Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future is the latest Dreamcast game to receive the PS2-port treatment. Given how Crazy Taxi and 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker fared after their ports, it's easy to say that Ecco is the most welcome in the lot. To be fair, there is quite a bit more to Ecco than the others--the game was regarded as one of the Dreamcast's most intriguing, not to mention robust, games. Acclaim's port certainly does the Dreamcast original justice. It's a fine-looking game and is one that very aptly transports you into Ecco's surreal aquatic world through its various mechanics. The game's design issues remain, however--namely, its occasional bouts of formlessness and a difficulty level that alternates between simple and soul-shatteringly hard. In spite of these kinks in its layout, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future provides a consistently smooth experience; you'll honestly feel like a deft aquatic mammal and experience the liberating, exciting things that compose a dolphin's everyday life.
In Ecco's world, dolphins aren't simply friendly, intelligent aquatic mammals--they're part of a proud and ancient space-faring race of friendly, intelligent aquatic mammals sent to Earth to protect humans from otherworldly threats. Guiding humankind through the ages, the dolphins have managed to realize some sort of utopia on Earth, when out of deep space comes a threat known simply as The Foe. The Foe is actually a race of extraterrestrials bent on destroying all life on Earth, and when the dolphins catch wind of the coming invasion, they evacuate most of the planet, setting humans and dolphins alike free in deep space inside of magical, life-sustaining bubbles. A few dolphins remain, however, to safeguard Earth and, hopefully, to repel The Foe's imminent assault. Yes, the story is indeed out there, but it serves to make the whole affair more amusing overall. The fact that the loveable star-speckled dolphin you play as is also some kind of galactic superhero is quite a gas, and it also sets the stage nicely for some of the more fantastical situations you'll find yourself in.
When it comes down to it, though, Ecco is a fairly standard 3D adventure, albeit one in which you control a dolphin in the ocean instead of a bipedal hero in land-based environments. As the game progresses, you'll gain abilities that let you travel to heretofore-inaccessible areas or else communicate with and manipulate creatures previously unapproachable. Controlling Ecco is quite fun in itself; the control scheme, while a bit loose, is very intuitive, and it lets you perform a bunch of neat tricks, aside from its more practical functions. As Ecco, you'll mainly interact with your environment by means of your sonar. You'll use it to initiate conversations with friendly creatures and, when you've acquired the proper power-ups, to stun enemies or even break down obstacles. When a situation calls for aggression, you have a dash move that, aside from giving a sizable speed boost, lets you brutally poke enemies with your bottlenose. You'll be able to drop some pretty ferocious creatures with this as you learn to move through the water, so rest assured that it could get pretty deadly, despite how comical it may sound on paper. But while you can perform it indefinitely, dashing isn't your primary mode of transit--paddling with your flippers is. You do this with the X button, and, much like in 3D adventure games in which your character swims, holding the button will cause you to swim at a steady rate, while tapping it repeatedly will let you accelerate pretty quickly.
Surprisingly, the game has more auxiliary functions than it has primary ones. With the shoulder buttons, you can do several things: You can roll in a given direction (which is also a means to swim backward, as it were), or you can shift the camera to look behind yourself. While there is seldom a point to rolling while you're swimming, you can also do it while you're in the air after breaking the surface of the water, which, if nothing else, lets you perform a whole bunch of cool Flipper-style air tricks. A few "advanced" maneuvers exist as well, which you'll find occasion to use once you master them--things like paddling upright on the ocean's surface or swimming backward (which is quite handy when you find yourself stuck in tunnels).
But despite some of these novel mechanics, Ecco's gameplay is strongly grounded in the conventions of 3D adventures. Each of the game's stages is essentially a self-contained environment, the lot of which ranges from small and generally linear, to expansive and multipathed. The things you'll be doing will definitely seem familiar if you've played these sorts of games before--you'll encounter a great many fetch-type objectives, as well as seek-and-destroy-type goals. Many stages also revolve around puzzles, and some of them get pretty complex; as you get deep in the game, you'll find yourself interacting with devices more complex than you'd imagine a dolphin capable of coping with. Despite the somewhat formulaic layout, though--not to mention the fantastical execution--the gameplay feels novel and quite fitting, given the game's premise. All told, the game is fairly long, and it can get very challenging, so you'll likely be at it for a while. Add this to the fact that you can revisit cleared areas to access previously locked sections (which usually house "vitalits," which are power-ups that increase your life bar), and you've got something pretty substantial.
The game's beautiful graphical presentation will ensure that you'll enjoy every minute of this, too. While it would be silly to say that its graphics are cutting-edge PS2-caliber, the game was among the Dreamcast's most gorgeous, and its graphics have transitioned quite well onto the PS2. The environmental textures are generally more colorfully vivid in the PS2 version, but they're not any more detailed, and everything else looks largely identical to its predecessor, which, again, is a very good thing--the DC Ecco was a marvelous graphical achievement on the part of Appaloosa, and it still stands mostly strong alongside the most graphically robust games of this generation. The only compromise in the PS2 version is a minor one--namely, the sunlight's refractions when underwater. They've been seriously toned down for the PS2 version, but they're still there, and they still look pretty nice, for the most part. They're just not as complex as the original's. Overall, the denizens of the deep look marvelous and animate wonderfully.
The game's audio production does a good job of supporting the graphical presentation. Everything about it is subtle, from the New Age soundtrack, to the echoing sounds of your dolphin sonar. Water will swoosh as you swim, and it'll splash when you break its surface, with different sound effects playing during your reentry, depending on how exactly you land. It's an aspect of the game that has a good deal of small touches rather than one single overwhelming effect, but the effect is impressive and appropriate nevertheless.
It's safe to say that Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future is an altogether unique game and one that was executed quite magnificently. The few gameplay quirks it has--specifically, its odd level design and occasionally spazzy camera--are more than made up for by its positive aspects, which are quite numerous. It's a game that's almost more fun to "play around" with than it is to actually play, and that says quite a bit. If you missed it on the Dreamcast and can deal with something that has a more laid-back pace, then you should definitely check it out.