A splash hit for Nintendo
If you think Nintendo hasn't been taking risks, you haven't been paying attention. Yes, most fans await the next Mario and Zelda announcement with bated breath during every E3 presentation, but the publisher has also been creating new franchises left and right in the past five years.
Take Dillon's Rolling Western, Sakura Samurai, Pushmo, and now, Splatoon. All of them deserve to be recognized in the pantheon of Nintendo, especially the latter.
Splatoon (Wii U)
Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No .2
Released: May 29, 2015
Players will start the journey as a measly level one squid in Inkopolis. You should learn the layout in roughly 20 minutes. It's not huge, but it has a lot of character, mostly due to the fact that other players are littered about the townside. No, this isn't quite like a Phantasy Star Online lobby with live players running around, they're more like static NPCs that draw upon the character's avatar, style choices, and Miiverse postings. If you're not keen on walking everywhere to play a specific mode, an easy-to-access map is located on the GamePad -- perfect.
There is one annoying thing about the hub world -- the news station. Every so often at certain intervals, a fake "news" show will play, interrupting whatever you're doing. It displays the next set of levels that are up for multiplayer, and any other relevant events that are happening. A lot of you will probably think it's cute, and it is a neat idea, but sometimes they're literally repeating the same phrases on the same stages I've seen multiple times over -- it's not a dealbreaker, I just wish I could just skip through it.
Shops, however, are anything but annoying, as I'm a full-on fashion addict. Whether it's the shoe, shirt, or hat boutique, I'm usually inside of a [digital] brick and mortar location ready to spend all of my cash on clothes I will never wear. These items are mostly cosmetic however, and even though they do have some stats attached to them, they're negligible at best. So if you aren't down with the idea of amassing clothes, you probably aren't going to be spending a lot of time in Inkopolis.
It also must be said that the story mode isn't really linked to the hub world, which is mostly for multiplayer. Any acquisitions from the hub are strictly used in online play, though you can unlock some weapon blueprints in the campaign and you'll get a few bonuses to bring back after you complete the story. In other words, think of the single-player narrative as a staging grounds for playing online.
The levels themselves are very well designed, and in line with a 3D Mario game -- which is definitely a compliment. There's a lot of variety found in every single stage, with mechanics like geysers, invisible paths, moving blocks, and a whole lot more. Gimmicks never outstay their welcome, and just as you've started to master a concept, Splatoon moves on to the next one. The pacing is superb.
Boss fights aren't exactly innovative, as they all boil down to "kill the giant weak point three times," but they are fun to play. They remind me of less inspired Mario Galaxy or 3D World fights, even down to the enemy models. All in all you'll go solo for roughly 30 levels, which should last you 10 hours -- a little less if you rush, a little more if you go for all of the collectibles (which do a great job of worldbuilding, by the way).
So how is the game actually played? By inking everything in sight, of course! Well, sort of. In the campaign you'll have access to just the Splattershot, which is like a rapid-fire rifle. You'll use your colored ink to defeat enemies and create paths, which can be crafted on most surfaces on the ground and most walls. By holding the L trigger you'll instantly morph into a squid-form, which isn't capable of attacking (outside of a special super ability), but can traverse quickly in ink. You'll have to master the art of offense as a kid and defense as a squid to really grasp what Splatoon has to offer.
Other weapons essentially mirror other shooters (Splat Charger is a sniper rifle of sorts, there's also a grenade launcher and a light machine gun) outside of the Splat Roller, which is utterly unique. In my mind it's easily the most fun weapon to play with in the game, as you'll roll your way to victory, painting the town as you run and destroy enemies along the way. It seems broken at first glance, but it's actually pretty balanced, as skilled snipers and nearly anyone with a gun can counter it from high-ground, all the while earning points online (which I'll get to in a minute).
Outside of the story mode there's also "Dojo," which is strictly a one-on-one offline affair, with one player using the GamePad, and another the Wii U Pro Controller. Your goal is to pop 30 balloons, and you'll have the ability to choose from every basic weaponset as well as five arenas. It's fun, but extremely limited, and felt like a momentary distraction from anything else. It was really disappointing once we realized that we can't play together online on the same console.
As for the amiibo-centric mode, the only figure I had access to was the Splatoon Boy for the purposes of this review. It keeps the high going from the campaign, mostly because it is the campaign. Each figure features the same levels, but with a new weapon -- in the Boy's case, a Splat Roller. The rewards are mostly gold, with some cosmetic items and the rare weapon variant. So is it worth $35 to pick up the lot? Based on the Boy, I'd say "no," but it's a nice extra. Try the story first, and if you are really itching to play it multiple times, grab them.
The main attraction of course is online play. The entire draw of Splatoon is simplicity in this regard. Matches are short, and they don't feature voice chat. In other words, even if you get spawn camped or dominated, matches are only a few minutes, and you don't have another team taunting you along the way. The core mode you'll be playing right off the bat is Turf War, which is a lot like Tony Hawk's Graffiti gametype -- kills don't matter, and the more you paint the battlefield your color, the higher your score at the end. Your personal score is how you level-up online, earn gold for clothes, and unlock the right to use new weapons.
I enjoy lots of shooters, and in my mind, Splatoon has easily carved its own little niche around them. It's a more relaxing affair, both in terms of the zen-like qualities of the paint, and the online experience in general. It's refreshing to be able to try out new loadouts without fearing that they might not be viable, and the maps are fairly easy to learn as they are symmetrical. Don't worry though, there's plenty of room for advanced tactics, which the playerbase is already experimenting with just based on the Global Testfire events. My favorite trick that I discovered while playing online is to paint a wall while running from someone, quickly hide as a squid, and leap out from above as they turn the corner.
Ranked play by way of the Splat Zones mode, unlocked at level 10, can be a respite from constant Turf War matches. Based on the current XP gain, it should take roughly a day's worth of playing to unlock, and although Nintendo automatically enabled it for my build of the game, a "certain amount of players" will need to reach 10 to play it. It's basically King of the Hill, with more of an emphasis on zone control and kills than Turf War. Your objective is to score as many points as possible while owning a point on the map, keeping everyone else out of the area. It's pretty great, but sadly, these are the only two current online modes. Nintendo has revealed that more are in the pipeline (Rainmaker and Tower are already confirmed), but for now, you'll have to deal with just two.
Online play was smooth for me during the past two weeks of testing on pre-launch servers. I've played well over 100 games, and there were only a few sessions that were dropped during matchmaking. Once the game arrives we'll provide a launch-day report of the server situation, but for now, it's been wonderful. There are a few hangups with the way this component was designed though. When you're in the queue for a round, you can't quit -- not even with the home button. It's a bit odd, especially if you realize that you need to handle something in real life, as your only option is to turn the Wii U off.
Additionally, you can't switch up your weapons while you're waiting for a game to start, as you can only do that in the previous menu. Also, after a match is completed, if you hit "yes" to quickly start a new match, you cannot change your loadout there either. It's odd, as nearly every other shooter allows you to do so, and it breaks up the pacing to constantly drop games (that you can't quit) to go try a new style. No voice chat actually isn't a big deal to me in unranked Turf War as it's going for a more casual type of gameplay, but it really should be an option in Ranked play. After all, Nintendo set up a grading system that sees your rank drop if you lose. I'd appreciate the ability to at least communicate with my team.
Lastly, there's nothing implemented currently for AFKers (I guess Nintendo is relying on short matches to eventually weed them out), and there are limitations in the current build in regards to playing with friends. After matching up and playing a few games, the game will switch you around on opposite sides every so often. An update is coming later this year will allow friends to play together consistently -- odd. None of this really bothers me all that much, but I can see some of these problems being major issues for a lot of you out there. The thing that mostly bothers me about online play is that there's only a handful of maps and two modes at the moment.
In some ways, Splatoon's online component is disappointing, and the lack of so many features will likely push other shooter fans away. But most of those shortcomings can be forgiven in my mind because of how damn fun it is. As a shooter it's refreshing, and as a 3D platformer it's up there with some of Nintendo's greatest creations. You'll quickly forget about the fact that you're playing Turf War over and over as you squid down an alley, leap across a gap, and shoot enemies in the air as you fall. All Nintendo needs to do is keep supporting Splatoon, because the foundation is fantastic.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Nintendo also provided the Squid Boy amiibo.]
Splatoon reviewed by Chris Carter
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
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