Literally and figuratively, a game that delivers on Nintendo's "blue ocean" strategy.
Full disclosure: I'm a pretty big "fan" of the ocean. I've got the Blue Planet DVDs, I eat shrimp as often as financially possible, and I live minutes away from the lovely Carolina coast. So I guess as an aficionado of marine life, I'm predisposed to fall in love with Endless Ocean. More of an interactive learning experience than a traditional game, Endless Ocean attempts to engage the player through serene, consequence-free exploration in a vast underwater playground. There is no danger and only the barest of storylines, which could quickly bore restless action lovers; but for those players open to a different experience, Endless Ocean delivers a spellbinding tour through the fascinating alien world that exists beneath the water's surface.
You begin your deep-sea diving career aboard a boat that acts as a hub world. This vessel is where you discover and plan for the game’s different objectives, which range from photographing exotic fish to guiding other divers and searching for buried treasure. Most decision-making is done in the Captain's Room, but you’re also free to roam the deck and interact with the people and animals that occasionally populate it.
Once you dive into the water, the game transforms into an elegant example of how great a nontraditional game can be. Forget the typical “save the princess” or “solve the puzzle” or “kill all the bad guys” stuff. There are no bad guys in Endless Ocean. The sharks don't even bite. But there are plenty of "whoa" moments, like when you encounter a giant whale or descend upon a mangled shipwreck in the dark depths. After a few of these experiences, you'll feel compelled to seek out more of them. The game slowly becomes a peaceful, mysterious addiction.
As you fill in your map and discover new marine species, more customization options open up. While unlocking these extras is fun, none of them are game-changing, and there’s really nothing driving you forward save your own curiosity about what creatures reside beneath that blank spot on your map. Featuring miles of wildly varying landscapes and hundreds of creatures to identify, Endless Ocean gives you all the tools you need in the first thirty minutes of the game and sets you free to do whatever you want.
Control is done completely with the Wii Remote by simply pointing in the direction you want to swim and holding B to paddle. The camera becomes a little wonky in tight spaces (especially when using the default third-person view), but for the most part it's intuitive enough to engage gamers of any skill level.
The underwater ambiance is positively trance-inducing. Graphics are vibrant and realistic, and the animals in particular look fantastic. From tiny squid to massive beasts, the details are right and the animation is buttery smooth. Environmental textures can be on the bland side, but the geometry and lighting make up for it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the visuals above water. The boat area is poorly executed; character movement is laughably unrealistic, control is awkward, and the surrounding above-water vistas are downright ugly.
Sound is sparse but extremely atmospheric, dominated by the Vader-like breathing of your diver. The default soundtrack is straight from the "typical Japanese MIDI loops" playlist. Luckily, mp3s are supported via the SD card slot, and choosing the right dive music really takes the experience up a notch (allow me to recommend Sigur Ros's "Ageatis Byrjun" or Brian Eno's "Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks"). The downside is that you can only play one song at a time and songs can only be changed on the boat, meaning playlists are out of the question. Nonetheless, it's encouraging to see developer Arika taking advantage of the Wii's many capabilities.
Another example of Arika going the extra mile is their inclusion of co-op diving using Wii's Wi-Fi internet connection. It may sound silly at first, but co-op scuba diving is a scenario that has never happened in gaming before. It has its weaknesses - the lack of voice chat really hurts (divers are forced to choose from preset phrases like "Look over here" or draw shapes in the water to communicate), and it doesn't add any new gameplay elements – but none of the negatives are enough to ruin the singular experience of a lag-free co-op dive in Endless Ocean. Simply put, the newness of it makes it compelling. Following your friend into a dark, unexplored maze of underwater caves, while haunting music plays in the background, is positively goosebump-inducing.
Another cool extra allows you to customize a giant aquarium with any of the creatures you've come across in your adventuring. It's a small touch, but swapping out different fish and swimming with them is really cool to anybody who's ever been intrigued by marine life.
Endless Ocean is a charmer. The overall design, from the controls to the gameplay, takes full advantage of the Wii's many features to create an experience unlike any other. Those in need of twitchy action to enjoy themselves should steer clear, as it might take an adjustment period for you to slow your pulse enough to match the game's zen-like pacing. However, if you're an animal lover, Discovery Channel-watcher, or just a person in the mood for an odd game that actually relieves stress, Endless Ocean won't disappoint. It’s a no-brainer for open-minded gamers looking to diversify their collection. Dive in.