Nov 13, 2007
Barely three months after we got hold of the Japanese version of this supremely relaxing piece of videogame art, here's the UK version. Polished up slightly, in so far as it no longer features the crashtastic glitch that made us avoid the Aquarium mode, it's otherwise exactly the same beautiful and evocative experience we've been enjoying since August.
The aim is to explore a fictional sea that's like a condensed version of the BBC's Blue Planet series. Practically every aquatic creature you could think of is packed into its crystal-clear waters, from awe-inspiring whale sharks to shoals of colourful little things; friendly dolphins to strange, bottom-dwelling beasts that defy description but would probably taste lovely on toast.
Endless Ocean's chief appeal is the chance to see things usually reserved only for the eyes of marine biologists and wildlife documentarians. And because it's so convincing in terms of its graphics, control and overriding atmosphere, it's a richly rewarding experience.
The game is as simple as you could wish for. You just pop into the cabin of your huge yacht, point at the steering wheel and place a marker on an unexplored portion of the map that pops up. A skippable cutscene later, you're at your chosen location, ready to meet some interesting fish.
Diving is easy. Just point your Wii remote at where you want to go and watch your scuba-person glide gracefully through the water. Most of the time you'll be swimming in the pleasant shallows over sun-dappled coral reefs, the fishy residents of which will regard you with indifference. But if you're lucky, you'll chance upon a sublime piece of natural architecture, such as a cave system filled with spindles of rock, or a forest of coral spires, or a fissure that reveals a route into a bottomless and heart-thumping darkness.
To say it's a nice-looking game is an understatement, on a similar scale to "Twilight Princess takes a while to finish" or "Mario Strikers online makes us a bit upset." We could happily sail the ocean for hours, swimming with turtles and gaping at whales, with no objective other than to take pretty pictures with the camera, but there's an actual adventure in there as well.
To facilitate your travels on what must be quite an expensive holiday, you have to take various people on dives and show them particular types of fish. These missions pop up on the boat's email system and tend to move the story forward, awarding you new abilities or granting access to areas that were previously inaccessible.
The more you discover, the better the equipment you'll earn and the closer you'll get to 'completing' the game. There's also a big book of undersea species that you need to tick off by identifying all of the different types of fish, leading you to the ultimate goal of finding one particular, unique creature.
Befriending dolphins gives you a free companion to take on dives, and they're quite handy for locating the buried treasure that forms one of the sub-quests. Alternatively, you can link up with a real friend over the net and share the experience of a dive.
While it's not exactly the most compelling two-player game as it is, you can always give your companion something to do by marking rocks with coloured paints or drawing messages in the sea. We think it's a lot better suited to solo exploration, but the option for two-player fun is there for those who want it.
Since you can only swim a limited distance from the boat on each dive, you have to keep surfacing in order to explore areas at the edge of your range. While this isn't a problem in itself, and you get to see some excellent animals that hitch a ride during your boat journey, the loading time when you return to the water is nothing short of epic. Patience is a virtue you'll most certainly need.
One of the most common criticisms we've heard is that there's not enough to do in the game other than look at pretty things. If you were hoping to fight man-eating sharks, wrestle giant squid and tangle with poisonous jellyfish, you'll probably be disappointed. And this is exactly why it's only £30.
Endless Ocean probably isn't for everyone, but if you're the kind of person who enjoyed Pilotwings 64 simply for the feeling of freedom you got while drifting on the breeze, this might just be the chilled-out follow-up you've been waiting for.