Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 2
Platform: Wii U
Splatoon is a perfect example of how to encapsulate everything that is equally great and frustrating about where Nintendo stand at present. There’s rarely a game that highlights how a company can bizarrely be so ahead yet at the same time behind its competitors, but in 2015 this is precisely where the Japanese giants stand. Unveiled at last year’s E3 – and hailed by many as one of the biggest and best surprises of the conference as a whole – Splatoon is marketed, aside from the obviousness it’s a brand new IP [gasp!], as Nintendo’s answer to the huge competitive multiplayer market the genre has now become. It’s typically Nintendo-ish, and understandably so; ink in place of bullets or blood, kids in place of soldiers, zany bonus streaks in place of graphically immaculate set-pieces. Overall, there’s a sense of undiluted fun over drab technical precision, or at least the effort to achieve it. Thus, while such calculation for those eager to find it is always within reach, for the most part Splatoon ensures it keeps its eye firmly on the prize. The prize, of course, being the aim to entertain and conjure an overwhelming feeling of fun and enjoyment for all parties, be it young or old, novice or self-proclaimed master.
It goes without saying that the multiplayer represents the game’s real driving factor and without a need to look far, Splatoon is exactly that: fun. Whether it’s your first or thousandth time in the bright, energetic World of Inkopolis, there’s a baffling but moreish addiction to be found. Though matches are relatively short (around two to three minutes) and can be summarized as offering two quintessential tactics: engagement or control, it’s pleasantly befitting that Nintendo are the ones who understand simplicity often rewards longevity. For those who aren’t exactly masters of one-on-one combat, there’s the option to simply avoid fighting and aim to claim further control of the map (the multiplayer’s overall objective at the end of the day). Yet should you eagerly strive to be that more offensive of players, the ducking-and-diving intensity that is the game’s ink mechanics never fades. The options are there to be taken and played with; it’s both an open, versatile experience as it is possible to be narrowed down to clever thinking and smart decision-making, yet for the two extremes to co-exist side-by-side at every opportunity it’s a testament to how Nintendo are able to finely balance playfulness with competitiveness.
Yet more often than not, that same mentality of keeping things simple unfortunately bleeds over into other aspects of the game. No doubt you know already of the decision to drip-feed additional content in the coming months, yet while this is at no extra cost to the consumer, the game in its first and opening phase is relatively sparse and clear to see. Near half a dozen maps are available on release, but you’ll only be able to access two every hour – an announcement given every hour stating which maps will then be used for the next period. Even so, don’t expect any choice on the matter within the lobby as the map is chosen at random. More worrying is the lack of match-making facilities and filtering so as to choose who and who not to play against. Be it European, American or whoever, everyone fights everyone else. Further to that, the absence of sensitivity control for either the Gamepad’s gyroscope or its twin control sticks only adds to the baffling array of decision-making Nintendo have undertook. Meagre a feature it was, even big name franchises in Call of Duty and Battlefield offered players the [allusion of] choice in which map they preferred to play. When you find yourself playing in the same arena five or six times in a row – despite the 50/50 odds – it can start to grate.
But once inside, Splatoon’s unquestionably one of the best examples of multiplayer from both a gameplay as well as an investment perspective. The ink mechanics are superbly incorporated into this universal offensive-defensive concept – never tiring and often inviting player creativity into the mix to try out new methods and alternative plans – and coupled with the visual aesthetic, the lasting presentation doesn’t disappoint. The way sunlight glistens, the fluid sound effects firing and swimming through ink, the way splats look on specific textures such as brick or concrete. If there’s one thing Nintendo have triumphed in, it’s the visual and audio fidelity of its integration. Environments themselves do conjure momentary lapses of poor textures and low-detail objects, but overall the multiplayer maps feel well thought-out and varied enough to give all style of play a fair chance. Nintendo’s take on the whole ‘cool’ direction too is a far and comforting stretch from the likes of Insomniac Games’ Sunset Overdrive and its rather try-hard approach/grasp. Here, the art direction, rather than looking like some horribly-drawn caricature or overly-analyzed dissertation, knows when and where to draw the line between reference and parody. The game’s soundtrack especially perfectly resonates with the late 90’s to early 2000’s vibe yet doesn’t come off as cheap imitation or having been forcefully driven forward.
Yet when it comes to the single-player – positioned much like the single-player campaigns of CoD & Battlefield, in this case, lying somewhere in the multiplayer’s shadow – Splatoon feels like so much more of a rushed effort and worse, a missed opportunity. The problem is that it merits no real discernible identity; anyone who played through Super Mario 3D World and was less than sold on the whole floating platforms in the middle of a sky-box totality (which itself was taken from the hand-held original, 3D Land) may want to approach this with caution. Splatoon’s campaign, which introduces the plot involving the Inkling’s continuing war against their long-time enemies the Octarians, falls disappointingly short on presenting anything substantial or otherwise memorable from a design perspective. While the levels themselves do initially come across like an end-of-year exam on how well players have adapted to the game’s ink mechanics, the delivery feels relatively lazy and borrowed – borrowed from that of 3D World’s. Navigate a platform, jump to another platform; rinse and repeat for six or seven levels; kill a boss; move onto the next big floating platform with six or seven more missions/levels. The single player could have looked (if not played) like so much more, yet to find it leaning on 3D World’s somewhat stagnant format and pseudo-environment structure…for a brand new IP, Nintendo have dropped the ball on this one.
What’s more, the fact Nintendo still, STILL, find it mandatory to point out the most obvious of details via character speech is nothing short of annoying. Three Worlds in and still players are told a certain key might be ahead or that the next jump pad could perhaps reside close by. For a tutorial or first couple of levels, you could get away with it. But to keep being told, essentially, what to do and how to play each sequence out. It wouldn’t be as bad had the levels held any relative difficulty or challenge. Instead, the reality is players will more than likely breeze through each section, if at the near cusp of losing one of the three lives you’re given at each level’s start. Despite the range of enemy designs and unique attributes and offensive characteristics – machine gunner, sniper, airstrike, explosive, in one instance an invincible enemy that sucks up your ink – the sense of risk and ruthless engagement feels lacking. Whether it be a sign of uncertainty on player appeal or not, the fact exploration (albeit to that one particular section). Away from single-player, you still have the odd moment of button-mashing when a character insists on another long-winded speech on certain items or weapons, but in the case of the shops (which represent the game’s customization sections) the relevance of each shopkeeper’s dialogue feels justified if still a little long-winded.
On that note, while the ability to customize your inkling boy or girl does offer a range of possible combinations and neat, illustrious appearances, the lack of both variety and total content at this time does begin to drain on the neat introductory phases within the game’s central hub, the Plaza. During this time, players can offer up Miiverse posts (which, at points, neatly appear as graffiti tags in single-player) while showcasing their Inkling characters. If you find a particular article of clothing you like but don’t own, you can request it of which can added to your inventory for a small price. However, you can only order one piece of clothing at a time…and no, you can’t request Amiibo-exclusive content, sadly. Speaking of which, having played with none of the three figurines, their exclusion from the game was surprisingly not as obvious or jarring to the whole experience. What’s more, aside from an empty plastic casing in one of the Plaza corners there was no degree of notification or constant bombardment reminding me of the offer. Those worried about such intrusive behavior need not worry.
But it’s this overhanging state about the game’s lacking certain aspects that could be its drawback, even after the scheduled updates and latter inclusions of new content. Splatoon, at the best of times, genuinely feels like an essential inclusion to Wii U’s humble assortment, yet it’s only when you get deeper in and sink yourself, much like the ink, into the game’s under layers do you find the real concerns start to underpin such a claim. Though the multiplayer rarely tires or strains from overplay and the ink mechanics continues to weave such a simple idea into creating something quite unique, Splatoon is by no stretch of the imagination, a flawless release. Instead it’s a finely respectful outing that checks all of Nintendo’s boxes but by the end will likely be remembered [more] for its missed opportunities than it will its spin on the online ‘shooter’ genre. Time will tell if Nintendo can check consumers’ boxes more-so, but for all the good and enjoyment it genuinely dishes out, Splatoon still partially suffers from the company’s ineptitude with both past online and present content issues. A fun, addictive – if flawed – experience.