It might seem an unlikely premise for a game, but Endless Ocean fits perfectly with Nintendo’s “Touch Generations” label by being cerebral as well as entertaining and offering experiences many people dream about: floating among tropical fish in beautiful coral reefs, or bounding through the wide ocean with bottlenose dolphins.
A game like this succeeds or fails on how realistically it recreates the sensation of being underwater, and here Endless Ocean does an impressive job. The controls have a pleasing inertia to them, compounded by the fluidity of using the Wii Remote as a pointer, and each creature is well modelled, although the smaller animals are rather simply animated. The behaviour and composure of the water itself isn’t quite up to Finding Nemo standards, but at the same time it’s more than simply blue space – light beams shimmer through it, and it even feels warmer at the surface than when you dive deeper.
Your cabin is just as important as the ocean itself: here you move the boat, read emails, develop photographs and review information on all the fish you’ve encountered so far. With hundreds of species to discover, and three levels of information to unlock on each, this acts as your “Oceandex”, filling up as you explore the ocean; days and seasons pass, revealing new creatures and migratory routes. Talking to your companion moves the plot along, which usually involves reading an email and moving your boat to dive somewhere else, but you can also befriend/capture (depending on your animal rights stance) certain dolphins, who accompany you on dives and perform tricks at your command. It’s a fairly superfluous feature, but hardly detracts from the game.
At first it’s only possible to dive during the daytime, but once you’re able to dive at night a whole new world is revealed, and the ocean seems a much more foreboding place. Nowhere is this more true than the Dark Abyss, and once you’ve seen what lurks at the bottom you’ll certainly see Finding Nemo differently. Although there’s no health meter or any elements of danger, it’s still unsettling at times, particularly the claustrophobic hiss as your oxygen bubbles away from your mouth. Aurally it’s an acquired taste, with licensed tracks from New Zealand warbler Hayley Westenra providing the soundtrack, although you can dive to your own mp3s if the thought of hearing “Prayer” again is too much to handle.
Although there’s no money, you can offer your services as a personal guide to sea tourists, pointing out interesting fish and locations, for which you’re given a grade telling you how satisfied your client was. You can even go on dives with your friends using Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, drawing notes and pointers onscreen for them to follow. This sort of shared experience, co-existing rather than competing or co-operating, could be taken as an analogy for the ocean itself, if you’re into that kind of thing. You’re also sometimes commissioned to photograph particular fish for oceanographic magazines, and those photos are graded too; both these elements extend the game’s lifespan past its simple “pat the fish” constraints, although there are too few of the enjoyable photographic assignments.
On the whole, Endless Ocean is an atmospheric and relaxing game that offers relatively little in terms of excitement when compared to Super Mario Galaxy or Wii Sports, but stands without doubt as one of the Wii’s most unique experiences – a chance to explore a rich world that will be foreign to most Wii owners, but where each day’s diving reveals something new and interesting. One scene in particular stands out as one of the most breathtaking gaming moments of 2008, and nobody ever expected to say that about a £20 game about swimming.
It isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and admittedly there’s not much incentive to keep playing other than discovering new species and areas, but if you’re after a genuinely unique experience on the Wii to prove the console can be more relaxing than Wii Sports would have you believe, Endless Ocean is the perfect choice.