Note: The review copy provided by Nintendo ran on a closed press review server network. While the network was stable, this may not be the case on the game’s launch. If you are concerned about network performance, it is prudent to wait until launch to see how Nintendo’s servers hold up.
The surprise announce of last year’s E3, Splatoon is Nintendo’s quirky entry into the modern shooter genre. Combining the kind of ranked progression play you see in Call of Duty with an odd territory control gimmick, it’s an unlikely game that pulls of a win despite the odds. You control an inkling, a person who can turn into a double-fast ink swimming squid and back, spreading ink of your color using spraying tools like guns and rollers. Ink of other colors hurts and slows you down, or causes you to splat into an explosion of ink – only to later respawn. It’s a vaguely nonviolent take on the genre friendly to those who don’t traditionally like shooters – in fact, it might be one of the only all ages, family-friendly shooters I can think of. The game focuses on fast-paced multiplayer battles, but delivers a single player experience that’s not to be scoffed at. Ultimately, it’ll be a game that many people enjoy in three minute to one hour bursts, not marathon sessions, and it exceeds all expectations for anyone who wants a shooter experience without shooter baggage. Or a shooter experience on the Wii U, period.
One of the things I was at first skeptical about was Splatoon‘s visuals. Early previews made the game look bright and cartoonish – undeniably attractive and cute visuals, but hard to follow. That worry is somewhat borne out in the game, as flying paint splats and fast moving characters can change the flow of battle pretty quickly and block your view of your own character. Often, when this happens, you’ve already been splatted – but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. That said, the visuals of the various inks splashing onto each other and overwriting have a variety of nice effects and for a game primarily about mixing two colors, it doesn’t get old fast. Character design is clever, varied, and wonderful taking inspiration from quirky urban fashion, and customizing your character to stand out is pretty fun. Enemies in the single player game have good silhouettes and are pretty easily recognizable for most, but that sadly doesn’t hold up in multiplayer. Weapons are small enough compared to characters that you’ll often not know what weapon someone’s packing until it’s too late – the notable exception being the massive splat rollers.
That’s too bad, since multiplayer is really the name of the game in Splatoon. The primary gameplay type is Turf War, where players from two teams of four compete to cover the most of the map’s floor within the time limit. At the end of the match, the team with the most coverage wins. During the game, you use varied paint-spewing weapons to cover the map and splat opponents – because squid people react pretty explosively to paint of opposing colors. That’s the basics of it, and over the course of matches you rank up your level and gain currency to unlock more weapons, more gear, and enter ranked battles. Ranked battles use a different ruleset, forcing more conflict by having only a certain part of the map count for victory. Much of the best multiplayer uses ambush tactics, blind paint-spewing charges, and the verticality that swimming up walls in squid form gives you to reach new areas and vantage points.
The three main categories of weapons are spewers, charge guns, and rollers. Spewers are your standard weapons, from explosive paint ball blasts to rapid-fire sprayers, and cover the field from mid to long range. Charge guns are the sniper and single shot weapons, and the longer you charge them the further they go, but they fire fairly slow and your movement is limited while they charge. Rollers are the biggest gameplay change, and allow you to continually spread paint as you run around, in addition to unleashing a splattering wave of ink when slammed against the ground. On top of this, you have a variety of secondary grenade-like weapons from mines, sticking bombs, and portable sprayer walls to echolocating markers that pick out enemies for you and your team. Finally, each weapon has a super-charged power that does something like call in an ink strike from above, give you a super ink bazooka, or protect you and nearby teammates from all damage. Finally, the clothing you unlock and use to customize your character’s appearance has a variety of buffs on it: Fast respawn time, faster movement, higher defense, or even stealthed movement in your speedy squid form. These buffs have a single fixed slot and a handful of random ones that unlock the longer you wear the clothes – though you can re-roll those slots by playing to slowly craft the perfect item. It’s a nice mix of traditional shooter game leveling up and randomized goofiness – it might bother some players, but I didn’t mind it at all as it encouraged me to try out new weapons and playstyles based on what I got.
The multiplayer gaming is fun, and evenly balanced games are fast, furious affairs that seem much longer than the handful of minutes they actually last. Sadly, if your team is bad and you’re getting steamrolled… the same is true. The nastiest superweapons tend to become a bit of a runaway leader mechanism, as only when you’re spreading paint do they charge, so a team of more skilled opponents can lock down the entire match just by taking what ground you have, charging up their big attacks, and splattering your whole team in one go over and over. Thankfully, there’s not too many maps where this is possible – the symmetrical design helps you out with a variety of useful paths to get around – and the map selection rotates every four hours. The six maps the game is launching with are quite fun, though some of the more open ones are very challenging for new players to understand and master. They’re available in sets of two which rotate every four hours, which adds some spice and keeps maps fresh but can be boring for binge-sessions of the game.
That’s the basics. If you’re looking for an in detail look at the game modes, I recommend the very detailed Splatoon Nintendo Direct.
The game’s single player is surprisingly in-depth for a title that has been marketed as a multiplayer game, combining elements of platforming and shooting in a style of game that reminds me of Ratchet & Clank or Jak & Daxter. While I don’t want to spoil too much, splattering down octopus-like bad guys and leaping from platform to platform on ink trails doesn’t really get old – and the level design manages to keep some of the mechanics fresh by continually using them in new ways. Despite the good design, there’s no truly great design. I’d hoped for more puzzle segments and clever mechanics subversion, and there’s opportunity for Portal-like complexity that goes unfulfilled. Hopefully some of Nintendo’s DLC can fill that hole. There’s also some impetus for single player even for multiplayer devotees, as unlockables and secrets from there can transfer over to multiplayer matches for new weapons and tricks. Ultimately, however, multiplayer is the main event – even if singleplayer is nice – and if nobody in the house is going to try much multiplayer you might want to rent or skip the game.
Bottom Line: It shouldn’t be as good as it is… but who am I to deny something this inkredible?
Recommendation: Adding another casually enjoyable multiplayer game to your Wii U’s lineup will serve you well, but try before you buy if you’re only interested in singleplayer.[rating=4.5]