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User Rating: 9.2 | Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future DC
The original DC Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future's loss to the "just slightly overrated" Shen Mue in terms of reviews and sales, coupled with the fact that 3D Sonic the Hedgehog games are still being made, is further proof that license often wins out over ingenuity. Ecco the Dolphin may be a niche game, but not only is Defender of the Future one of the most wholy satisfying games ever, both in terms of blissful immersion and in cranial ability frying, but this game utterly destroys Sonic's transition from a 2D format to a 3D one in comparison. If you have absolutely NO idea what the Ecco the Dolphin series is about, it's not just about being a dolphin and swimming around in the ocean avoiding sharks. It's about aliens and Atlantis and time travelling and mythical themes and nerve-calming music. And if you can't tell from my comment about "cranial ability frying", yes, it's also about puzzle-solving, making the calming music a must. Ecco the Dolphin's transition to a 3D game is spot on. The controls are razor sharp, making it easy to swim around like a dolphin. You can even do dolphin spins and flips, which serve no purpose but are fun to look at. And unlike Sonic Adventure, and indeed many other 3D games, the camera is faithful and precise. You always stay behind Ecco's tail no matter WHAT happens. There's also an option to fix the camera in place and control the dolphin in third person. This creates a beautiful, cinematic look but makes controlling a tad harder. Getting lost in this game is sometimes easy, but at least you'll hardly ever die because you couldn't see an enemy or a danger and you couldn't see where you were going. The graphics of this game are also breathtaking, completely blowing away even the contemporary Sonic Heroes, let alone the older Sonic Adventure games. You could swear you were controlling a real dolphin and eating real fish, and the textures and colors of the oceans are astounding. Like the previous games in the series, Defender of the Future mixes believable ocean scenery with some utterly surreal alien worlds. Several things mar this otherwise excellent game. As a long-time fan of Ecco the Dolphin, I was a little disappointed to see the inclusion of "mankind" as a theme in this game. You never see a person, naturally, but the story goes that dolphins and mankind worked together in harmony until something caused the stream of time to diverge and become one timeline where man oppressed dolphins and took away their natural sense of power and pride and one timeline where dolphins became too powerful and oppressed the whales when their natural sense of compassion was overridden. Thankfully, the story is wonderfully crafted and narrated, but in the previous games, mankind wasn't even a theme and a more natural representation of dolphins was given(despite all the bizarre themes of aliens and Atlantis and time travelling). Even more disappointing to this fan was the removal of the ultra cool Asterite for a dippy, crystalline entity known as The Guardian, which does absolutely nothing but create a shield for the "dolphins' paradise". The music is still wonderfully relaxing, but the variety of the previous games is missing. I especially miss the astounding soundtrack of Tides of Time, which mixed whale calls with psuedo-tribal themes. Finally, the game decided to include classic 2D stages, but these go nowhere and are more like side stages. Rather empty side stages. To exit, you had to go back out the way you came. More important to gamers in general is the fact that Defender of the Future is often brutally tough. The physical challenges are tough enough, but mental challenges are the core of the Ecco the Dolphin series. The previous games bordered on insane in terms of difficulty, but the puzzles in this game seem to require a demigodlike level of intuition. Nevertheless, if you "get it", you can think about a certain puzzle, and things will finally click. Despite all the problems, Ecco the Dolphin is a brilliant experience. It's the weakest one in the series, yet it still earns a 9. It's immersive, atmospheric, mystical, and surreal. It's got a brilliant story and beautiful environments and puzzles. Plus it stars a dolphin. You either get it or you don't.

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