Playing Splatoon is sort of like discovering a unicorn, or stumbling upon the Loch Ness Monster- here is a full fledged, retail, flagship new Nintendo IP, with all the weight of Nintendo’s marketing backing it up, and packed to the brim with the kind of genuinely fresh and new ideas that made Nintendo brands household names to begin with. Since its debut at Nintendo’s E3 showing last year, Splatoon has captivated many with its promise of a whimsical take on the shooter genre, and a fresh way to play a style of game that has grown very stale over the years.
Now, with its release just weeks away, Splatoon has sort of suffered a backlash- Nintendo’s recent announcements of the lack of content in the game at launch, which will be patched in over the next three months (for free, but it is unavailable at launch regardless), as well as the lack of basic online functionality, such as voice chat and matchmaking, has left many scratching their heads and wondering- what exactly is the point, then?
"Nintendo has movement and control in video games down to an artform, and they put that to great use in this game."
The first time you play a game in Splatoon, none of this matters. You instantly forget all of that. That first game, or those first few games, the promise of Splatoon completely envelopes you. You see, Splatoon plays every bit as great as the concept promises. Nintendo has movement and control in video games down to an artform, and they put that to great use in this game. Movement has three components- regular walking, jumping, and squid-traversal. The former two are exactly what their names imply – you use them to navigate the map, preferably while going in all guns blazing and spraying as much of the territory around you with your colors as possible – but it’s in squid form that things get interesting.
At any time, you can become a squid by pressing the left trigger. In squid mode, you can travel across the map far faster, regenerate health almost instantaneously, and refill your ink guage (i.e. ammo), as long as you are in your own team’s color. Get into the enemy team’s color, and you take heavy damage, eventually just flat out dying. Each time you die – whether you died because you were a squid in enemy territory, or because another player took you out – you explode in a burst of the enemy’s color, leading to them gaining some more ground at your expense.
These mechanics come into heavy play in Splatoon’s flagship mode, and the only one we got to play in the beta– Turf Wars. Turf Wars has your team pit against the opposing team, and the aim is, simply, to splatter your color and spray it over as much of the map as possible. The team that controls more of the map by the end of the allotted time period wins. It’s a gloriously simple concept, and matches can be great fun, given all the mechanics outlined above. When other factors are added in, such as grenades that explode in a fit of color in a pre-determined radius, secondary weapons, or the ability to jump straight to any player on the map you want to help them or back them up, it can become positively frenetic.
"Saltspray Rig has flashes of the kind of constructed brilliance that makes the level design in Nintendo's platformers such a joy.
It also helps that the map design backs up this sort of nuanced and unpredictable play- there are ‘deadzones’ on each map at various intervals, where color simply cannot be sprayed, as well as multiple vertical platforms, which allow you to not only gain some ground in a spot which is otherwise hard to reach, but also provide you with a vantage point to claim the rest of the territory, as in other shooters, as well as providing you with the chance to perform a vertical takedown and take out any player below you, within your vicinity.
Throughout the beta, we got to play on two maps: Walleye Warehouse, and Saltspray Rig. Walleye Warehouse is a pretty basic map, with a clean, symmetric layout, some deadzones, and a couple of spots of verticality that are islands more than anything else. It’s a good map to cut your teeth on, but it’s also very vanilla- I was already getting bored of it by the end of the beta.
On the other hand, Saltspray Rig has flashes of the kind of constructed brilliance that makes the level design in Nintendo’s platformers such a joy. It’s a multi leveled, multi tiered map, allowing for the potential for some great tactical teamwork in staking and claiming territory. I definitely liked this map a lot, and sincerely hope the other maps in the roster are more like it than Walleye Warehouse.
"The problem with trying to conduct or coordinate any kind of teamwork in the game, however, came from one very simple omission- there is no voice chat in Splatoon."
The problem with trying to conduct or coordinate any kind of teamwork in the game, however, came from one very simple omission- there is no voice chat in Splatoon. None at all. Unlike, say, Mario Kart 8 or Super Smash Bros., which at the very least allow voice chatting in lobbies, Splatoon does not allow for it at all (to say nothing of Pokemon games on 3DS, which run circles around this, and other Nintendo games with how embarrassingly full featured their online functionality is). This is an issue because, as you may have picked up on already, Splatoon is a squad based, team based action game. The most efficient way to play the game, and secure a victory, is to work with your teammates, coordinate where each player goes, and try to cover maximum ground that way. In the absence of this communication, the game can devolve into unorganized chaos, which can be fun for parties, but grating on the nerves for someone who is trying to play the game more competitively- my games frequently saw me and my teammates all running around with our weapons, covering the exact same spot of ground, heedless to the fact that the rest of the map was being claimed by the other team in the meanwhile.
The lack of voice chat is what mars the actual gameplay experience of Splatoon the most, because everything else works so well. Take, for instance, the weapons- the demo offered four loadouts: Splattershot Jr., Splattershot, Splat Roller, and Splat Charger. Of these, the former two are your basic assault rifle variants (the Jr. is definitely the weaker of the two), the Splat Charger is a sniper that covers massive distances, but has a charging period for each shot, and the Splat Roller is a close range melee weapon, which nonetheless manages to be the single most overpowered weapon in play. Each loadout also comes with its own secondary weapons, so there is enough variety here, and every player will find something that suits their style.
There is also the fact that, especially given that this is a Nintendo game, it played impeccably well online. The netcode was flawless, with absolutely no lag whatsoever. There were no dropped matches or sudden disconnections (phenomena that players of other Nintendo games, such as Smash or even Kart, should be well familiar with); given that this was a server stress test, and that this game is far more strenuous and susceptible to visible lag than Nintendo’s other titles, this is truly remarkable.
"The trouble now is, at least on the multiplayer front, this game will be severely lacking at launch, with just five maps and one mode, and no proper matchmaking.
Consider also just how great the game looks, with its unique sense of style, or its fast paced, catchy soundtrack. Splatoon has all the hallmarks of a Nintendo game, and everything that comes with the territory, the good and the bad- in this beta, those were the gameplay and polish, and the lack of basic expected features, respectively.
All eyes are now on the final game- whereas the recent spate of annoucnements Nintendo had made about Splatoon have led to players expressing their distaste, there is hardly any doubt that the game plays exceptionally well, and lives up to its promise in terms of mechanics. The trouble now is, at least on the multiplayer front, this game will be severely lacking at launch, with just five maps and one mode, and no proper matchmaking- all of that comes later. Splatoon will not be feature and content complete until August of this year. Whether or not it’s worth buying even then is not something I can say now. Whether or not the single player content will redeem the game in terms of value proposition at launch is also a question that cannot be answered yet.
All that I know is, in typical Nintendo fashion, Splatoon appears to be a brilliant, fresh new idea, surrounded by some truly baffling decisions that may or may not end up impeding it.
This game was previewed on Wii U.