Ecco is set to make his return on Sega's Dreamcast console and will maneuver Sega's pristine waters once again in Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future. The game takes the action and exploration elements of the original game and brings them into a free-roaming 3D world, as many platformers have done in the recent past. Naturally, Appaloosa, the game's developer, is incorporating a handful of new features into this next-generation version of Ecco the Dolphin.
The game features several distinct graphical nuances. The realistic rippling of the water, the way the underwater plants sway in the tide, the colorfully detailed surroundings - all combine to create an impressive visual presentation. However, Ecco's underwater world could have used more clutter. Some areas, although nicely modeled, seem downright barren at times. A busier look to some of the surroundings would have made the exploration aspect of this game a bit more interesting. Also, in this latest build, there is visible fogging that hides the draw-in of the surroundings. I hope the final version will improve on this, because Ecco doesn't live in a murky lake, but rather in the crystal-clear waters of a fictional bay.
I really enjoyed the open feel of the game. As in any good 3D adventure, the world of Ecco the Dolphin is highly accessible. You can go where you like and do what you like. You can swim around for hours or use sonar to communicate with other creatures to progress in the quest. The quest itself moves at a subtle pace. It seems that Ecco is never directed to perform a specific task. The peripheral creatures provide hints, but they don't make the game overly simplistic. In fact, some early portions of the game are genuinely difficult, which should appeal to seasoned gamers. What is also appealing is that the game will feature a thick plotline with the use of complex cutscenes for story progression.
It is also evident that Appaloosa is putting in a lot of work toward creating the perfect soundtrack. The music has an understated feel, matching the tranquil demeanor of the game. In fact, some of the tunes may sound vaguely familiar for fans of the original Ecco the Dolphin.
The crisp graphical detail, subtle plot advancements, and the serene soundtrack are certainly impressive, but it is the flawlessly realistic animation that drew me into the game. Every creature, no matter how insignificant, behaves eerily similar to its real-life counterpart. The tiny tropical fish scurry around the ocean depths, while mammoth whales are more static, content to float in the tide. A perfect example of this is when you take Ecco tail-walking on the water's surface. As you twist the analog control to change direction, Ecco contorts his body realistically, turning his head first to overcome inertia before the rest of his body follows. The final product will naturally improve on all aspects of this current build, but the animation is already amazing.
Several familiar elements have resurfaced in this sequel. Ecco can soar out of the water, use sonar to communicate, and perform a "dash" move. There are even 2D side-scrolling action levels strewn throughout the game. New elements include the ability to tail-walk, morph, and perform 360-degree, barrel-roll-style stunts. Although this latter option has to be unlocked during the course of Ecco's adventure, you'll have the ability to transform into other creatures throughout the game. Details of this are sketchy, and I didn't see it manifested while playing the early build, but it will be a final gameplay feature in Defender of the Future.
Ecco the Dolphin for the Dreamcast moves at a deliberate pace. As mentioned earlier, this game seems to be more about exploration and presentation rather than about all-out action. Of course, there were several spirited action sequences during play, but much of the time was spent curiously exploring the game's large environments. Appaloosa hopes to combine this complex gameplay with detailed visuals and animation in the final version. From what I've seen, the company is well on the way to achieving its ultimate goals in bringing Ecco into the 3D world.