No reader, we didn't receive a free copy of Splatoon in the mail and think, "Eh, why not?"
For those who haven't heard of it, Splatoon is a Wii U console based third person shooter from Nintendo that focuses on online play. While that may sound like another Call of Duty from the Nintendo company, Splatoon's existence is actually both a huge gamble and a big game changer for Nintendo, a company that traditionally poorly executes and utilizes online play.
Nintendo isn't known for online play. Their online "friend codes" are notoriously annoying to find and trade, with only the most recent systems having account wide codes/names rather than game based. Lag frequently disrupts games for all those involved, and communication is always strictly and severely limited.
Except for Animal Crossing. This game has employed voice chat, text chat, mail, and often involves trading and visiting people's towns, often online (though again, with restrictions and many game features shutting down). This is perhaps why Nintendo had many members of the Animal Crossing team work on Splatoon.
While you can play Mario Kart 8, Pokemon, and Smash Bros' most recent releases online, they're severely limited in gameplay options, and even more so in communication. While Splatoon allows next to no communication (text or voice, the latter being frequently a complaint by shooter fans), the game is almost strictly online. In fact, players cannot even use the game's shops without being connected to the internet. Nearly all the weapons are online only, and local multiplayer is a neutered version of the real online experience. Without a doubt, Nintendo decided to focus on an online title with Splatoon.
The offline game isn't terrible, though it is short, with 27 levels that usually take between 5-10 minutes to complete the first time you try them. Reply is limited to finding "secret scrolls" which just unlock the game's lore, an Adventure Time-esque fantasy world where the current dominant species are inklings, human-like squids that can revert to their squid-ish form (though oddly enough, can't swim in water).
Gameplay is focused on ink. Using various tools like ink-loaded guns, paint rollers, and paint "bombs", your objective is to cover enemies and terrain in your ink. Covering your opponent with enough ink "kills" them. Swimming in your own ink allows you to clean off ink (think "regain health"), move faster, jump higher, climb walls, and reload your weapon.
Though some people dislike it at first, using the game's gyroscopic controls work best. I usually suck at shooters that use a controller these days since I'm used to the accuracy generally granted by a mouse. While not perfect, once I put the sensitivity to max, the gamepad felt like a natural way of aiming my shots. E3 was a great reminder of how bad I can be, but when I play Splatoon I'm often at the top of my team when using a weapon I'm comfortable with, both in terms of points and kill:death ratios. I don't say this to brag but to show how much of a difference this style of control options makes. For fellow keyboard and mouse warriors, really, you owe it to yourself to at least try playing the game with these settings, even if you don't own a Wii U. Go to your local game shop and give it a whirl. I can wait.
Levels are almost puzzle like. For example, one level might teach you about climbing walls covered in ink. The next might teach you to switch to ink-squid form to move through grates. Later, you'll use both skills to move through a level with snipers who will kill you in one or two hits if you haven't picked up on these skills. It's classic Nintendo level design that can help novice gamers understand gameplay strategies more easily.
Single player does unlock several weapons for the online mode, but the currency earned in the single player doesn't apply to multiplayer, nor do the weapon upgrades in single player apply to the online weapon. Still, I highly recommend even expert shooters play through the main game first, since many of the weapons you'll unlock just feel more powerful than the basic ones. However, note that you must also level up to unlock more weapon options (though I stuck with the very first weapon, the Splattershot Jr., for maybe 14 levels out of 20 in the online mode).
While I hesitate to mention them, there are amiibo for this game. The price for them, as with most amiibo, is ridiculous. Do not expect to find them in stores, and expect to pay a lot to scalpers on Amazon or Ebay. The content offered by them does greatly extend the offline play, offering the same 27 levels with a new twist. The inkling girl and boy simply have you try the old levels with a different weapon (a charged shot and paint roller), but the squid amiibo unlocks time challenges and limited paint challenges, the former being incredibly fun and the latter being a reasonable if slightly frustrating challenge. Personally, I felt that the squid's were more enjoyable due to the difficulty and (in my opinion) cool costume reward, but I haven't bothered to finish the other two.
Amiibo do unlock gold for online play, and in large chunks for their first completion, but overall, online play should net you more gold over the long run. The weapons you unlock are "sadly" just different skins for some of the starting weapons you get (and sadly, not my beloved Splattershot Jr.). The costumes also do not have any of the "top tier" bonuses you can check out in this guide. In short, while the amiibo do offer a lot for offline play, they give almost no advantage in online play. Unless you're a hardcore fan like myself, I highly suggest saving your money and avoiding the amiibo unless you can buy them at/near retail price (and even then I'd hesitate). The bonuses stay unlocked once you've earned them, so if possible, friends could simply buy a single set, unlock what they want, and allow their friend to borrow the amiibo to do the same. Just, make sure it's a good friend who won't go out and sell your amiibo online.
Local multiplayer is simply a game of popping balloons for points. While you can ink the ground and kill your friend as well while playing on separate screens (the gamepad for player 1, and the TV for player 2), it just doesn't feel that exciting, though this may be due to the fact that my very first exposure to the game was the main multiplayer experience at E3 2014.
The Current Online Scene
Online play is where Splatoon really shines. As I hinted at before, there are different clothes with different bonuses. Especially in casual play, the bonuses are just small cantrips. I feel I can focus more on style than bonuses in this mode, which makes it quite enjoyable. The Animal Crossing team's effort to allow customization in an organic feeling world can really be felt once you go online: different clothes with lots of personality, NPC versions of people you've played with filling your town and saying their "Miiverse" messages as you pass by (think Facebook or Twitter for Nintendo games), and graffiti both in your town and in the battlegrounds based on player-made Miiverse art. Direct communication may be stifled, but I feel like expression is still quite satisfying, something I often feel is heavily restricted (or costly!) in other companies' titles.
Weapons are limited to loadouts rather than being free form. This is most likely to help keep the game balanced, since I imagine combining certain guns with sub weapons and specials (think your "ultimate" which you can use when the special gauge is filled) would be hard to balance, especially as Nintendo keeps releasing new weapons. Not just new loadouts, but weapons with new art, from slightly different looking guns to new models, like the old Nintendo Zapper and a paint brush.
Specials, which are barely used in single player, are a big part of online play. Some are utility, such as granting a protective bubble to you and any allies you touch, but some are just explosively awesome, giving you giant bazookas, map wide death blasters, or the ability to be a giant invincible squid. My personal favorite is the inkstrike, a missile fired by choosing a location to strike anywhere on the map by pressing it on the game's touchpad. It's just an epic feeling move.
But the game isn't about style alone. The previously mentioned casual mode or "Regular Battle" mode is all about painting terrain. Points are based not so much on kills (which spread your ink when your opponent, oddly enough, explodes with your ink color), but on spreading your ink (mostly on the ground; walls don't count, though don't ignore their strategic use). Raw ground is worth 1 point, your enemy's paint-covered-ground is 2.
Death in battle means being sent back to your spawn point for about 10-15 seconds (depending on some of your bonuses). However, at any point in the match, including right when you spawn, you can click on an ally or an ally's "beacon" (part of some loadouts) to "super jump" to their location. Super jumping is great for fast travel, but be careful as (without the right bonus) enemies will see where you'll land and can set traps for your arrival.
Unlike many other Wii U titles, the second screen does actually add to Splatoon, keeping your TV screen clutter free of the map that shows where your allies are and the spread of paint, including on enemies. Yes, if an enemy (or yourself) has opposing paint on them, they will appear on the map. Certain clothing bonuses and special abilities will also reveal this, though specials (like the Echolocator) will also display where enemies are on the TV screen. The second screen offers minimal support, but it's just enough for you to care about and remember to not ignore it.
Ranked play, on the other hand, means forgoing style and focusing on min-maxing your abilities. At launch there were "best in slot" bonuses, only offered on certain pieces of armor, though everything could be bought in the store or "specially ordered" (finding another player in your town wearing said item and asking the local "urchin" to procure it for you for an extra fee). A recent patch has helped fix this and also showed a few things. First, unlike updates to some of their other titles, it's Nintendo actually opening up about what they change, rather than the usually overly vague balance patch notes Smash Bros fans (and others) are used to. Second, it may be a sign that Nintendo wants to get the "fun" back into the game.
Just the same, in the current scene, people serious about ranked battles start to look similar, though there is a little breathing room. "Super Sea Snails" from the urchin can be bought and used to both add more slots to low ranked gear and to reroll the random bonuses unlocked by earning points in any online match. The base bonus will never change though, so don't expect those "bomb sniffer" boots to ever have "ink resistance". Most bonuses are minor, but min-maxers should know that each brand tends to favor certain bonuses. I know I've sunk a lot of money into gamblings
Ranked play isn't just about inking everything. The first one, Splat Zone, is about controlling specific areas on the map while your clock ticks towards zero. If either team is able to achieve this, the match ends in a "Knock out", with the winning team getting a huge bonus and the loser walking away with lost rank and absolutely no rewards. It is a bit harsh, but it's also an incentive to learn to play better, something I often feel Nintendo ignores. In the current MMO scene, I really wish more developers would actually follow Nintendo's return to a punishment for failure.
Nintendo then released a new ranked mode called "Tower Control" on July 1 (basically Team Fortress 2's "Payload" mode). It's obviously not original, but a new take on something we honestly don't see a lot in shooters. While the different maps do feel like they help certain weapon sets out more than others, the difference can be felt even more in the different game modes, and this felt the most obvious with Tower Control's introduction.
Online isn't perfect though. Voice chat among friends would be awesome. While there are mini-games you can play between matches (most, sadly, being tied to amiibo), I'd vastly prefer the ability to change my loadouts and settings without having to leave the queue. Heck, even having access to the friends list on the second screen would be nice, as would a few preset text options ("It's a trap!" or "Follow me!" would be great). Lag is rare, and I feel it's mostly handled fairly, with your paint only registering once your connection is solid again. However, when that fails you're kicked from the room, receiving no points and leaving your team down a squid; no one will be sent to replace you.
Japan already received the game's first special event "Splatfest" in which players choose one of two sides and "vote" via battle to win glory for their side (and some super sea slugs). Sadly, the event only lasted 24 hours and generally takes 3-6 hours on average to earn the highest title needed for the full reward, a big mistake for an online event. Even if your side loses, you get 12 super sea slugs (24 for winning), which is a 360,000 gold value. It's a very rewarding event. The US and EU versions of the event were canceled due to an error discovered during the Japanese event but later rescheduled it. With any luck, Nintendo will extend future events to ensure that more people have time to enjoy them or more change them up.
Splatfest was fairly enjoyable, even if it was region specific. Nintendo was wise enough to allow people to fight their own faction (i.e. Cats vs. Cats) if another full opposite faction team couldn't be found soon enough, which is something MMO companies have only recently started doing. How that effects the polls though, I'm not sure. However, like ranked play, you can't play with your friends, which is a huge no-no most online games have generally remembered to avoid. In addition, the whole event was limited to a single mode type (Turf War), though it did allow for 3 maps (the usual is 2 per game type, rotated every few hours). It may seem small, but I found some good players and added them to my friends list. It's also more of a light hearted event than a hardcore one. The game looks at voting, which side got the highest percentage of wins, than checks both to see which side won Splatfest overall. Some people are angry about it, but as someone who thought his side had lost and had come to grips with the situation, the win was a nice surprise.
Finally, a small note: Splatfest events aside, the game is international. There's one server that everyone plays on. It's great seeing Japanese, Spanish, French, German, and other nationalities enjoying the same game together, something I've greatly missed from not just other Nintendo games' region locking policy, but the general MMO-sphere.
Nintendo has actually entered the online space in a strong first showing. While lack of voice chat has angered some I feel like, much with Hearthstone, it's most likely for the best, although Hearthstone does give an option to chat with friends. Online gameplay is refreshingly new, not just another run and gun shooter, and the two different modes offer a reasonably different experience. Nintendo has already rolled out several free new guns and maps, the previously mentioned Tower Control game made, and an event (or two if you're playing on the Japanese version), all within the first two months of release without charging more than the box price. There's still plans to add another game mode in the future, Rainmaker (think capture the flag with an OP gun as the flag).
Big N always does things their own way and has sort of come to the party late in terms of online play. They've repeated some of the mistakes other companies have been dealing with for years (like short events) and created new ones (lack of options during queues). However, I feel they've also made a tired genre feel fresh, showing that Nintendo can properly execute a shooter, even if it's about a decade late. With any luck, it means they'll finally hear the shouts for online play for their other games (Pokemon: The MMO anyone?).
Overall, I give Splatoon a 9.5/10. Great style, refreshing gameplay, and lots of small, frequent updates, even if Nintendo's still squashing communication and hasn't learned everything about options and standard practices that make other online games successful.