Video Games Review: Splatoon 2 (Switch, 2017)

When I first got my hands on Splatoon 2  at a Nintendo Switch preview event in Melbourne back in February, my first thought was that this was a rare display of laziness from NintendoThere wasn’t anything that felt hugely different from the 2015 Wii U original other than the ability to take the game with you. I was wrong. Here’s why.

It would have made total sense for Nintendo to just re-release the original Splatoon onto the Switch and call it a day. They’ve already done exactly the same thing with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and it sold like crazy, so there’s even a precedent for it. So few people owned a Wii U that they can get away with doing this — for a large proportion of Nintendo Switch owners that never bothered to pick up a Wii U, these will be entirely new experiences.

Even for returning players, there’s a surprising amount of tweaks, concessions and alterations made to the Splatoon formula to accommodate for the new hardware, though the core of this multiplayer-focused experience remains largely unchanged.

Turf War is likely the mode with which most returning players will be familiar, the multiplayer arena battle in which winners are determined based on percentage of the level covered in paint, but there’s a lot of new here too. Our favourite has been the co-op horde mode in which a surprisingly dark story is slowly uncovered as wave after wave of foes is mowed down with colourful, family-friendly paintball rounds.

Splatoon 2 also takes the step, perhaps wise, of assuming you’ve never played the original and runs you through a fairly comprehensive tutorial before ever dropping you into the Inkopolis hub area. Once this is completed, you are turned loose into the world, ready to drench everything in sight with ink from a supersoaker.

Ink is your stock and trade in Splatoon 2. It’s how you win games, it’s how you defeat your enemies and it’s even how you get around to a greater or lesser extent. Covering every available surface in ink not only allows you to win territory control game types, it also provides a way to nip around the map. Diving into the goop gives you a significant boost to your movement speed, allowing you to propel yourself to new areas ahead, above or below you and get the drop on your foes before they know what’s happening.

What this means is that you’ve got pretty much everything you need to succeed in the game right from the jump. Beyond the clear line of demarcation between the single and multiplayer modes (none of the unlocked weapons or cosmetics gained in the single-player game can be used in multiplayer and vice-versa), the game does nothing to gate you off.

This splashes both ways, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s wonderful to see that no part of Splatoon 2 is really gated by your progression, but it also means there aren’t benefits you’ll unlock for some modes by playing others. You may unlock all the weapons in your single-player campaign, but you’ll have to pay (using in-game currency) to get them in multiplayer; likewise, none of the clothing upgrades from multiplayer can be brought into the story mode.

The only area where the game seems to assume any degree of prior knowledge is in the surprisingly lore-heavy single-player campaign. Marie, one half of the twin sister duo that hosted the original game, is looking for said twin Callie, who has been kidnapped. Every part of the single-player campaign connects back to the original in some way, be it through specific callbacks in the writing, the design echoes or the campaign’s primary goal of recovering imprisoned zapfish and restoring Inkopolis’ power supply.

Everything throughout the campaign is cleverly designed to not only inform the new moves and mechanics you’re learning but the way you employ them once learned. Each concept is given room to breathe by way of having whole levels built around them. Once completed, you are tipped back into the hub world where you must take what you’ve learned and use it to reach the next challenge. These levels are over quite quickly but are always very focused which means, even if you’re chewing through them quickly, you’ll still have quite a bit of fun with them. That said, these sections are where one of the game’s few real faults comes into stark relief — many of them rely on platforming to a degree that is totally at odds with the way the rest of the game plays. A combination of incoming enemy fire, the camera being obscured by level geometry or simply trying to make an especially hazardous leap from one moving platform to another didn’t really add anything to the game but frustration. This is a shooter, and it’s in these moments you can feel the design trying to do something interesting but getting a bit ahead of itself all the same.

Thankfully, you won’t need to worry about clumsy platforming in the multiplayer. Turf War is still, largely, the multiplayer mode du jour, a 4v4 team battle that is won or lost by the total percentage of the level you can cover in paint. Matches are fast, fun and generally allow you to contribute in whatever way you please. Are you able to actually wield Splatoon‘s famously wonky aim with precision? Get up in the enemy’s face and put them down! Not a great shot? That’s okay, aim at the level instead, it’s very easy to hit. Either will have an impact on the match — in a world of team shooters like Overwatch where team comp is everything, it’s nice to know there’s a game where it’s almost impossible to do it wrong. If you’re shooting at all, you’re already doing it right.

One thing that shooter fans coming in from other games might balk at is Nintendo’s approach to map rotation. It’s … unconventional. Let’s put it that way. Essentially, two multiplayer maps are in rotation at any given time. That’s it, no more, no less. In the original game, the rotation of these maps happened fairly regularly to keep things moving briskly. At this early stage of release, it’s hard to know what Nintendo’s plans are for map rotation so right now there isn’t a huge amount of variety there (though it is worth nothing that some of the more inventive maps that were included in the original Splatoon‘s DLC have reappeared here so that’s cause for celebration if nothing else).

Where the game has pulled out all the stops on new content is in the weapons. Favourites from the original game like the charger, the Splattershot and the (hated) paint roller return, joined by weapons like the Splat Dualies which sets your Inkling on a John Woo-style pistols-akimbo mission of squid destruction with their high rate of fire and surprisingly long range. Better yet, they grant a dodge/roll move which is the first time Splatoon has ever tied any kind of mobility mods to a specific weapon.

Nintendo has used the period since the launch of the original to nip and tuck Splatoon 2 to create a more sensible online experience, but there are still a few glaring omissions. There are things that regular players of online games have come to expect that simply are not there — while waiting for your squad to fill up pre-match, there’s still no way to tweak your loadout, nor see what your squaddies are equipped with to better round out the team composition. Got a team of less than four? You still can’t queue up together. Want to converse via voice chat? There’s an official Nintendo app for smartphones that now allows you to do so but there’s still no native solution built into the console and the app’s functionality is no substitute for simply pulling out your laptop and getting on Discord. It’s actually less of a hassle to do that than use the app. C’mon, Nintendo. This is an easy problem to solve. Your competitors solved it over a decade ago. There’s no good excuse for this and you know it.

Should Splatoon 2 follow the same aggressive post-launch plans as the original then its entirely possible that we’ll be looking a game that plays quite differently by Christmas. The mode I’m most closely watching in this regard is the aforementioned Salmon Run, the horde mode in which four players grab local controllers and fend off wave after wave of baddies, hoovering up golden eggs to survive. Team mates that get knocked out must be revived by their team mates, and not by hand but with ink. This horde mode took me completely by surprise in that it is an unexpected move for Nintendo to make and that it provides a far stiffer challenge than almost any other mode in the game. Getting through this mode was almost entirely reliant on good communication — calling out weak spots, incoming foes and even our own positioning. For now, Salmon Run is only available in local co-op, presumably because of the lack of reliable online communications. Nintendo plans to have an online version but really only for special events that they plan to run themselves. Once again, you gotta get on that comms issue, Nintendo. It’s a gigantic buzzkill.

Splatoon 2 takes everything that worked about the original game and hones it. Further, it’s now in a format that can be thrown in your bag and taken with you wherever you go. It’s maddening that the game’s best modes are held back by Nintendo’s lacklustre approach to online play, and it could easily be argued that Ninty have rereleased the same game with a handful of shiny new toys. Nevertheless, Splatoon 2 remains a damned good time, and we’re happy to be able to take it with us on the road.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Salmon Run; Guns and Fashion; More Splatoon!
Lowlights: Terrible voice comms solution; Feels very similar to the original
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Available: Now

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch