A Beautiful, Relaxing Underwater Experience.
The first thing that becomes readily apparent about Endless Ocean is that it's different. The game doesn't offer time limits, or fear of losing a life, or even a real sense of restriction. If you want to explore every nook and cranny of the ocean, then you have that option at your leisure. The game rewards and encourages exploration. There's even a mini-game that allows players to train a dolphin or related animal to help on further dives.
The graphics are simply beautiful during underwater exploration. The lighting effects seen as your diver explores the ocean are beautiful and realistic, and there is a genuine sense of awe the first time the player encounters a whale or a school of sharks. The different types of areas, from ship graveyards to underwater caves, to the darkest depths of the ocean floor each have their own diverse look to them. The underwater creatures also animate beautifully and realistically. To break up the exploration, the player can also sponsor dives, or go online to dive with a friend.
The music is gorgeous, soothing and appropriate for a title of this nature. New Zealand native Hayley Westerna provides several haunting new age-style melodies that help to set the mood as the player dives the reefs and caves. It helps the player appreciate the majesty of the underwater world.
From an educational standpoint, the game gives detailed descriptions of each sea creature the player encounters, making the title informative on learning about sea based life.
There are, however, a few issues that the title cannot avoid. The first being the ship graphics. It's apparent that the time for the graphics was spent for the sea exploration. The human character models are plain, and stiffly animated, and have bad shadows. The ship itself simply does not have the graphical polish that the rest of the game has. Then again, you aren't going to play an ocean exploration game while hanging out on the boat the whole time, so it's a small part of the overall experience.
While the music is suitably appropriate for the game, it also repeats very quickly. It doesn't cycle through the list of available songs during play, repeating the same chosen track constantly until the diving session is over. Players can implement their own music into the game, but being limited to the game's music can get old really quickly.
The game also has a "diving range", for every dive, meaning that you can only explore a set radius. You don't think about it until you hit this invisible barrier, which tells you that you're headed out of the diving area, and won't allow you to proceed. For those who find the game's experience immersive, this is equally as strong in jarring you out of it, providing frustration for wanting to push into a seemingly boundless area.
I think one of the concerns that is the most bothersome about this title isn't so much found in the game itself as it is found in the "professional" reviews. It's understandable that this genre of game may not be for everyone, and certain players want defined goals instead of making their own, or even have an antagonist in the game that could damage/kill the player. This title is not about that, and a lot of the current magazines have chosen to mock the title and review it poorly, which may turn some gamers off from ever trying it, given some of the "1" reviews.
I've had to dismiss some of the "professional" comments that state this is nothing more than a screensaver, because there are things to do in this title, because that's an inaccurate statement.
The Bottom Line
If you're the sort of gamer who enjoy FPS, fighting, racing titles, this can't compare as it's a completely different type of game. This is more an experience than a "game", though it does emphasize puzzle, adventure and exploration elements in its gameplay.
You have to know what you're getting into with Endless Ocean. It allows the player to write their own rules and do as they want in the order that they choose. There is a genuine sense of beauty to the title, and it rewards players with a sense of finding secrets through a beautiful and realistic looking ocean. And it's back by some great (if somewhat repetitive music).
If you enjoy the "Planet Earth" series or the Discovery Channel, you'll like this title. It's inoffensive with educational overtones, and the package as a whole is put together well and in a competent manner. But largely, your own interest will be based on how much you like the subject matter.
Be careful in reading reviews, as you may get a mocking evaluation of this title from "credible" sources. This is a title that will rely on your own judgement, and it you can enjoy slower-paced games without rules.
As it stands, it's an interesting, unique, and very well-done title, and is worth a look.