Video Games Review: Splatoon (Wii U, 2015)

Nintendo are taking a bit of a different tack with Splatoon. The venerable video game publisher’s first new IP since Pikminand Animal Crossing debuted back in 2001, Splatoon sees Nintendo create the sort of game no-one ever expected to see from them – a multiplayer shooter.

Splatoon revolves around Inklings, childlike hybrids who are part humanoid, part squid. These little terrors like to strap on tanks full of squid and octopus ink and shoot it at each other in various arenas using a wide variety of similarly ink-based weaponry and deployables. They can change between their humanoid and squid forms at will and are rather allergic to the ink of any opponents. Like many of Nintendo’s protagonists over the years, the Inklings manage to be at once incredibly strange and rather endearing. Your Inkling can be upgraded with new weapons – everything from area denial Paint Rollers to long-range sniper rifles – and clothes, each item of which grants various stat bonuses like faster respawn or greater ink tank capacity. It’s worth noting that Nintendo have included clothing that looks more like the sort of clothes young people are actually wearing today than I’ve ever seen in a game before.

In terms of the online multiplayer, there are only two game types on offer – Turf War and Splat Zone – which are 4v4 map control modes. Turf War, available the game’s more casual Regular Battle mode, requires players to cover as much of the map in ink as they can. The team that covers the most by the end of the enjoyably short round wins gold and XP that can be used to purchase the aforementioned upgrades. The other mode, Splat Zone, is a King of the Hill mode that asks teams to battle it out for key points on a given map. This mode unlocks once Ranked Battles become available at Level 10 so you’ll spend a fair chunk of time grinding away in Regular Battles until then.

Both of these modes are solid – they’re a lot of fun, their short, fast, intense games that feel very balanced and even. The thing is, there’s still only the two modes and for those used to a wider variety of game types in their shooters, it can feel incredibly restrictive. This limitation seems to be a result of Nintendo’s obvious avoiding of the term “deathmatch”. You can definitely shoot and destroy other Inklings during the game but they rather clearly don’t want you thinking about murder while you do it. Additionally, there’s no ability to communicate via mic to other players (only the ability to press directions on the D-Pad to shout “To me!” or “Nice!”) and there are no private lobbies if you and your friends aren’t in the mood for a pub match, both of which – while not deal breakers by any stretch – are telling of Nintendo’s unfamiliarity with the genre.

Nintendo added the Splat Zone mode to the game post-launch after they deemed enough of the player base had reached Level 10. Another mode, Tower Control, is set to arrive in the game at some point in the future too. It’s nice to see Nintendo supporting the game post launch but, given that there are only a handful available right now, the drip-feed of new game modes feels like a bit of a mis-step. Why didn’t the game just ship with a full complement of modes? (At the time of writing, another update featuring new guns, mods, maps and a new mode called Rainmaker is also on the horizon)

The saving grace then is the fact that each of the game’s seven (current) maps are extremely well designed and a lot of fun to traverse. They’re surprisingly complicated, interesting to traverse and contain just the right amount of bottlenecks and open spaces to ensure a heated exchange in almost every round. Again, there aren’t very many of them and the limited rotation means you’ll often end up playing one or two over and over but you can forgive this quirk because they’re just so damned well put together.

There are a few other modes available not specifically related to the online multiplayer too – a 1v1 offline multiplayer mode that pits a pair of local players against one another using the gamepad and a controller and Octo Valley. Octo Valley is a single-player campaign mode that sees your Inkling embark on a quest to reclaim the missing Zapfish from various levels/obstacle courses. I found it to be a little on the easy side, blasting through it in about four or five hours. In fact, the only time I felt I was posed a serious challenge was when I reached the final boss, a crazed, multi-stage encounter that sees the difficulty curve skyrocket without warning. Ultimately, Octo Valley will keep younger players entertained but most will really only find it an extended tutorial, allowing you to get a better grasp of the basics before heading into the multiplayer modes. There’s amiibo functionality as well that offers a number of challenges that can be completed throughout the game for extra rewards. These were actually quite a bit of fun and add some extra longevity if you need a break from the multiplayer.

Pleasantly, every single online match I jumped into during this review was a remarkably lag-free experience. Thrown in with a mix of Australian, New Zealand and Japanese players, we were all able to splatter the hell out of each other smoothly, efficiently and without any games dropping. For being a relative newcomer to the online shooter arena, the netcode on Splatoon is rock solid. I did notice that the game’s matchmaking can be a bit wobbly at times, however. More often than not, I would be placed into a game with people of various levels – one recent round had everything from a Level 2 player to a few Level 14’s – and for the most part, it’s fine. You can have a good, hard fought battle without things getting too one-sided. But then, usually after about 8pm, the scales tip for some reason and suddenly I’m only getting matched with five Level 20’s and two Level 18’s, all of whom have far greater gear, weapons and experience than I do. I can’t be too mad though – even when it’s ludicrously stacked against you, Splatoon is still extremely fun and engaging experience. You definitely can’t say that about Team Fortress 2, let’s put it that way.

Splatoon’s primary control method is through the Wii U Gamepad. The TV is your main screen and the Gamepad is used primarily for maps, giving you a bird’s eye view of how well your team is doing in a Turf War match for example. When you first boot the game up, however, it will have its Motion Controls set to On. This is potentially disastrous as first impressions go because the motion controls are awfully unintuitive and make it nearly impossible to keep the camera steady and actually aim at what you want. For a horrifying moment I thought I might not be able to turn it off and began to wonder if Nintendo had completely lost their minds or if I was finally over the hill, too old to understand how games the kids are into are played. Thankfully, the moment I turned them off the game was improved by a substantial amount.

I’ve done a bit of grumbling in this review but I want to make something clear – I love Splatoon. I love it so much. It is, in it’s own parlance, “fresh”. It’s a smart, fun and engaging tweaking of the team shooter experience that, despite an apparent lack of content, never seems to lose its edge. Honestly, the game arrived the day before E3 began and it became all I could think about. If you’re looking for something that your kids will love and that you can play with them that won’t bore you half to death, look no further than Splatoon. It’s Nintendo doing what they do best – smart design, big character and solid mechanics.

Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Great maps and weapons; So much fun
Lowlights: Lack of modes might turn some off
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 28 May 2015
Platform: Nintendo Wii U

Reviewed on Nintendo Wii U