Spray your cares away.
By Louis Balzani
Posted 8:03 pm on Jun 11, 2015
PLAY THIS IF:
- You want another quality game for your Wii U.
- You’re looking for an awesome and creative multiplayer experience you can enjoy for minutes or hours at a time.
Fans and pundits frequently accuse Nintendo of going “back to the well” by relying too heavily on their existing franchises. Sure, people love Mario and Zelda games, but where are the new, innovative IPs? Is the company too focused on keeping the Wii U alive to take risks and keep experimenting? As if in direct response to these concerns, Nintendo’s come out swinging with one of their quirkiest offerings in some time: a online-centric third-person shooter called Splatoon where you spray ink instead of bullets and turn into a squid. It sounds absurd on paper, but once you embrace its curiosities, there’s a ton of fun to be had. Though it comes up a bit short on gameplay modes and actual content, Splatoon represents so much of what Nintendo does best when it’s firing on all cylinders creatively. Exactly why that’s the case will take some time to explain; much like in the game itself, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Unlike most other third-person shooters, simply taking your opponents down in Splatoon isn’t enough; here, it’s all about ink and how you use it. In order to win in Turf War, the game’s primary online mode, you need to cover the arena in as much of your team’s ink as possible. Whichever team has more ink on the ground at the end of the match wins. Other modes feature variations on the win condition, but the core objective always remains the same: cover everything in ink as fast as you can. By default, you do this with traditional analog control for everything but looking around, which is partially tied to the GamePad’s gyroscope. I found this to be a bit clunky and unintuitive when I played the game back in March, and not much has changed since then; thankfully, you can turn all motion controls off after you complete the tutorial, and I’d recommend that you do so.
As you play, you’ll eventually run out of ink, and that’s where the game’s other quirky feature comes in: you can transform into a squid at will. Doing so while standing in your team’s ink refills your ink meter while giving you the opportunity to hide and survey the battlefield. Your squid can also swim in your team’s ink much faster than you can walk, allowing you to make a speedy getaway or rush right back into the action. On top of this, various types of grenades and special abilities come tethered to your weapon choice, such as a giant Kraken squid or a tornado-firing bazooka. Learning how to properly use these additional tools is absolutely key to succeeding in battle, and I found that the squid transformation feels much more natural than it may have looked in the game’s promotional material.
Once you’re ready to go, your adventure will begin in Inkopolis, the game’s hub world. From here, you can jump into online play, but you’ll also have access to the single-player story alongside shops that sell new weapons and clothes for your Inkling. These clothing items, which rotate in and out of availability, each have different perks with additional upgrades you unlock by wearing the gear into battle. As you gain experience online, better and more robust gear becomes available for purchase, enabling you to beef up your character even more. The modifications aren’t game-breaking, but stacking perks like additional defense, stat boosts upon respawning, and increased grenade range can definitely give you an edge. You can also scan in additional functionality from your amiibo figurines, unlocking more clothing options and exclusive challenges, among other things; I didn’t buy any of the amiibos, so I couldn’t test any of those special unlockables.
Even in your first few minutes with the game, you’ll see that it’s absolutely bursting with energy and personality. Splatoon’s world resonates with a stylized, “cool-kid” feel that’s edgy enough to appease young players and cute enough to put a smile on the faces of the rest of us. The Inklings are adorable, and they’ll surely take their place alongside the likes of Nintendo’s most famous mascots in no time. What the graphics lack in granular detail, they make up for with overflowing color and fun touches that extend down to things like the ink textures themselves: rollers create smooth, silky trails of ink, while rapid-fire machine guns leave rippled puddles in their wake. Nintendo’s fanatical attention to detail and polish shows up everywhere here. The energetic soundtrack pulses with electric guitar, driving synth, and gibberish singing that somehow makes perfect sense. It all adds up to one of the most unique experiences we’ve seen on the Wii U to date, and it’s hard to explain just how expressive and fitting the aesthetic is – you just need to see it in action.
Once you’re done taking in the world, you may want to check out the single-player campaign because it’s definitely worth a look. The plot, light as it is, follows your quest to rescue the Great Zapfish, the source of Inkopolis’s power. You’ll adventure across five plain-looking hub worlds, in which you’ll need to complete a handful of levels before beating up a boss and advancing to the next zone. These levels incorporate the game’s ink mechanic in creative and reasonably engaging ways, such as movable platforms and ink-lines you can ride while in squid mode; it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s still really fun. Most of the levels are unique constructions built specifically for this mode, but once in a blue moon, the game will sneak a multiplayer map in and hope you won’t notice. While it never approaches difficult in any sense of the word, everything culminates in a surprisingly intense final boss fight that’s over ten minutes long and easily the highlight of the mode. It may be one of my favorite boss battles to come out of a Nintendo game in years.
When you get down to it, though, the real meat of the Splatoon experience lies in its online multiplayer, and it’s here that the game really shines. Casual matches last three minutes apiece, which keeps the proceedings brief, but no less enjoyable. Ranked matches run for about five minutes at most, which is still pretty quick compared to the match length of many other shooters. These brief brawls don’t actually feel all that short, and that’s thanks to how easy it is to get swept away by the frantic action and the rock-solid gameplay. Everything from basic movement to expert gunplay feels tight and responsive; the mechanics are very strong and very fun. The ongoing quest to keep the ground covered leads to lots of strategical variation as the epicenter of conflict shifts around the map and ground control ebbs and flows. Unless you’re getting seriously clobbered, almost every match is fun, and no two games ever feel the same – the dynamic, territorial back-and-forth that ensues keeps the proceedings remarkably fresh.
This lasting freshness stems, in part, from the game’s varied weaponry. There are lots of different weapons you can choose from, and each main type offers an accessible but fundamentally different experience. Machine guns can take enemies down quickly, but taking control of an area will require more time. Rollers provide excellent ground coverage at the expense of offensive firepower. The Inkbrush straddles the line between several different weapons, employing lots of features while specializing in none of them. You’ll find yourself playing with and against wildly different combinations of weaponry constantly, and since the momentum of matches is so volatile, every single match really does end up feeling different from the last.
None of this matters, of course, if the game’s online infrastructure sucks. Nintendo’s games have had a tenuous relationship with Internet connectivity over the years, but it looks like all those Global Testfires really paid off. Online play was remarkably stable at launch and has remained consistently reliable since. Lobbies fill with players very quickly, and I encountered almost no instances of lag across the hundreds of games I’ve played. This efficiency carries over to all aspects of the game, with everything except the hub world running at a rock-solid 60 FPS and loading in just a couple of seconds. Polished to within an inch of its life, it’s clear that the game had a lot of careful attention put into it.
For all that lavish attention, however, Nintendo still left a few key pieces out. Though the online experience is fantastic, it does suffer from some curious and rather glaring omissions. For one, there’s no voice chat – the feature was axed to promote a “cleaner online environment” for younger players. While I understand the rationale, it’s still frustrating for this to be completely absent, especially when communication and coordination can be so key to winning matches; having the option available, even just for private games, would have been nice. So, much like many other games on the Wii U, you’ll need to use external chat programs to talk to other people as you play. On top of that, there’s no party matchmaking system, and you can’t host custom games to play online with friends. These features should arrive via a free update sometime in August, but they’ve been staples of other online games for years, so they should have been here from the start.
That said, the game’s biggest problem is almost certainly its relative lack of content. You can plow through the single-player’s thirty or so missions in less than four hours; while it’s still a good time, the mode offers little replay value, so some may find it rather shallow in that regard. As of this review’s publication, the casual Turf War and the ranked Splat Zones are the only two multiplayer modes, and you can only play them on a meager six maps. Those maps also cycle in and out of rotation, so only two of them will be available for play at any given time. Nintendo has stated there will be more maps released as free DLC as time goes on, which will be great for the game’s longevity, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of variety in the here and now. Admittedly, this issue is mitigated somewhat by the fact that each match feels sufficiently unique, but it’s hard to argue against more maps.
Despite these issues, Splatoon is still a refreshingly creative game that’s well worth your time and money. Online multiplayer is addictive as can be, and the core gameplay mechanics put a fresh, unique twist on the well-worn third-person shooter genre. I’ll openly admit that I’ve had a lot of trouble putting it down over the past few days, which is why my final rating may seem rather generous; it’s been a while since I’ve latched onto an online multiplayer experience this readily. As far as I’m concerned, the game’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s sure to have quite the future ahead of it – with more content coming in the weeks and months ahead, I can’t wait to see where Splatoon goes from here.