I haven’t been into a competitive shooting game since I was into Xbox 360 a million years ago, but Splatoon, Nintendo’s latest effort on the Wii U, might be pulling me back in. In my mind, there are two big things that make Splatoon great: shooting and moving. Now you may be thinking, hey, those are like the base requirement to be a coherent shooter. What makes Splatoon so great is that while it adheres to these basic concepts, it executes them both in interesting ways.
Splatoon is a shooter, but it’s not about shooting other people. At least, most of the time it isn’t. Instead, it’s all about covering everything around you in ink, kind of like a reverse Super Mario Sunshine. While spraying water and ink are polar opposites in terms of cleanliness, I think they both work because they appeal to the part of our brains that are compelled to finish things. Marking up an area in Splatoon is almost like finishing up a coloring book, except you don’t have to worry about coloring inside the lines.
The focus on covering the environment fundamentally changes the strategies you employ compared to other shooters. In order to maximize your ink splatting efficiency, it’s simply not viable to camp out in the same spot and shoot guys as you see them. You’re encouraged to keep moving and go into enemy territory, which will no doubt be marked up with the opposing side’s ink.
In order to get you around the map quick enough to mark everything up, you’ll need to master your movement options. Holding the stick forward makes your Inkling move forward at a fairly nice, brisk pace. But nice, brisk paces are for losers. To be a winner, you want to be face down in the ink whenever possible, zooming across the screen and sneaking up behind your enemies like some kind of squid Jaws.
You can only travel inside the ink of your own team’s color, and you can only shoot your weapons above surface, so you constantly have to balance your actions between moving fast and coming up for air to mark up your surroundings. Alternating these options makes the simple act of moving forward consistently engaging.
Additionally, ink surfing isn’t limited to just the ground. As long as they’re inked up, you can go up, down, and all around walls and ramps. It’s a really neat way to get around the map, and especially good for getting the jump on foes. A possible con might be that walls don’t count towards territory captured for your side, but that also means that people will be less likely to remove your ink on the walls once placed. After learning they didn’t have an effect on your score I ignored walls for a while, only to realize I was passing up a really great strategic tool.
To sum it up, Splatoon feels awesome to play and has lots of room for developing your own unique strategies. The shooting mechanics and movement are so intricately tied together that I can’t imagine this game working any other way. Matches of Splatoon are fast, fun, and imaginative. Based on the gameplay alone I would wholeheartedly recommend Splatoon.
But that’s not quite the full story. Splatoon is fun, but does that really mean anything if the online experience isn’t solid? That point might be a little more contentious.
One of the online’s greatest strengths is its speed. In my experience, finding matches has been lightning fast as long as people were around. It took seconds to find a match, a few minutes to play it through, the seconds to get into the match. I’m so used to multiplayer games taking forever to load and coordinate that it was a huge breath of fresh air to play one that just worked, and worked really fast.
However, you do need eight people to start a match, likely for balancing concerns (I had a few matches were at least one player was asleep at the wheel, and the results weren’t pretty). I was playing a special version of Splatoon with servers meant for the gaming press, and that meant that finding a match gradually got more difficult, and a long time was spent with seven people desperately waiting for someone, anyone, to join so we could start playing. I don’t think Splatoon will have this problem at launch, and hopefully not for a long time, but it’s definitely something that stuck out in the back of my mind.
Nintendo’s plan to keep the game alive seems to be to distribute new maps, modes, and weapons every few weeks once the game launches. It’s an interesting strategy that I didn’t quite expect from Nintendo. At launch, you’ll have access to one mode and five maps, which definitely doesn’t seem like a lot. Based on my experience, I played up to level 11 (which roughly translates to…a whole ton of matches) and wasn’t bored of the game by a long shot, but your mileage may vary.
The game seems to be structured in a way so that you can’t see everything at once. Only two maps are in rotation at a time per mode (the version of Splatoon I played also had the Ranked Battle mode unlocked for everyone at level 10, in the real game it will unlock once a certain amount of people reach that level) which means that for at least a while, you can only play on 4 maps at any given time. Nintendo’s reasoning seems to be for players to strategize what weapons they want to pick for that set beforehand, but I don’t really see it. I think it would make more sense to allow players to change loadouts between spawns or before the match begins, but neither of those options is present.
It seems like the primary way things will be kept interesting are through your own growth and experimentation. From my many hours of Splatoon, my strategies have changed dramatically from when I first started, and I’ve gone through tons of different weapons and clothing effects. As you play, you gain levels and money that allow you to purchase new items, which change how you play and what you can do. With three main weapon types and dozens of variations of skills there’s a ton to play with in Splatoon, and the fact that there’s even more to come is pretty exciting.
I think the most interesting thing about Splatoon is how experimental it all feels. Not just in how different its gameplay is, but in the way Nintendo is structuring its release content. Splatoon definitely won’t jive well with everyone, but personally I’m invested enough in the gameplay based on the launch content alone, and I’m immensely curious to see what the game looks like by the end of its life cycle.
Food for Thought:
1. Splatoon defaults with motion controls on, which makes it so that your aim is controlled by how you hold the gamepad. You can turn it off in the pause menu. I highly recommend disabling it as soon as possible.
2. I like that everyone talks like weird 90s hipsters. In any other game it might be obnoxious, but because everyone looks like goofy cartoon sea creatures I think it works.
3. Splatoon is one of the few games I’ve seen where you can’t actually play on the GamePad for most of its modes. I imagine this is because, for once, the GamePad is actually vital. Looking at the map on it quickly tells you where you need ink up, and also allows you to super jump to the positions of your teammates.