Nintendo is known for doing things differently, so it should come as no surprise at all to find Splatoon far removed from your typical online shooter. The obvious shake-up is that the weapons the protagonists carry shoot paint instead of hot lead – teams of four complete to coat more ground than the opposition before a match ends. Less obvious? Itâ€™s hard to know where to start.
The ability to transform into a squid is as good a place as any to begin. At a push of a button the Inklings – as they’re known – turn into squids and are then able to swiftly swim through their team’s paint. Not only is this an essential tactic for escaping incoming fire, but it also keeps the pace fast flowing from the second a match starts right to the final buzzer. Battles are short, lasting just three minutes, but oh so moreish. For extended sessions however Splatoon doesnâ€™t quite have enough variety at hand – like deep fried scampi, to use a fitting analogy, itâ€™s best savoured in small chunks.
Even Nintendo themselves seems to be aware of this as maps rotate on an hourly basis. Just two are available at any given moment and as such within the space of an hour the same locals are repeated several times. Once the hour is up one of the in-game news feeds, anchored by two likeable female Inklings, appears to inform what maps are up next. Just five maps were available at launch, along with the promise that more content is on its way for the sum of precisely nothing. So far Nintendo has made good on that word – between the game launching and us writing this review weâ€™ve seen two extra maps (Port Mackerel and the undercover Kelp Dome) and a new weapon modelled on the NES Zapper.
The decision to rotate maps two at a time initially seemed odd. Over time though it emerged to be a stroke of genius. After playing the same map several times in quick succession you canâ€™t help but start to formulating strategies and picking up tips from other players. Itâ€™s curious instinctive. Generally, battles pan out like this: once the area around the starting point is coated with paint, a colourful clash with the other team inevitably occurs somewhere near the middle. The remaining minutes are simply chaos, with players trying to push towards the oppositionâ€™s respawn area. Inklings move slowly through paint thatâ€™s not their own, and so plastering the respawn area really puts the opposite team at disadvantage. If youâ€™re not constantly spraying paint youâ€™re dead weight. This ethos provides a wonderful sense of purpose – even players merely covering up the oppositionâ€™s handiwork, rather than splatting rivals, are contributing to the final result.
Map design is based heavily on symmetry, with most featuring narrow paths to the left and right as well as overhead walkways. Reaching higher areas is a simple case of coating the walls with paint and swimming vertically to the top. The Wii U GamePad shows a top-down view which proves to be incredibly inciteful, showing unpainted areas and teammate locations. Weâ€™d even go as far as saying that itâ€™s integral to the experience. During matchmaking meanwhile the GamePad hosts a simple but compelling faux 8-bit mini-game.
Going back to strategies, you soon learn which ramps in Blackbelly Skatepark often have an enemy or two lurking at the top and which narrow paths in Port Mackerel to avoid becoming trapped in. Potential sniper locations quickly become consigned to memory too. Camping isnâ€™t quite as problematic as in some shooters, praise be, as these locations are often constructed from metal grills. As soon as an Inkling transforms into a squid they fall through said grills, plummeting back to the lower regions.
And yes, sniper rifles do exist in Splatoon. New weapons unlock every time a new rank is reached, all of which can be tested on a firing range prior to purchasing. This constant slew of new playthings helps to keep things fresh – to use a phrase heard here often – and also gives incentive to rise through the ranks. Although a few of the ranged weapons are a little too similar the majority completely change the way the game is played. The Splat Roller is a good example – itâ€™s great for coating areas in paint quickly, but canâ€™t compete against long distance weapons when it comes to taking down the opposition.
Another unique twist is that only a single weapon can be taken into battle. This did give cause for concern until discovering that all weapons have their own grenade type and unique support item, including the chance to summon a screen-filling whirlwind formed of paint. If used proficiently when a match is about to end some items can potentially alter the final outcome. The three minute timespan does prevent any outright comebacks, mind.
Perks are present too, randomly assigned to each item of clothing. Note the use of the word randomly there – chances of coming across another player with the same skills as yourself are slim. Shops that sell clothing and weapons are unlocked until level four is reached, but fashionistas should worry not – this rank takes just a couple of hours of play to reach. Ranked battles with alternative game types unlock at rank 10, with rank 20 being the current maximum.
Itâ€™s clear Nintendo has spent a lot of time designing the Inklingâ€™s attire. Or to be more precise, spent a lot of time observing fashion trends from the past few years. Wide peak baseball caps with those fashionable shiny stickers, long-sleeve shirts buttoned all the way to the top and trainers with the biggest tongues since KISS – itâ€™s like a H&M catalogue in videogame form. If another Inkling found in the hub – a small, graffiti covered, plaza – is wearing a piece of clothing that takes fancy, itâ€™s possible to order it from a street urchin known as Spyke. Taking inspiration from far and wide, character design is up to Nintendoâ€™s usual high standard, right down to the initially snooty store staff.
Then thereâ€™s Cap’n Cuttlefish, an elderly decorated war hero. He fronts the single-player campaign, making your customisable Inkling an honorary agent in the battle against the Octarians. Theyâ€™ve swiped the Zap Fish – a legendary creature that provides Inkopolis with power. Missions take place under Inkopolis, with each having a cunningly hidden secret scroll to find and a boss to beat at the end of each area. Bosses are inventive, bringing back some fond memories of Super Mario Galaxy, although they do follow the typical â€˜three hits to defeatâ€™ rule. Sadly the missions themselves arenâ€™t quite as creative, with the majority feeling like glorified tutorial sections. Upgradeable weapons and an assortment of pleasingly gormless enemies prevent interest levels waning until the fifth and final boss but itâ€™s fair to say that Splatoon wonâ€™t be remembered for its single-player mode.
Itâ€™s a good job, then, that the rest of the package is polished and refined enough to elevate all shortcomings found elsewhere. Considering this is Nintendoâ€™s first foray into competitive online shooting theyâ€™ve managed to perfect an awful lot, from the feel of the weapons to the tightness of the controls. Fluid, fun and fresh – Splatoon is as colourful as a bag of Haribo Starmix and just as morerish.