8-Aug-2001 If Sega are to be believed, dolphins figure strongly in the future of humankind. Steve Fulljames sleeps with the fishes
What is it that dolphins actually do? Apart from get caught in tuna nets and pass as entertainment in second-rate Florida theme parks, that is. They're considered to be one of the smartest lifeforms on the planet, so you have to wonder what kind of maniacal schemes they might have come up with if only they had hands. Maybe they're just biding their time, and us puny surface-dwellers will be first against the wall when the revolution comes. On the other hand, their association with the tedious new age end of the hippy spectrum might suggest our finny friends have a more benevolent worldview. After all, you couldn't imagine Flipper flying into a drunken rage if a fellow cetacean spilled his pint or looked at his missus a bit funny. But there's still potential there for mischief, despite your basic dolphin being digitally challenged. Definitely enough for Sega to want to make a game about them. And as we all know, Sega has more oddball game ideas than anyone else - even the freaky kids who write to us in green crayon.
Labelling Ecco The Dolphin: Defender Of The Future as 'oddball' is actually a massive injustice, though. This is an adventure game in the purest sense of the phrase, ie it's a game where you have an adventure - travel and catering included, saving the world thrown in. That you play a dolphin makes no difference. And let's face it, Ecco is hardly the strangest character to have wandered on to the Dreamcast so far.
Were it not for the promise of a happy ending (this is a videogame, remember), the story of Ecco The Dolphin would make for depressing reading. A futuristic Earth, peaceful during a time of harmony between humans and dolphins, comes under attack from a mysterious enemy known only as the Foe. As former Dr Who Tom Baker explains in the beautifully presented intro, the Guardian, which is the source of the Earth's defences, is shattered; leaving Ecco to literally pick up the pieces.
But the Foe also has designs on Earth's past, and the action is spread across several alternative realities as the invaders muck about with temporal causality. You remember how it goes in Back to the Future - changes in the past affect the present, altering it and invariably making it a less pleasant place to be. And you can bet your last krill it's going to take all of Ecco's mental and physical skills to put things right.
Where's Michael J Fox when you need him, eh?
Unless you're familiar with the old Ecco The Dolphin games on the Sega Mega Drive (see the Davy Jones's Locker box on page 67 for more info), we can guarantee you'll never have played a game quite like this before. The easiest way to imagine how it plays is to think of a flight sim, only underwater and without the brain-melting controls. You can swim any way you like, roll and turn upside down, and even perform half-loops to turn around quickly. And then there's the jumping, which adds a whole extra dimension to the gameplay. You can dive above the surface to grab a breath and look around, or just to show off your flipper control skills, but sometimes you'll also have to jump to snatch objects floating in the air or reach new areas. This is where it starts to get tricky, as you need to line yourself up for the jump and work out how much of a run-up you'll need.
Underwater, Ecco is self-righting. Leave him alone for a few seconds and he'll automatically float upright, but it's easy to get disorientated, especially as you're learning just what he can do. This is certainly not a game to play pissed, or even if you've ever felt a twinge of motion sickness during a Sonic Adventure session.
While playing it's easy to forget that Ecco needs to breathe every so often. Early levels take place in open lakes and reefs, so grabbing a lungful of air isn't a problem, but as you progress through the game entire missions are set underground, meaning you'll have to search out pockets of air or oxygen-rich vents on the sea bed. Energy is easier to come by - just charge a nearby shoal of fish and Ecco will snare one and scarf it down.
Most of your moving about will be done by pumping Ecco's tail with the A button. The more you press it the faster he goes, and when you reach a speed you like, you can hold the button down to maintain it. There's also a multi-purpose charge move, which can be used as an attack, a handy extra burst of speed or even to get more height on a vital jump to a new area. Ecco can use his built-in sonar system to communicate with other dolphins, whales and the fragments of the shattered Guardian that give him advice on each level. Advanced players can also learn fast turns and even the mystic art of swimming backwards. Apparently, some dolphins can actually do this in real life. You can't say you don't learn anything reading ODM.
One other basic skill is the tailwalk. By poking Ecco's nose above the surface and then pumping the A button like mad, you can persuade him to dance about on his tail, cackling like an evil genius. Miraculously there's even a point to this, as you can then steer him about and check if there's anything interesting in the air.
Throughout the game Ecco meets members of his own kind, and they'll often give him essential information on upcoming threats or even whole new abilities. Dolphin songs are an important tool in cracking each level's secrets, because each one allows Ecco to command other marine life, be it a giant, docile manta ray or a ferocious shark. Take control of a shoal of fish and you can use them to help fend off attacks or illuminate a dark tunnel, depending on the species.
You don't have to rely on other creatures though, because Ecco can also learn advanced versions of his own skills. These are activated by glyphs - diamond-shaped crystals that float about, usually close to where they're needed. Most handy are the glyphs which extend Ecco's energy or air bars, making him effectively invulnerable for a while. Definitely an advantage when there's a tricky labyrinth to negotiate. Ecco's upgraded sonar attack can be used to damage enemies and blast away obstructions in his path, while 'Stealth' cloaks him for a short period of time. Finally 'Vigor' (darn those Americans and their childish spelling) creates a kind of Super Ecco; he moves faster and his charge is more powerful, but again you only have a few seconds use from each glyph.
AN OCTOPUS'S GARDEN
We're not going to beat about the bush here, Ecco The Dolphin is a gorgeous bit of software. We'd even go so far as to call it beautiful, certainly not an adjective commonly associated with the traditionally scruffy world of gaming. From the fish upwards, you can tell that the developers have gone to great lengths to make Ecco look as good as possible, with near photographic textures on the cliffs and some stunning tribal art on the underwater architecture. In a straight fight this game blows away pretty much everything else out there, Soul Calibur and Sonic Adventure included.
Despite the huge power of your Dreamcast on the case, you won't believe how smooth and lifelike everything looks. Even the humblest jellyfish is more rounded than a 3D computer model has any right to be. And it all moves like a dream, with Ecco gliding serenely through his superbly realised world with not a glitch in sight. Lighting effects are fantastic too. Sunlight ripples through water and casts convincing shadows on Ecco and his pals.
It all looks real, is what we're trying to say.
Experienced games industry music maestro Tim Follin has created a fantastic ambient and choral soundtrack that complements the visuals perfectly. Add to that background undersea noises and whale and dolphin songs and you've got a game that sounds as good as it looks. The music does veer distressingly towards prog rock at times, but we think we can forgive this oversight. This time, anyway.
To begin with Ecco's world is a peaceful one, formed from beautiful coral reefs, enhanced with graceful classical architecture. Progress further and the settings take on a more industrial slant, with the solutions to puzzles based around the technology you find. Further still you'll encounter bizarre bio-mechanical structures, and even a whole level set way up in the air, with the action taking place in rippling tubes of water.
You mostly make progress through the game by solving puzzles (see the walkthrough on page 69 for a simple example), and for a change very few are simply find-the-key treks. Instead you'll be challenging killer whales, racing cheeky young dolphins, guiding manta rays through underwater caverns and messing with sequences of switches. And while you're playing we guarantee there'll be times when you just sit there, slack jawed, in disbelief at the sheer beauty of it all. It sounds soppy, but we defy you to complete the game poker-faced. Be sure to check your pulse if you do.
Ecco The Dolphin is to most videogames what a sit-down protest is to a full-on riot: it's calmer, it's chilled out, it's tranquil. Apart from those frantic moments where you're stuck deep underground and running out of air, of course. But from the first level onwards it's clear that this is a game you're going to enjoy playing. You're going to look forward to reaching the next area to see what wonders are in store there. If you want to hang back and just see how high you can jump for an hour, that's fine. If you want to explore every nook and cranny and eat all the fish, that's fine too. Even boss confrontations generally don't involve direct attacks. Instead, you need to figure out how to turn the environment against your aggressors. It's nicer that way; there's less to get worked up about and the chill-out ambience is maintained.
There's been a run of fair to middling action-adventure games on Dreamcast recently, but your MDK 2s (ODM #7, 6/10) and your Nomad Souls (ODM #7, 5/10) and even your Tomb Raider: TLRs (ODM #6, 7/10) can't hold a candle to something that's obviously been crafted with the DC in mind from the start. You won't find anything like this anywhere else. Ecco The Dolphin has been fine-tuned to make the most of what the Dreamcast can do and it's all the better for it. The graphics are crisp and detailed, Ecco moves just like the real thing and the controls fit the pad perfectly.
If you've skipped through this review holding the pages at arm's length, we understand. This simply isn't a game that everyone will enjoy without question. It's brilliant - don't worry about that - it just won't have the universal appeal that, say, Soul Calibur (ODM #4, 10/10) seems to. But do yourself a favour and check Ecco out even if it doesn't look like your cup of tea, because it would be a crime to miss out on one of the most original and pleasant games on Dreamcast. If it doesn't float your boat, fine, but give the dolphins a chance, alright?