Technology - 59%
Presentation - 80%
Design Theory - 21%
Gameplay - 48%
Story - 32%
Value - 38%
I’ve recently concocted a bit of a theory about Nintendo. As soon as Nintendo get onto something, it pretty much signifies that that thing in particular is over. Nintendo have historically taken the smarter path, letting other companies develop technology or methodology, then sweeping in later to refine said technology. This explains Ninty’s slow adoption of CD technology, backlit screens, online connectivity, touchscreen and a host of others. Usually, this puts Nintendo in a unique position in the industry as they can essentially pick and choose which path to go down, based on the successes or failures of their competitors. Lately though, it seems that The Big N aren’t just late to the party. Instead, they’re like a drastically uncool uncle, one who’s just started saying the word “leet”, or who is only now quoting Chapelle’s Show. Rather than innovating through tired technology, Nintendo are instead a handy indication of when a trend is truly on the downslope. Once Nintendo are on board with something, it’s officially on the way out. So it is with Splatoon.
I can only speak as an outsider here, as a conscientious objector to the online war, but I don’t think competitive online shooters are what they once were. Raff’s been on that online flex since day one, but I have always preferred playing my games against people in the same room. For the most part, Nintendo seem to have agreed with me – their longest-running multiplayer title Mario Party continues to eschew online play to this day. As an outside observer to the world of online shooters, it seems to me that enthusiasm is waning for online deathmatches. Call of Duty and Battlefield continue to fight for dominance of the online space with their dependable annual offerings, but the crowds themselves seem less endeared each time a new title hits the shelves. Perhaps the dog has had its day; after all, there is only so much one genre can offer. Counter-Strike continues to peddle its wares with a fervent online community, but overall in the mass market, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to witness unit sales beginning to drop for this particular genre. Quite why Ninty have decided that the time is right for them to enter this online space, with the climate as it is, is beyond me. It’s a shame actually, as but for a few major flaws, Splatoon is a really competent game.
Splatoon’s gameplay is very, very simple. Essentially playing out as a bizarre hybrid of Team Fortress, Jet Grind Radio and Da Blob, Splatoon manages to wrangle a viper’s nest of influences into a fun online game. The gameplay is about as deep as a puddle of ink, but that doesn’t stop the game being fun. Splatoon’s major success stems from its inherent Nintendo-ness. It looks fantastic, the music is fantastic and the overall charm of the game is overwhelming. The game kicks off quickly, offering single player or multiplayer options. The single player campaign is no more than a series of advanced tutorials, teaching the player how to utilise the game’s controls, weapons and various features. Each few stages is bookended by a boss fight (three hits and he’s down), in which the most recently-learned skill will be most useful. The campaign will last a good few hours and teaches everything one needs to know about the game. It’s testament to Nintendo to know how to pace out the single player – just a few more stages and the single player would have been tiring. One downside to the single player campaign though is that XP and currency earned in the single player cannot be transferred to the multiplayer. A handful of weapons and gear can be unlocked though (even more if you’ve bought any of the Splatoon Amiibos), which serves as a small compromise.
The meat and potatoes of the game is the online play. Lobbying players are divided into two four-strong teams and have three minutes to cover as much of the map as they can in their team’s ink. Each team is randomly assigned a colour and before long, the map is positively swimming in a lurid duo-tone colour scheme. Kudos points for Nintendo here, as the rivaling colours don’t ever horribly clash with one another, an aesthetic decision no doubt made during the development process, but something precious few reviewers are picking up on. The online play borrows the domination model of online gaming. Players earn XP for the amount of ink they can lay down in each match, XP which enables them to level up and earn more gear and more weapons. If you’ve played Call of Duty et al you’ll know the drill. What’s most interesting about Splatoon, though, is that whilst players are able to “splat” one another, doing so awards no XP at all. Often you’ll see the highest-scoring player in a match will have earned no kills, instead focusing her efforts on laying down ink and actively avoiding fights. This is where Splatoon ups its own Nintendo-ness; a shooting game where players are sort-of discouraged from shooting one another. Splatting opponents does have its advantages though, as the game takes around 4 seconds to respawn players. In a three-minute match, four seconds quickly adds up to some serious down-time. The player’s “Inkling” avatar can transform into squid at a moment’s notice, and can swim almost-undetected and at high-speeds through their own-coloured ink. This adds the only tactical flavour to Splatoon, where a quick retreat is always preferable to getting splatted and a stationary squid is barely detectable, lending itself to ambush tactics. Where the game falls down is the absolutely abortive matchmaking. I picked this up on the first week of release, and for that first week I had a great time. Before long though I was being matched up with players twice or three times my level. A level 7 player getting matched with seven level 20 players isn’t just unfair on them, it’s unfair on everyone. You can imagine being on the team who got lumped with the level 7 guy. “Oh great, that’s this match lost then”. When teams are made of four people, one mis-match can mean a seriously unbalanced game. At one point I’d gone for about twenty matches where I was not just the lowest-rated player, but I was the lowest-rated by a country mile. And once the problem had reared its head it was one which only persistence could be rid of. Just keep plugging away, earning XP where you can until you’re at a high enough level to compete. Considering Splatoon is (seemingly) intended to be a casual game, where fun is put ahead of competition, this is exactly the opposite of what Nintendo’s matchmaking should have been doing. Again, look at better online FPSs, and see how well they manage matchmaking for online games. There is also a Ranked Battle mode for players who have achieved level 10, but the verdict is out on it. Ranked Battle has various modes but essentially apes more competitive online shooters, which to me reduces the overall appeal of the game. If I wanted to engage in serious gunplay I’d opt for a game which is regarded as being top of its field. Splatoon works so much better when it focuses on its own strengths, so for me the Ranked Battle was a miss and compounds the issues with matchmaking further.
After playing for long enough and earning that XP, players will level up and be given access to new items. Unlocking new weapons is always a joy, as each new tier of weapons facilitates the laying-down of even more ink, beginning the cycle anew. Secondary weapons begin as simple paint grenades but end up with heat-seeking robots and paint lawn sprinklers whilst the primary weapons go from Super Soaker-esque ink squirters to ink machine guns, giant paint rollers and ink sniper rifles. As an answer to Call of Duty’s killstreaks, Splatoon players have the option of selecting a “Special Ability” which is activated each time a certain volume of paint has been splatted. Tthese range from a period on unlimited grenades to transforming into a giant invincible squid who leaves a wake of paint as she zips over the map. Players earn XP whether they were on the winning or losing side, again a very Nintendo-y decision. Getting a medal for turning up to sports day diminishes the efforts of the top students, but the level playing field is appealing to some, so I will let you make your mind up how you feel about that. I have played matches against level 20 (the game’s current level cap) players who have clearly just ground out hours of play, eking out absolutely minimum XP to reach their current level. So level is certainly no indication of skill, rather an indication of attention span.
Further to the aping of other online FPS games, Splatoon players are offered perks in the form of wearable gear items. It sounds a bit crap, but the reality is far worse. Half of the gear upgrades do NOTHING. Defense up and Weapon Strength Up specifically are absolute lies. Whilst the game indicates that the weapon is delivering more damage, the in-game effect isn’t just negligible, it’s non-apparent. If one weapon needs to inflict three hits to splat an opponent, it will still need three hits after the maximum three upgrades. A complete points sink, an absolutely sickening display of a company not-quite-getting the genre they’re finally dipping their toe into. When you add on the fact that the standard control scheme asks players to look around using the pad’s gyroscope control, rather than using an analogue stick, Splatoon’s upsides start looking more like blind luck than good design.
When Xbox showed off Sunset Overdrive – the cartoonish, OTT shooter – many gamers remarked that it looked as though Xbox were reviving Jet Grind Radio, and with it the arcade console experience. When Nintendo announced that they were developing a competitive, online-only shooter, creating brand-new IP and pushing multiplayer on the Wii U, I think all of our collective eyebrows raised even higher. Admittedly, we all knew Splatoon would lean toward a more casual audience and would be chock-full of colour, charm and whimsy. But all said and done, Splatoon is a brave new space for Nintendo to be stepping into. Whilst it’s still more Club Penguin than Call of Duty, Splatoon manages to achieve every goal it sets out to.