hat is it that makes a game a game? Does a game require that its players strive to reach a particular objective or goal, or can a game be played for its own sake? I've never really thought too much on the topic until I started playing Endless Ocean on the Nintendo Wii last week. Developer Arika has succeeded at creating one of the most immersive play environments I've ever encountered — regardless of whether the title qualifies as a game or not, it sure is fun.
Endless Ocean takes players to a fictitious tropical island chain that's surrounded by forests of coral and the bluest of waters. One whiles away their time diving for treasure, researching a plethora of creatures and exploring the vast underwater expanse. Although a basic storyline unfolds, this can be explored at whatever speed the player desires. After all, there's little reason for story when the environment itself is so darned interesting.
Your trusty vessel, the Gabbiano.Without question, the star of Endless Ocean is the game's ever-changing environment. This ocean's waters are governed not only by a day and night cycle, but by seasons as well. One could dive in the same small lagoon countless times and continue to make new discoveries. There are well over one hundred such miniature ecosystems in Endless Ocean, each bound to captivate. Traveling from point to point is simple enough via your sailboat/home base, the Gabbiano. While aboard, players can check on "missions" via email, outfit their character for their next dive or sit back and chill on deck while listening to MP3s stored on an SD multimedia card.
Of course, the real fun is had once you leave the ship. Diving in Endless Ocean is both simple and natural, making use of Wiimote-only controls (no nunchuck required, folks). You propel yourself through the water by holding down the 'B' trigger and navigate with gentle tilts of the Wiimote. Such a control scheme may sound like a recipe for disaster, but its implementation here is flawless — only on rare occasions will the camera get confused. The 'A' button is used to interact with most objects and creatures underwater, while the controller's other buttons are used to access menus and inventories.
Well hello, Mr. Hammerhead!As players progress through Endless Ocean and travels to new areas, they'll unlock new equipment and play mechanics. Items like an underwater camera and lighting equipment are introduced rather early on. Others, such as deep water diving gear, will take time to unlock (and that immense underwater trench in grid G-5 remains unexplored). Endless Ocean's species number in the hundreds, and it will take multiple dives to fully research each one. Dive for science, photo opportunities or to acquire new animals for the aquarium's collection — the experience is entirely your own to shape.
Though I wasn't able to try this particular feature, Endless Ocean is compatible with the Wii's wi-fi connection. Enter a buddy's friend code, and you can explore the same ocean together. Endless Ocean's graphics and sound, though by no means groundbreaking, are more than up to the task at hand. It's the experiences here which drive exploration, not whiz-bang special effects. If I was to criticize Endless Ocean for anything, it's that it falls just slightly short of being entirely "real." I understand the developer's desire to appeal to all audiences by omitting violence, but the inclusion of a food chain and truly realistic animal behavior would have really put the title over the top. Still, this fantasy ocean where all animals get along and they receive sustenance from gamma rays is quite a joy to visit.
After all my hours of play, I'm still left asking myself: is Endless Ocean a game? Sure, my score remains stuck at zero, but I keep going back for more. This free-form experience offers so much for so little (I was shocked and elated to find that it sold for a mere $30), and truly begs to be explored.