Gaming

GammaSquad Review: ‘Splatoon’ Is A Bright Idea That Doesn’t Quite Hit The Target

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The most frequently stated criticism of Nintendo is that they never do anything original — that they stick too closely to what’s worked before. This isn’t entirely fair, as there are plenty of fresh mechanics and ideas found in most new Mario and Zelda games for example, but it’s true that Nintendo doesn’t create new characters or explore new genres often. With Splatoon, they’re doing both.

Splatoon is an online multiplayer-focused shooter in which strange, half-squid, half-human creatures blast each other and the scenery with colorful ink. Splatoon is unlike anything Nintendo (or any other company) has ever done before, but originality alone doesn’t make a game worthwhile. Is Splatoon the next classic Nintendo franchise, or does the game miss its mark?

Splatoon (Wii U)

Artistic Achievement

Like most Nintendo games, Splatoon isn’t laden with excessive amounts of storytelling. You’re an Inkling, a sort of human-squid hybrid, and you live in a society where everybody’s obsessed with blasting each other with Super Soakers full of colorful ink. Oh, and there’s also a race of octopus people who are, naturally, mortal enemies of the squid people. That’s about all you strictly need to know. You can collect bits of backstory about the Splatoon universe, and it’s clear that a fair amount of effort has been sunk into creating this new world, but it never quite connected for me. I wanted to love this world, but it never endeared itself to me like, say, the Mushroom Kingdom or Hyrule. I know Nintendo is all about quick accessibility, but perhaps if they’d given us a little more story, just a bit of a set-up, these wacky squid people would have stuck with me better.

One of Splatoon’s many quirky, yet underdeveloped characters. 

Splatoon isn’t exactly a visual marvel. Aside from being in HD and running at a smooth 60fps, everything here looks fairly dated. The multiplayer maps look like something you might have seen in a Tony Hawk game on the PS2, and the single player campaign is basically a slightly grubby Mario Galaxy. The game does feature some fun, inspired character designs, and the globs of neon-colored paint you spray across the scenery is visually stimulating in a simple sort of way. That said, even by the Wii U’s slightly limited standards, Splatoon doesn’t really impress. Nintendo has pushed the Wii U further visually with games like Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3.

Splatoon may not look fantastic, but its thoroughly modern, electronic soundtrack is suitably memorable. More than once, I found myself getting inked to death by a rival player when I got distracted grooving to the music. Maybe that’s not a good thing, but whatever. Distractingly good music is a “flaw” I’ll always welcome.

Innovation

Splatoon may be a new IP, but it’s as distinctly Nintendo as it gets. The goal of both single and multiplayer is to spray the scenery with whatever eye-searing shade of ink happens to be in your gun. Once you’ve made your mark, you can transform into a squid and swim quickly and fluidly through the ink. Watch out though — other colors of ink sprayed by enemies or rival players will slow you down, and can even kill you if you spend too much time in them. It’s a novel concept to be sure, and one you’re unlikely to see many other games copying, even if Splatoon turns out to be a big success.

The game also features a lot of stuff that may be a bit old hat to the gaming industry as a whole, but are new territory for Nintendo. This is Nintendo’s first in-house developed shooter. It’s their first major game that primarily focuses on online multiplayer. It’s the first Nintendo game where you can buy shoes from a giant prawn. Well, OK, that one isn’t just a Nintendo milestone. You certainly can’t accuse Nintendo of playing it safe with this one.

Yes, that’s a Super Soaker sniper rifle. Nintendo’s trying some interesting stuff with this one. 

Execution

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé has said the aim is for Splatoon to be the Mario Kart of multiplayer shooters. It’s a lofty goal, and it’s unfortunately one Nintendo falls somewhat short of. Splatoon‘s core paint ‘n’ swim gameplay is certainly solid. Making an inky mess is entertaining on a basic, visceral level, and once you grow accustomed to the game’s rhythms, there is a certain amount of strategy to be found amongst the colorful mayhem. Do you plunge deep into enemy territory, painting a path that your teammates can follow, or do you hang back and paint the hidden corners other players might have missed? Do you tackle your opponents head on, attempting to stop them in their tracks, or do you sneak past them, grab the high ground then rain death upon them from above? There are plenty of options.

Yes, Splatoon can be a pretty fun little arena shooter, but the next Mario Kart? No way. The reason Mario Kart remains an enduring classic is because it’s instantly accessible. The ultimate “easy to pick up, tough to master” title. Splatoon might have been a good, approachable multiplayer game, but Nintendo throws up roadblocks at every turn. For starters, while the game does have same-couch multiplayer, it’s been intentionally hamstrung. You can only play with up to two players, one of which has to use the GamePad, and you’re restricted to a simplistic balloon popping game.

The same-couch multiplayer won’t leave a terribly lasting impression. 

Because you can’t practice the multiplayer on your own or casually with friends, you’re forced to jump right into online multiplayer without any preparation, and you’re in for a rude welcome. I was often matched up with players of a much higher level than me (hopefully this is less of a problem once the game is released to the public) and other players can buy all sorts of stat-boosting gear and powerful weapons. The end result is that your early experiences with Splatoon will mostly involve you dying suddenly and frequently. Personally, it took me a solid three or four hours of learning the ins and outs and leveling up my character before I felt competitive at all. A far cry from the instant gratification of Mario Kart.

It’s also difficult to appreciate Splatoon‘s potential depth and strategic possibilities, because there’s really no way to communicate with your team. Nintendo has said they intentionally left out voice and text chat because they didn’t want players exposed to any abuse. People acting like scumbags is an undeniable issue with most online shooters, but some sort of alternative needs to be devised. Without any means of communication, there’s no sense of camaraderie or teamwork in this team-based shooter. Any strategy you follow is merely your own, and your teammates feel as faceless as the opposing team you’re battling.

Thankfully, Splatoon also has a single-player mode. It’s clear Nintendo wants the focus to be on the online multiplayer, as they literally hide the single-player campaign down an easy-to-miss manhole in the game’s hub world, but the game is actually at its best when you’re playing alone. The single-player campaign feels more like a classic Nintendo platformer than a shooter, as it requires sharp timing and is constantly presenting the player with new twists on the game’s basic mechanics. In one stage, you might have to use your ink to expand giant sponges you can then use as platforms. In another, your ink will be used to expose hidden walls and pathways. Nearly every stage presents some sort of new idea or challenge. Splatoon‘s single-player even serves up a handful of hulking bosses, which are easily the most impressive, exhilarating parts of the game.

The game’s bosses are… unique individuals. 

Even the single-player isn’t perfect, though. Later stages start to over-rely on precise platforming, and, as everybody knows, shooters and platformers don’t mix well. When you manage to get through a particularly hard-fought shooting challenge, only to die instantly on a platforming section, it feels cheap, like Nintendo is changing the rules mid-game. But I don’t want to be too hard on the single-player, as I generally had quite a good time with it, even though Nintendo probably would have preferred I play more multiplayer.

Staying Power

Splatoon hits store shelves with a mere five multiplayer maps and two match types, a borderline shocking lack of content for a game that’s supposed to be all about the online multiplayer. Granted, the multiplayer maps are fairly large, with their fair share of nuances to ferret out, but by the time I started writing this review the available maps were already starting to feel a bit played out. Nintendo is promising a series of updates that will add more maps and match types, but will people stay invested with this drip-feed approach? It’s hard to say. To go back to the Mario Kart comparisons, I can still pull Mario Kart 64 out of the closet and play a few rounds with friends today, while Splatoon could very well be dead within six months if Nintendo doesn’t handle things right. The dangers of online gaming.

The single-player campaign offers about 30 missions that can be finished in about five to seven hours, although there are extra collectibles and challenges to tackle once you’re done. It’s a bit thin by Nintendo-platformer standards, but right in line with most multiplayer shooter single-player campaigns. Ultimately, there’s a pervading feeling throughout Splatoon of a potentially great, meaty game, that’s been starved of content for whatever reason, and I have a feeling a lot of Wii U owners will be returning to Smash Bros. and Mario Kart sooner rather than later.

Yes, of course there’s Splatoon Amiibos. Thankfully they’re pretty rad looking. 

Bullsh*t Factor

In addition to the aforementioned gimped same-couch multiplayer and lack of maps/match types, Splatoon foists all sorts of other restrictions upon its players. For instance, you can only play on two maps at any given time (the two maps change every six hours or so). Also, even when playing with friends you have no control over match rules or even which team you’re randomly sorted onto. At least all these restrictions mean Splatoon‘s servers run well. The game always ran nice and smoothly for me, although we’ll see how it holds up once the wider public gets splatting. Of course, as with all new Nintendo games, certain things (in this case, a series of retro-style arcade games and some extra challenges) can only be played if you have Splatoon‘s corresponding Amiibos, which is a trend I’m already tiring of.

Despite these frustrations, this is still a Nintendo game, so I never experienced any glitches, crashes or performance issues. Also, thus far all announced Splatoon DLC will be free —  which may not last, but it’s a nice gesture for now.

Final Thoughts

Splatoon feels like a potentially great, addictive game that’s been surrounded on all sides by police tape. Splatoon‘s core gameplay is rock solid, and you want to reach out and embrace it, but Nintendo seems intent on keeping players at arm’s length. The game’s multiplayer is fun in bursts, but ultimately kneecapped by a lack of content and an endless list of needless restrictions. The single-player is a more sustained good time, but it feels like Nintendo could have pushed it further.

If you’re a hardcore Nintendo fan interested in Splatoon simply because it’s a rare new IP from a company that doesn’t venture out of its comfort zone often, Splatoon is probably worth a try. There’s far more new things going on here than in most Nintendo games, and again, the game is a fun, albeit sometimes frustrating, experience. Most other folks may want to wait until Nintendo opens up the online multiplayer further and/or the price for a copy comes down a bit. Splatoon aims high, and hits a solid percentage of its targets, but it feels a bit too scattershot to become Nintendo’s next big thing.

Worth a Chance

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