Venturing deep beneath the waves to explore lush aquatic worlds teeming with life and mystery in Endless Ocean was a completely different experience from what most players had previously encountered on the Wii. The ultrarelaxed atmosphere along with the open-ended, go-at-your-own-pace deep sea diving journey proved to be soothing and engrossing. However, it didn't pack much punch in the way of solid direction or a compelling plot. Considering the original concept was such a neat idea in the first place, it's great to see that developer Arika took much of the criticism leveled at the game to heart in crafting Endless Ocean: Blue World. This impressive sequel is loaded with many small but truly effective improvements and a few major additions that give it some sturdy sea legs. It also strikes a much stronger balance between experimentation and structure to deliver a tighter, more focused underwater adventure without dampening the fun.
Blue World's story starts off in the South Pacific and sends you on a winding oceanic trek across the globe in search of ancient treasure. As a university student with an interest in folklore, you decide to take a break from school and join up with the L&L Diving Service to pursue the legendary Song of Dragons. It turns out the owner of L&L--a grizzled old deep sea veteran named Jean-Eric Louvier--lost his son in a freak accident 15 years prior while they were attempting to uncover the mystery behind the Song of Dragons. Pitching in with the diving business, you soon get swept up in a wild quest to help Jean-Eric's young granddaughter, Oceana, find the truth behind the legend her father so desperately sought to unveil. The fully developed tale is actually quite interesting once it gets going. It does a great job of providing some solid momentum to contrast with the game's sandbox-style elements. You're also free to tackle the story-progression missions--and any of the game's other activities--entirely at your own pace. Even if you decide to plow straight through the adventure, which takes quite a few hours to accomplish, you can still go back after the credits roll to continue playing around with all the extra diversions and unfinished business you left behind.
The first Endless Ocean quickly gained a reputation for being a non-game--and rightly so. Aside from a few limited goal-oriented activities, you spent an inordinate amount of time paddling around at a relaxed pace checking out the lush underwater realm and cataloging new aquatic life you encountered. Blue World doesn't do away with that mellow, carefree aspect of the experience, but it does spice things up by adding a little danger and excitement into the mix. For starters, you now have a limited air supply for each dive. While you don't die when your meter runs out, it does automatically kick you back up to the surface. This limits how much you can accomplish in a single dive and makes some lengthier missions a lot more intense, which is especially true when you're in certain conditions like icy waters or extreme depths that cause you to burn through your oxygen tanks at a quicker pace. Even without serious consequences, running low on air when you're deep within a submerged cave really does instill a claustrophobic and frantic energy to the situation.
Other intense moments arise when some of the ocean's larger inhabitants decide you'd make a tasty snack. Poisonous fish, toothy sharks, and larger predators appear when you least expect it, forcing you to act fast. While lamely waggling your Wii Remote to dodge a charging whale doesn't add much to the gameplay, most other volatile creatures can be fended off with the new pulsar tool. This life-saving device acts like an underwater laser blaster and is your only real defense against the untamed beasts of the deep. It comes in handy at other times, too, because it can be used to detect sick fish and heal them--one of many optional activities you can occupy your time with if you choose. Your bag of high-tech tricks also includes a sonarlike gizmo that can detect different salvageable materials buried in the ocean bottom. These new tools add another welcome layer of depth to the gameplay and help round out the list of other things to do while you're diving. You'll find the game is brimming with unique artifacts, sea maps, requests for guided tours, photojournalism opportunities, and other optional endeavors that provide opportunities for amusement. You can even be the steward of your own patch of reef, which you're encouraged to decorate with lots of natural doodads.
Though the vast majority of the focus is still on exploring the deep, your time on the surface is a lot different in Blue World, thanks to a completely revamped hub. The small Nineball Island serves as L&L's base of operations, which is where you'll frequently check in between missions. Walking around the beautiful patch of sand and sun gives you an opportunity to chat with your companions, pick up new equipment, have your salvaged items appraised, train dolphin pals, and tend to other important business. Both visually and functionally, it's a big step up from the awkward boating system from the first game. Now, if you want to travel to different dive spots or take on missions, you simply have to walk over to your island's dock and select a location from a streamlined menu.
It's really striking how beautiful all of the game's environments and creatures are. There's a lot of extra detail worked into the visual elements to enhance the adventure's realism. You'll find few areas that are lacking in majestic scenery to soak in. From the tiniest critters to the hulking behemoths that inhabit these aquatic habitats, there's no shortage of wondrous sights to experience. The variety found in the many locations you explore is also very refreshing. Beyond some of the standard oceanic environments you'd expect to find, you swim amongst giant icebergs in the Antarctic, skirt the murky freshwater riverbanks of Brazil, dive into several pitch-black abysses, and navigate ancient ruins filled with intricate underwater passageways.
Most areas of Blue World show a substantial improvement over the original. However, the awkward camera control scheme and the limited multiplayer elements are left largely unchanged. Pointing the Wii Remote at the edges of the screen to turn can be a slow and imprecise process at first, but it does grow less irritating the longer you play. Managing all of the other inventory, movement, and item commands with one-handed button presses generally works well, though a nunchuk attachment movement option would have been nice. You can dive with a pal or hang out on Nineball Island together via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. It's unfortunate that you still can't progress the storyline when playing with a friend, and the information gleaned from new creatures you encounter during multiplayer sessions isn't saved. However, the new Wii Speak compatibility does make communication a lot easier.
Even with all of the refinements that improve and beef up the gameplay in Blue World, it's still going to be a shock to the system if you're used a steady stream of action. The slower pace certainly isn't for everyone. But once you get accustomed to the deliberate and explorative nature of this underwater journey, it yields an extremely enjoyable, almost meditative, experience.