disappointed.
As was the case with its predecessor released last year, Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth is a brawler at heart. You beat up bad guys, jump around a bit, solve some braindead puzzles, and beat up some more bad guys. You've seen all of it before. This time around, however, Avatar is joined by a partner character who can help crack some skulls and alternately solve puzzles that require cooperation. You can switch between both characters at any time in one-player mode (where your CPU-controlled partner will help you fight, but needs your input during puzzles), or a second player can jump in at any time to help out.
The new two-player mode is, arguably, The Burning Earth's greatest asset. The simple co-op brawling and puzzle solving plays out more than a little like LEGO Star Wars, only without the understated charm of watching LEGO-fied Luke and Han wordlessly bumbling through simple but fun puzzles. The cooperative aspects, teamwork, and even the inherent glitches present in two-player mode help mix up the formula a bit, and make The Burning Earth seem to be slightly more than an exercise in monotony.
Co-op isn't exactly designed as well as it could be, though. At several points during the game, you're required to leave one player behind while the other explores the area up ahead, in order to find a switch to pull or a crate to push, which will unite the two characters again. This is not a problem with a single player, as the camera always focuses on the active character. With two players, however, the camera always does its best to keep both players on the screen at any given time, gameplay convenience be damned. This often leads to one player standing on top of a cliff, unable to see what's up ahead, while the second player stands helplessly below. Often, the solution is to wiggle the second, inactive character around a bit for the sole purpose of readjusting the camera. It comes off as unnecessary and sloppy execution of what could otherwise be a fun cooperative experience.
(Speaking of crates, fans of gaming cliches will be happy to note that The Burning Earth's first crate puzzle is in the second level, which also happens to be a sewer. Neither of these factors bode well for future levels, in which crates are bountiful.)
Two-player mode is also a liability during boss fights, which are for some reason exponentially harder than the exploration and platforming segments. Bosses can take off huge chunks of life at a time, and unlike other parts of the game which can usually be seen through by attrition, players can easily die at the hands of cheap hits and the bad camera angles that affect the rest of the game. Unlike LEGO Star Wars, death in The Burning Earth means more than just losing a few hundred collectible widgets. If both players die at a boss fight, the game sends you all the way back to the last checkpoint. Bosses, at best, are moments that inspire dread and a feeling of wanting to get an ordeal over with, and unlike much of the rest of The Burning Earth, the sudden spike in difficulty could frustrate younger players or inexperienced gamers.
Though its gameplay may be technically competent, little of The Burning Earth stands out enough to warrant a recommendation over any of the dozens of licensed titles already available for the Wii. The two-player mode offers small amounts of dumb fun, but otherwise, The Burning Earth is ultimately shallow, problematic, and frustrating. Go for it if you've got room in your heart for another licensed brawler. Otherwise, you're better off bending air elsewhere.
Freelance review by Danny Cowan (December 04, 2007)
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