Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future
Sega's aquatic hero makes a big splash on the DC - Review By Tren
The original Ecco the Dolphin was released upon the unsuspecting public back in 1993 on Sega's Genesis/Mega Drive. The game was an instant success thanks to great graphics, challenging gameplay and an environmentally-friendly theme. The game gave players control of the titular Ecco the Dolphin, guiding him around 2D underwater labyrinths to restore equilibrium to the oceans. Ecco's first 128-bit outing is no different in formula, except the action takes place in glorious 3D.
The game's full title, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, implies that Ecco has some serious responsibility on his hands (or rather, flippers). This is true. The game is set on a futuristic Earth where the Guardian, the source of the Earth's defences, has been shattered by an extraterrestrial race from a far-off galaxy. The enemy, known only as 'The Foe,' has made many attacks on Earth, with their most recent shattering the planet's protective crystal. As you'd expect, it's up to poor little Ecco to collect the pieces of the crystal and restore the Guardian.
After the fantastic prologue (which, impressively, uses the in-game graphics engine), your adventure begins. You start in Aquamarine Bay, where the player is introduced to controlling Ecco and the basics of the game.
The first thing that will hit you is the game's fantastic graphics. There really aren't enough positive adjectives to describe the lavish and beautiful world Appaloosa has created here. The geometry and texturing of Ecco's aquatic world are near perfection, creating a stunning, incredible, and believable environment. There is fog, however the fog line isn't too close and it helps to enhance the atmosphere and immersion (no pun intended). But this scenery isn't all there is to Ecco's world, as the sea is alive with exotic fish, turtles, other dolphins, and enemies like the jellyfish and sharks. The overall graphical gloss is very high, with lots of fantastic little touches: the animation on the animals in the game is superb (particularly Ecco), the lens flare is great, and the underwater shimmering is very realistic. Of course, with all this detail the frame rate does suffer at times; however, Ecco is the kind of game where a frame rate which hovers between 60 and 30 isn't as noticeable as, say, a racing game or first person shooter. Once you get into the game proper you might not even notice it.
The game uses the analogue pad for control. Although it takes a while to get to grips with controlling Ecco precisely, you'll soon be gracefully swimming in and out of the coral reef, darting into schools of fish (this is essential as it replenishes lost health), and performing fantastic jumps out of the water. The analogue allows for true 360 degree control, which can be weird at first as you'll have Ecco going around in vertical circles. The control is akin to flying a plane, except Ecco is far, far more agile. Thankfully Ecco will self-right himself so you wont get completely disorientated and start swimming upside down. The A button is used to propel Ecco forward, and the faster you tap it the faster Ecco goes. Thankfully, once you reach a desired speed you can maintain it by simply holding the button down, to save your fingers from exhaustion.
The X button is Ecco's sonar, which allows him to communicate with the other animals in his world and also brings up a small map of Ecco's current area. This map is extremely useful, especially when in the complex, maze-like underwater tunnels which feature predominantly in many of the early levels. Lastly, the B button is the speed burst button, which propels Ecco forward very quickly after a brief recoil. This is Ecco's primary form of attack, and allows him to take out sharks, jellyfish, and the alien enemies introduced in later levels.
The combat is a little tricky at first, but Ecco soon acquires abilities that make it easier.
As you progress through the game, Ecco learns new skills he can put to use via his sonar. For example, in the second level you save a turtle from some sharks and a friendly dolphin teaches you the shark song. The shark song lets Ecco confuse sharks in future battles, allowing him to take them head on, making them much less formidable opponents. As you progress through the game you'll learn other songs, such as a song to control the manta rays, or one to control schools of fish (this is particularly useful in that you can gather glowing fish to light up a dark cave). The ocean is scattered with shining crystal which offer advice and cryptic clues/rhymes on how to complete the level. The main collectables in the game are Vitalits, which increase Ecco's health bar, along with powerups which allow Ecco to swim against strong currents, knock down loose boulders, or give him a limitless air supply (normally you need to return to the ocean surface or find a bubble stream when your air supply runs low).
The game has a suitably epic, yet still somehow subtle soundtrack. The music changes according to Ecco's current location. For example, whilst swimming around the mazes in the fourth level frantic music plays, however once you reach a safe-pool it relaxes into a slower melody. In the darker and murkier levels, the music adds an incredible amount of ambience, with some eerie, slow songs. As for the game's sound effects, these are great also, with subtle distant background noises and great dolphin yelps and chatter.
There are 34 levels in total and there's no denying that Ecco is an utterly vast game which will take a long time complete. However, once done so there is little incentive to return, but for collecting remaining Vitalits. Ecco travels back and forth through time in his quest to restore equilibrium to Earth's future, and as such returns to certain levels in his quest as events in the past affect those in the future. Unfortunately the plot isn't quite as intricate as you may hope, but more on this in a moment.
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