It is a curious fact that vast portions of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. A dozen men have walked on the moon but only a couple have ventured to the deepest point in the sea. Not surprisingly, saltwatery milieus also remain a largely unexplored frontier for gaming. Recently, while Wii gamers have had the tranquil and beautiful Endless Ocean to fulfil their fishy fetishes; on Xbox 360 the closest you could get to the sea was being chased by police speedboats in Grand Theft Auto 4. Attempting to redress the balance and bring a little less Nico Bellic and a little more Jacques Cousteau to the average 360 gamer is the niche Xbox Live Arcade title Sea Life Safari from Sierra.
The game puts you in the flippers of a marine photographer hired by a professor to fill up his fishy scrapbooks with photos. Meeting his brief involves selecting one of five underwater locations and letting the game move you along automatically through the sea as you snap furiously with your camera at passing fish and crustaceans. While the game is largely a passive experience, you can get a reaction from most sea life by throwing “lures” at them. If the animal notices the lure, it will perform some sort of action for a split second that you have to try to capture on film. If the subject is centred; nicely framed; facing you and is reacting to a lure you can score up to three stars for a photograph. If the fish is upside down, ignoring you and partially obscured by a rock you score nothing. They key to unlocking new locations is to get as many stars as possible. As your film is limited on each run, and creatures can easily be missed (or not turn up at all), levels need to be played a number of times to get a good selection of high scoring photographs.
While the game initially appears simple and rather limited it has a strange hypnotic addictiveness as you obsess over snapping the perfect shot of a seahorse stuck in a bottle or a group of breakdancing lobsters. Compared to the pad chewing frustration of many hardcore 360 games Sea Life Safari is beguilingly idyllic, and a perfect late night comedown after battling hordes of objectionable potty-mouthed 12 year olds on Halo 3.
It is hard to be too critical on a cheap download game, however it is worth stressing that the visuals are patchy in places. While the cartoon fish are charming, and the different locations are varied and interesting the game suffers in comparison to Endless Ocean which still remains the graphical benchmark in its class. One other big problem with Sea Life Safari is while it has some vague educational value the lack of any decent information on the fish and creatures you are photographing means that ultimately the underwater setting is incidental to the game rather than a key part of it. Once again, Endless Ocean trumps it here, with a full background for every species you encounter. If you have kids, Sea Life Safari may entertain them for a while but don’t expect them to learn a great deal from it as they play. The game also suffers from a lack of depth (ho ho). Beyond an additional distraction that involves finding 10 well-hidden golden secret shells on each level and hitting them with your lures this isn’t a game that will keep many gamers interested for long once each location has been unlocked and most of the species have been photographed.
Nevertheless, while it lasts, Sea Life Safari provides a tranquil, innovative experience that is a welcome addition to the 360 Live Arcade library. Whether it ends up an unloved Mariana deep-sea trench or a popular inflatable crocodile filled inlet at Cancun beach depends very much on whether the Xbox community are willing to dive in and try it out. I’m giving the game a 6 out of 10.
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