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Rate this review: Endless Ocean (Wii)
HIGH: Discovering a sunken ship
LOW: Online multiplayer
WTF: Conversing with penguins
Endless Ocean is the third title in Arika’s undersea adventure series that began on the PS2 with the poorly received games Everblue and Everblue 2. Sporting motion controls on Nintendo’s Wii and even being published by Nintendo itself, Endless Ocean at first glance looks like another lackluster title designed to rope in the casual market with promises of simple and violence-free gameplay. While these are undoubtedly true aspects of the game, the experience is much, ahem, deeper than you might imagine.
In Endless Ocean you play a scuba diver recently recruited by an eccentric marine biologist who is researching the fictional Manoa Lai Sea. There is a very light narrative, but its details really aren’t worth mentioning since its sole purpose is to dictate the order in which you explore the areas of the game world. Your interest shouldn’t be the story since it was certainly not where the developers placed their efforts. Endless Ocean, Rather, is an exploration game, with its focus falling on Manoa Lai itself. The game is all about soaking in rich undersea atmosphere and stopping to smell the kelp.
What makes this exploration worthwhile is the design of Monoa Lai. Yes, the Wii’s hardware results in such limitations as low-res textures and relatively simple polygons, but what the game lacks in graphical prowess it more than makes up for in its level design and attention to detail. The above water graphics do leave something to be desired, but that’s not where you’ll be spending your time. The underwater portions are really something to behold with the lighting effects being particularly impressive. They perfectly set the mood for the game’s many locales. The variety of the locations, too, keeps things fresh as you discover new areas. You’ll interact with schools of fish in shallow pools, investigate mysterious caves in search of subsea secrets, brave the pitch black depths of the ocean where only the strangest creatures dwell, and maybe even stumble across the wreckage of a doomed ship or two. The ocean is a big place, and there really is a lot to see. Even for a game on the underpowered Wii, Endless Ocean’s visuals impress and entice.
The audio goes hand in hand with the game’s visuals toward its goal of simulating a living sea. As in real life, there aren’t many sounds underwater, but the few that are represented here are incredibly polished. The constant, soft, muffled moan of the ocean is present at all times, fluctuating accordingly as you glide through the currents. Accompanying this is the rhythmic breathing of your diver, sounding exactly as a scuba tank should. Other small touches like the fluttering of bubbles or the piercing call of a Humpback Whale are equally top notch, and though most of the audio comprises small effects such as these, it’s perfectly appropriate for the game. The result is simple yet extremely effective sound design that immediately sucks you into the world.
The game’s music consists of some pretty standard arrangements and several vocal pieces by singer Haley Westenra. She has a lovely voice and the songs definitely get the job done, creating the perfect mix of tranquility and mystery for the tone, but the real achievement of the audio is the ability to play your personal MP3s from an SD card. There really should have been more games in the Wii’s library (the only other that I know of is Excite Truck) to take advantage of this. It’s a wonderful way to personalize your game experience and ultimately become more involved with it. It can be a lot of fun experimenting which songs will accompany you in the deep, and even when they don’t exactly fit (one memorable dive was “enhanced” by Kanye West), the juxtaposition is usually so hilarious that it’s still worth it. On a side note, a couple of song suggestions: Radiohead’s appropriately titled “Weird Fishes” is sublimely surreal, and the legendary “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country is just short of a religious experience. The only drawback is that you can only play one song per dive. If you want to choose another you’ll have to surface, choose your new song, and dive again. It could have easily been avoided, but it’s not too big of an issue.
As far as these smart design choices go in creating the game’s environments, an ocean wouldn’t be much without fish to populate it. Here, too, Endless Ocean delivers. The number of creatures in the game surely reaches into the hundreds, and each individual animal is endearing and captivating in its own way. It’s fun to just admire these virtual creatures thanks to their well-crafted character models and smooth, lifelike animations.
The diver you control is no different; the swimming controls feel appropriately slow, measured, and smooth. They’re also intuitive. The entire game is played with only the Wii Remote. This is the kind of game that can only be on Wii; it simply wouldn’t play right on other consoles. The A button is used to interact with objects in the environment, ranging from the fish themselves to hidden treasure that is investigated in first person perspective. The B button controls movement. Pressing it makes your diver swim forward, and the pointer controls the direction in which he or she swims. Simply aim where you want to go, and you’ll go there. It works great and feels very natural. There is a simple joy in wading through these virtual waters. Movement in 3-D games is tricky. Too realistic and the controls require complexity that borders on the unplayable; too removed from reality and the game world feels cheap and disconnected. Endless Ocean strikes that magic middle ground where it’s a pleasure to simply move around in the game’s world.
Really, in a lot of ways Endless Ocean is not a game at all. There are objectives, but the real fun and point of the game is to explore Manoa Lai at your leisure. Its best moments are those when you are miles away from your boat, not concerned with or hampered by the limiting dive radius (which gets annoying), and you come across something totally unexpected. Maybe a lurking hammerhead revealed itself from the craggy maze of rock looming in front of you, or you spot an eye-catching rock formation that leads to a secret grotto where an unseen species resides. The game does have “missions” that introduce you to all the different areas of the sea, but it really shines in these unscripted encounters when it was you who chose the where and when. It also has a loose main goal of encountering every species of animal in the game, complete with a bestiary of those you have met and a brief description of each. These descriptions include scientific facts on things such as habitat, diet, reproduction, etc. It’s a very strange but actually compelling incentive to find as many different types of sea life as you can. With each encounter, you get a new entry in that species’ database. The system is oddly reminiscent of the Metriod Prime series’ scanning mixed with the collecting of Pokemon; you want to read these entries because the world is so immersive. You want to be there and learn as much as you can about it, and you’ve gotta catch em all. The presentation coupled with the extremely simple controls make that a very easy task to get in to.
However, there are a few issues with the game that force the player out of this otherwise immersive experience. Basically everything that takes place underwater is near perfect: the exploration, the interaction, the presentation; it all seamlessly comes together… but then there’s the surface. Between dives you return to your boat to check your email for photo or tour requests, play with your dolphin buddies that you’ve befriended in the wild, talk with the marine biologist for a hint on what to do next, or move your boat to a new spot to dive in. It’s not that any of these other modes of gameplay are bad, but it really feels like a missed opportunity. There’s such a disconnect when you surface. The mini-games and side missions feel tacked on, and they keep the game from being a really incredible dive simulator. The physical diving aspect of the game is there, but the lack of motives and sense of connection to the world above dilute the experience.
The biggest disappointment of all these extra features is the online multiplayer. It is under no means recommended. You and a friend over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection can suit up and explore any part of Manoa Lai together. The only form of communication is preset commands divided between four simple categories that are mapped to the d-pad. While there is some enjoyment meandering about with your buddy, the lack of voice chat practically makes this mode unplayable. If you are going to play online, you will absolutely need a laptop or cell phone handy for instant messages.
Despite these few misgivings and not necessarily being a “game” in the usual sense, Endless Ocean is a surprisingly rewarding and immersive simulation – if you’re the right person for it. If you tend to prefer shooting things and fast paced gameplay then you might want to stay away. Even if you love other simulation games, the lack of complex control and customization may still turn you off. But if you’re simply looking for a relaxing adventure to pass away those lazy gaps in your schedule (the game can literally be played in any frame of time), then you will definitely want to check this game out. The replay value is notably high since the game never really ends; there are always new objectives in the form of photo requests or tours. Even though these don’t compare in the slightest to exploring the gulf the first time through, the world is detailed enough that one can always find something new to admire. The game’s low price also makes it more than worth a full purchase. Even if you grow tired or get bored of the game, there will come a day when you’ll want to revisit Manoa Lai, and rest assured those players willing to take the plunge will be totally submerged in Endless Ocean every time they play it.