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July 2019

Beyond Blue

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: E-Line Media
Developer: BBC Studios
Release Date: 2019


PS4/XOne/PC Preview - 'Beyond Blue'

by Thomas Wilde on June 18, 2019 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Beyond Blue invites players to venture far below the surface of our vast and largely uncharted ocean to sense the soul of some of our world's most magnificent and intelligent creatures.

Beyond Blue, from the team behind 2014's Never Alone, has steadily and quietly been moving along toward completion for a while. In 2018, it was tucked into a hotel suite and mostly existed as a series of videos and pitches; later in the year, at PAX West, a short playable demo was available at E-Line Media's booth on the sixth floor of the convention.

This year, at the Hotel Figueroa near the Staples Center, E-Line had a hidden suite where I played a few minutes of Beyond Blue, albeit in a pre-release form with placeholder voice acting.

It was one of my games of the show last year, basically on the strength of its novelty. Beyond Blue is an adventure game of sorts, set in realistically depicted undersea biomes, made in partnership with the BBC and with advisory work from American oceanographer Dr. Samantha Joye. The full game features a story written by Anne Toole (the Curse of the Pharaohs DLC for Assassins' Creed: Origins, Days Gone, and Horizon: Zero Dawn), with voice acting by a cast of actors who haven't yet been identified but are promised to be a number of well-known names who haven't done much, if any, work in games before.

Beyond Blue is set 15 years in an "aspirational and inspirational" version of the future, where we've managed to make some headway against climate change. You play as Mirai, a diver who works as a member of an investigation team of marine biologists.

You begin the game with carrying out part of Mirai's daily routine, checking up on local wildlife, adjusting some sensor buoys, and using her sensors to scan a few dolphins and whales before running into your first sign of something weird. A pod of sperm whales has a calf with it that's suffering from an unknown ailment, and tracking that pod brings Mirai and her team into the middle of a greater problem.

What's been shown of the gameplay of Beyond Blue so far has been heavy on the visuals but not so much on what you actually do. As Mirai, you can swim around underwater running errands, which in the PAX West demo boiled down to "go places and click a button." This year's E3 build adds a set of sensors to Mirai's visor, which can be used to safely tag local wildlife as part of an in-game collectible. The final version of the game will also feature out-of-water activities, where Mirai interacts with the various members of her dive team.

At E3 2019, E-Line Media's crew answered a question I'd had about Beyond Blue since last year, which was why Mirai doesn't have an air tank. Her wetsuit is based on actual extrapolated technology, which operates on the assumption that at some point in the game's timeline, there was a "moonshot" effort to push forward undersea exploration tech. While the fine in-game details of how the wetsuit works are still being finalized — it's basically a giant rebreather right now, possibly with a liquid oxygen supply built in — the bottom line is that Mirai can swim around underwater basically forever without having to constantly make trips back to a ship or base to refill her oxygen tank.

The same underwater moonshot furnishes Beyond Blue's biologists with access to specialized drones, which you can use to investigate biomes that are too hazardous for Mirai, such as the boiling-point waters that surround thermal vents on the ocean floor, or sneak up on animals that are too skittish for her to approach. With the drones, you can pan and zoom around a single subject to see and study it from every possible angle.

Each animal in the game is placed by hand, with no procedural generation or clone-stamping; you can use a drone to circle around individual specimens and see individual differences, such as scars on their backs. The pod of sperm whales that Mirai ends up following, in fact, is treated like its members are part of the game's cast of characters.

Another revelation at this year's E3 was unveiling two different biomes for players to explore, in addition to the shallower atolls where you start the game. One, set in the Sea of Cortez, is a darkened, unbalanced ecosystem where mussels and hagfish are the only real native life. The other, the Abyssal Depths, is so far underwater that no light can penetrate, aside from what you bring with you. These new areas were only shown as screenshots, but both really lean into how alien the ocean gets as you get deeper down. As the developers pointed out, at this point, we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the deepest parts of the ocean. Beyond Blue isn't a horror game, but there's a certain amount of foreboding imagery baked into the process when you're exploring someplace that's actually called the Abyssal Depths.

Beyond Blue is scheduled to come out as a digital-only release in October of this year. A single first run through the game is estimated to take between three and five hours, with a little more time added if you finish all of your in-game collections. The developers are hoping that they'll be able to put a photo mode into Beyond Blue at launch, but at this point, it's a hope, not a promise.

I tend to value novelty at E3 more than anything else. Every year, I see a lot of games that try to break new ground in the field of simulated violence, so something like Beyond Blue, a peaceful game about an undersea mystery, is nearly guaranteed to stand out from the crowd. I have some concerns about the final product, as the actual playable parts of the game so far make it feel like a "walking simulator" set within a very pretty underwater biome. I'm not sure what you as a player will actually spend most of your time doing in the final version of Beyond Blue, which means all my hype is intensely qualified. It's still one of the more interesting games I've seen in the last couple of years, so I'm intrigued to see a playable build.

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