Splatoon review: movable type

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Release Date May 29, 2015

As Nintendo’s first internally developed game with new characters in 14 years, Splatoon comes loaded down with some heavy questions, chief among them: Can Nintendo still catch and bottle lightning these days?

The answer is yes, although not without a few struggles along the way.

Splatoon finds some of its success by emulating the structure and rhythm of classic Nintendo franchises like Mario. But it also proves that Nintendo can capably pull off things it’s never really done well before — shooter gameplay, a multiplayer focus, gear and progression and more. Some of my expectations for a shooter were left unfulfilled, but simple, clever game design of the kind that Nintendo has always excelled at elevates Splatoon above its faults.

Every action in the game is accomplished by spraying colorful ink everywhere.

Simplicity isn’t evident from the outset; Splatoon’s premise is bizarre. Players begin by creating a character — another rarity for Nintendo, but one it handles well, with male and female avatars available in a variety of skin tones. After that, the created character is thrown into the strange city of Inkopolis, a world where the human-esque residents can transform into squids and where electricity is provided by creatures known as "zapfish."

Before players have a chance to get their bearings, it’s revealed that zapfish are being kidnapped by a mysterious force known as the "Octarians." This sets up a single-player campaign of 20-some standalone levels, each containing a single zapfish to be rescued. Rescuing those zapfish involves mastering Splatoon’s main gameplay hook: shooting inkguns. Every action in the game, from destroying enemies to interacting with pieces of the level, is accomplished by spraying colorful ink everywhere.

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And, as you might expect from Nintendo, that core gameplay feels fantastic — once you’ve turned off the miserable motion controls, at least. That option is on by default, and caused me to not enjoy my initial time with Splatoon. Once I realized I could go into the options menu and swap to a more traditional shooter control layout, I discovered a much better game.

Nintendo has taken traditional shooter controls and melded them with a unique type of platforming, where your character can transform into a squid and disappear into the very paint you’ve spread across the ground. This provides endless options for traversing the environment, hiding from sight and ambushing unsuspecting foes, tactics that work in both multiplayer and single-player. It feels fast and frantic in the best way.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how strong Splatoon’s single-player offering is despite Nintendo downplaying it as secondary to the multiplayer. Like all of Nintendo’s best work, Splatoon’s single-player levels trade in taking a single idea each and expanding on it to its most logical, polished conclusion. For example, in one early level, I was introduced to the concept of "sponges" — small square platforms that would expand into much larger blocks when shot with my ink, but contract when hit by enemy shots.

At first, I ambled across one or two sponges at a time with only a couple of enemies here and there to worry about. Ten minutes later, by the level’s conclusion, I bounced across an extended series of sponge platforms resting in mid-air, dodging a barrage of ink bullets from a whole armada of bad guys. Each level follows this perfect pattern: Introduce a concept, get you used to it, then ratchet up the stakes bit by bit until you’re an expert.

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That pattern extends to Splatoon’s boss battles as well. Each of these bigger enemies teases you with a repetition of attacks that you must memorize before gaining access to its weak point. After you hit it, the attacks become more complicated, rinse and repeat. This culminates in an incredible, lengthy final boss fight that tested everything I’d learned over the course of the whole game.

Splatoon’s short single-player campaign does repeat a few ideas, and those end up making for the weakest levels in the game. Least interesting are the arena levels, which use the multiplayer maps and special enemies designed to act like real (albeit bad) human opponents. These challenges only make up a small number of the overall levels, but they felt like unnecessary and weak preparation for the multiplayer mode.

Other features

On top of its smaller number of rotating maps, Splatoon has a few other quirks that may stand out to fans of other shooters. Most notably, it doesn’t have voice chat at all. Given the general simplicity of of the game and your goals, I never had a problem with this, but as players get into ranked mode and try to work as a team, it could become more of an issue.

With a small pool of reviewers and internal Nintendo employees playing during the review process, we had a limited opportunity to see how well the game’s matchmaking works and how easy it is to invite friends into your games. We will test those features more in the launch version of Splatoon and include further information when we lift the provisional tag off of the review if they significantly impact our feelings on the game.

Of course part of what’s so amazing about Splatoon’s multiplayer is that it doesn’t really require much preparation. The main multiplayer mode — and the only one available for the first ten levels of player progression — is called turf wars. In this team-based mode, you can "kill" members of the opposite team by shooting them full of paint, but unlike in many other online shooters, killing isn’t the goal.

Instead, turf wars challenges your team to paint as much of the map as possible with your color. Sometimes this means going straight after the enemy team, but other times it means concentrating on parts of the map you know they’re forgetting about, assisting teammates from afar or just plain trying to stay alive to avoid a respawn timer between deaths.

The unique objective of turf wars forced me to strategize in a way that’s totally different from other online shooters. The four-on-four matches can often end up lopsided — close games were particularly fun, but it was far more common for the winning team to have anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of the map covered. But matches are also so short that even when I was on the losing side, I didn’t feel like my time had been wasted.

Splatoon hopes to keep players interested with a progression system, and so far it’s enough to keep pulling me back. A level-up system lets you brag to others about how long you’ve played, but it also unlocks a ranked mode and new gear to purchase with coins earned from performing well online.

Beyond the trusty splattershot — a machine-gun-style inkgun used in the single-player — multiplayer contains several new weapons to get acquainted with, such as a long-range rifle that requires charging shots and the splat roller, a giant paint roller that is one of the most unique shooter weapons I’ve used in ages. Each weapon comes with its own type of bomb and special ability, and while I can’t say I’ve completely figured out all of them — I failed particularly hard with the splat charger — I found each interesting and fun to use in its own right.

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You can also dress your Splatoon character up in a variety of hats, shirts and shoes. Each piece of gear levels up apart from your character level, unlocking passive bonuses such as faster respawn time, slower ink drain or more damage per shot. That might annoy players who want to dress based on looks alone, but the amount of customization and options to tailor the gameplay here seem worth that tradeoff.

The most controversial element of Splatoon’s multiplayer is likely to be its small number of maps. The game hides this problem to some degree by having a rotating selection of playable maps each day. That is to say: On any one day that you log in, you’ll only be able to play two maps in regular multiplayer and two maps in ranked multiplayer. It’s an interesting setup but likely to be frustrating to anyone who’s played other, more open online games. And even with the limited options, I found it impossible to ignore the lack of maps available and the way that each of the maps ends up looking very similar — even before they’re covered in ink, I mean.

In the initial weeks of play, though, I was so taken with the uniqueness of Splatoon as to not be bothered by these issues. Nintendo has promised new maps, modes, weapons and clothes to be added to the game post-launch. As of right now, it’s hard to tell if Splatoon’s multiplayer will be able to hold the attention of a community for longer than a few weeks. A lot is going to depend on how aggressively Nintendo builds on the existing game and for what price.

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Wrap Up:

Splatoon has the same simple, clever design of Nintendo's best games

As of launch, though, Splatoon has enough going for it between the single-player and multiplayer to keep me happy. Nintendo has built two separate gameplay tracks that use the same mechanic yet feel discrete. They’re both a ton of fun, and they both have some obvious areas ripe for improvement. I can’t say whether Splatoon will become the next big franchise for Nintendo, with sequels every generation and spin-offs and endless fanboy buzz. But after this strong debut, it certainly deserves some attention.

Note: Splatoon was reviewed using special retail reviewable code provided by Nintendo that runs on separate servers from the final release. While we had lots of time with the multiplayer, we were not able to test it in the same environment as the final retail release, and we were not able to spend time in ranked battles, which include a unique gameplay mode. As such, this review will remain provisional until we’re able to spend more time with Splatoon post-launch.

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8.5 Wii U