Splatoon is seen as Nintendo’s first new IP in forever, and though that’s not quite the case, there’s a great big weighty expectation around the game. It’s an odd genre for Nintendo to tackle, as they’ve never really favoured shooters, let alone ones with such a heavy multiplayer focus. They’ve managed to excel on their first outing, stamping their mark on a game that’s colourful, vibrant, accessible, competitive, and above all, fun. Nintendo’s inexperience at…well, online anything threatens to dampen the experience a bit though.
At its heart, Splatoon is a hyperkinetic 8-player, four-on-four team based online shooter that injects the genre with Nintendo’s family-friendly ethos. Instead of trying to kill the other team, your primary objective is to splatter the map with ink, covering more territory with brightly coloured viscous goo than your opponents do. Yes, you also need to splat your opponents with your acrylic ammunition too, which will help your team paint their way to victory as your opponents wait to respawn, but victory lies in effectively splattering the map, while preventing your enemies from doing the same.
You’ll play as an inking, a sort of morphing, hybrid humanoid squid creature with two forms. As a pointy-eared humanoid, you’ll wield your weapon of choice and pepper the landscape with blobs of pigment, covering surface and enemy alike. Hold in a button though, and you’ll transform into a squelchy squid, able to quickly swim through or hide in any ink matching your team’s colour. Spending any amount of time in the other colour stops you right in your tentacles, weakening you and eventually splatting you right out existence. Temporarily, of course. You’ll also have to enter Squid form to recharge your ammo, so you’ll constantly be switching between forms; running about and sprinkling ink one moment, and dashing about submerged in ink a moment later.
It’s all rather simple, but like anything simple done by Nintendo, there’s a certain accessible magic to it that belies how deep and complex it can be; splattering vertical surfaces and swimming up them allows quick traversal and access to other bits of the map, while at the same time allowing you to pull of neat, evasive wall-runs, jumps and slides. The more you play it, the more you realise how important teamwork is, and how it’s important to have a team that at least attempts to work cohesively – run off like a lone wolf and you’re almost certain to find yourself covered in goo. That all makes the lack of voice chat so egregious, though I understand why it’s absent. It’s mitigated somewhat by a simple d-pad gesture that asks teammates to head to your position, but only just.
The weapons range from standard assault-rifle class water pistols with different rates of fire, range and damage stats, to charged-shot sniper rifles, and others that fire off explosive blobs of ink. There’s also a great big paint roller – which seemed to be an early favourite for many players – that inks large areas and instantly splats anyone who dares be in the way. Each weapon is accompanied a secondary weapon – like a grenade, or a homing beacon or sticky bomb- and a special weapon that, once charged, can be activated to drop inkstrikes, inkzookas or other malfeasant mucilaginous munitions. Each match, whether you win or lose, awards varying amounts of experience points, which along with the coins you earn allows you to unlock and purchase increasingly powerful weapons. There’s also a seemingly endless selection of gear; hats, shoes and shirts that bestow on players buffs; things like lowered respawn time, decreased ink consumption and faster swimming. Keep levelling up, and you’ll unlock gear that compounds these buffs, working as a hook to keep you going back for just one more round.
In the code we’ve played, hitting level 10 unlocked ranked battle mode (in the retail version, Ranked Mode will be unlocked once a “critical mass” of players have hit level 10) , which switches the game up from the usual Turf War, to another mode called Splat zones. It’s a little like the King of the Hill or Annex mods you’d find in other shooters – fast-pace game of are control. Oddly, though more than enough people had hit the requisite level for ranked games, people seemed to prefer sticking to regular Turf War. Yes, there really are just two modes, which is one of the bigger problems with the game. The other is how often backwards the lobbies are. Your only real options to join games is to try join a lobby, and wait for enough players to be trying at the same time. If enough players aren’t found, you’re all just kicked back out to the menu to try again. There are no player invites to try and plump the numbers or any of the rudimentary matchmaking options you’d expect in any online game. There are no parties, and no way at the moment to settle into teams, as the roster is mixed up with every match, nor is there any way to select or vote on the maps you want to play on. Every four hours, 2 maps are put in to rotation for each mode, and those are the ones you have to play on. End of story. Worse, is they’re announced in an unskippable, annoying faux news bulletin.
There’s also no way to customise your load-out once you’re in a lobby, so if it ends up that everybody on your team is packing the same gun, then so be it. Changing equipment requires leaving the lobby, fiddling with the GamePad for a bit and then trying to join another game, hoping against hope that the lobby fills up quickly enough. Nintendo even seems to know that you’ll spend a lot of time waiting in lobbies, as you get to play a NES-styled, Doodle-jumpy minigame while you wait. It’s often frustrating, and detracts from just how damned fun Splatoon is when it works.
There are some odd balance issues; higher-level players who have access to better guns and better gear seem to have an edge above what their skills afford, and will likely trounce you on your way to the top. The lack of modes and maps – something Nintendo has said it’ll address in the future with free content – along with the lobby issues, lack of voice communications and offline bots threaten to dent its longevity. Still, I’m reviewing games, not promises.
For those who prefer local multiplayer, there’s a simple, single 1v1 mode available. Battle Dojo pits one player, using the Gamepad, against another player using the TV. The goal in this mode is to pop balloons for points, using your weapons and power-ups littered over the maps. Splatting your opponent reduces his health tally, with his attacks doing the same to yours. It’s fun in short bursts, but is hardly comparable to the main modes.
Something that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough is Splatoon’s frankly fantastic single player mode. It starts off disappointingly, coming off as a barebones challenge mode against a series of uninteresting tentacled bad guys, but the more you play, the more complex and engaging the enemies and level design becomes – as it becomes less about just shooting at stuff, and more about being the sort of insanely cleverly designed platform games Nintendo’s known for.
There are four separate areas, each housing a handful of levels of different types; challenges, battles, tight platforming and a level where you’re up against an invertebrate that perpetually pelts you with spinning vertexes of paint as you do your best to evade them. Each level adds some new dynamic, some little hook to make it interesting. They’re not, on the whole, especially challenging, though the occasional level does require a fair bit of dexterity as you swim over rotating platforms spinning in mid-air, witching between forms where necessary. Timed jumps, moving platforms, transit wires and hidden items punctuate platforming levels, while end of level bosses how Nintendo’s characteristic penchant for fun boss battles. Yes, they adhere to Nintendo’s usual “hit the boss three times to win” formula, but they’re all rather spiffingly done.
It’s addictive, terribly fun and there’s a heck of a lot to love about the game. It’s billed by some as The Mario Kart of shooters, and I suppose that’s true enough – but Mario Kart is generally packed full of content. Splatoon’s five included maps and limited game modes aren’t going to keep anyone interested in the game for too long – and the promised content may end up coming too late. It’s really quite a pity, because Splatoon’s core mechanics are excellent, and the whole package exudes buckets full of delightful charm. It’s also got a killer soundtrack that’s now indelibly splatted in to my brain.
Last Updated: May 27, 2015