Splatoon (Wii U) review – Nintendo’s inkredible new shooter

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Anyone who said Nintendo doesn’t know how to do online games will be choking on their own glistening, glutinous words after playing Splatoon. Whether you’re being flattened by a huge unstoppable paint roller, devoured by a hungry Kraken or pulverised by a paint ball sniper rifle, Nintendo’s brand new 4v4 online shooter is one of the most robust, satisfying and downright refreshing multiplayer games you’ll play this year – and it does it all without ever losing its footing in its gloriously goopy ink puddles.

It’s so slick, in fact, that we can scarcely believe it came out of Nintendo’s EAD Group No.2, whose previous works consist almost entirely of Wii Sports and Animal Crossing games. Thankfully, Splatoon captures the high-octane madness of a real life paint ball fight perfectly, and its slippery army of humanoid squid children are easily the best creations we’ve seen from the company in quite some time.

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^ Instead of shooting each other with ink pellets, the main aim of the game is to shower as much territory in your own team colour as possible

It’s also a game that has its finger (or should that be tentacle?) firmly on the pulse of modern day appetites. Awash with fluorescent colours and drenched in Harajuku-style pop culture, Splatoon could almost be the spiritual successor to Square Enix’s The World Ends with You – bar the copious spiky haircuts and amnesiac heroes, of course. From its energetic and eclectic soundtrack to the Miiverse graffiti posts plastered across the walls, Splatoon oozes style, and nowhere is this more evident than your ever-expanding wardrobe. Like Square’s JRPG, everything you wear in Splatoon affects the way you play. For example, a hoodie could make you more resistant to enemy ink attacks, while a snazzy pair of biker boots might shorten your respawn rate.

However, each item of clothing also has an additional set of randomised skills that gradually unlock as you accumulate experience points, so you’ll rarely see anyone kitted out in exactly the same get-up. This not only brings a welcome sense of variety to the game, but it also helps keep it fair and balanced, preventing top-level players from dominating matches with a particular clothes set and giving newcomers just as much opportunity to turn the tide of battle as seasoned pros. That said, if you start salivating at the sight of another player’s natty head wear and it’s not in the shops that day, you can always order it from the prickly sea urchin in the Inkopolis hub plaza. Just be prepared to pay out big bucks for anything with more than two ability slots.

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^ Of course a sea anemone’s in charge of the hat shop, along with the shrimp trainer salesman and horseshoe crab weapons specialist

Splatoon’s greatest triumph, though, is how it levels the playing field for everyone regardless of skill level. Level 1 players have as much sway as Level 20s in Splatoon, and we regularly saw low-level players rise above us in the end of stage group rankings. However, while its matchmaker system does its best to find evenly matched teams, it did mean that we often waiting several minutes before it found an appropriate level player – if it found one at all.

This will no doubt become less of a problem come launch day, as our review copy of the game was running on special pre-launch servers with only a handful of active players. Still, the fact that it lives and dies on finding eight individual players could potentially be problematic if servers numbers ever start scraping the bottom of the barrel. Still, in true Nintendo style, you can while away the minutes with a quick 8-bit mini-game if the mood takes you – although it’s a shame that all but one of them are locked away behind Splatoon-themed Amiibo purchases. Still, once you’ve assembled your team, the heat is most definitely on.

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^ Each stage has plenty of vantage points, but you’ll need to make sure enemies don’t creep up behind you with a well-timed splat

You’ll spend most of your time playing regular Turf War battles, which see you race to smoother as much ground in your respective team colour as physically possible within the set time limit. While some players will no doubt lament the lack of voice chat to help co-ordinate attacks, we found it completely unnecessary in the heat of the moment, as the map on our GamePad provided ample information about where we needed to concentrate our forces and where our team mates needed assistance.

Weapon choice also helps dictate the flow of battle, and we found that players generally tended to play to their weapon’s strengths rather than go against the grain. For instance, paint rollers are great for covering ground, but less effective when faced with ranged Super Soaker-style splat gunners, so it’s better to hang back and let the rest of your team tackle the front lines while you fill in the gaps they left behind. Similarly, snipers are great for taking out other players, but spread very little ink, making them effective bottle-neck blockers when enemy forces start pushing through. Thankfully, there’s plenty of high ground and sneaky back passages to commandeer when approaching enemy territory, so you’ll never be left wanting for strategic opportunity.

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^ Splatoon’s ink has a wonderfully thick, viscous texture, and the pop of each gun is very satisfying to the ear

It’s not all about brute force, though, as the only way to replenish your ink tank is to drop down into your own deliciously viscous ink trail and soak it up in squid form. This has other advantages, too, as swimming lets you move faster and hide from enemy attacks. Spread enough ink up a wall and you can even travel vertically, giving more patient players a cunning vantage point from which to drop down and blast unsuspecting enemies. However, get caught in enemy ink and it instantly turns to a sludge-filled trap, making you an easy target for quick-witted opponents.

It takes a little practice to find the right balance between your two forms, but there’s a wonderful natural rhythm to be found once your skills start improving. Within a couple of matches, we were zooming round our various concrete playgrounds at breakneck speeds, leaping in and out of the ground like Ecco the Dolphin as we made our way across the map. However, when each pop of gunfire is accompanied by such a satisfyingly sticky squelch of exploding paint, you’ll want to stay above ground as much as possible. The same goes for your special weapons, which range from lethal bombs to tornado-style bazookas.

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^ There’s a one-on-one local versus mode, too, where you and a friend compete against each other to hit the highest number of balloons

However, while Splatoon is absolutely great fun in the heat of the moment, the fact that there are only ever two stages in rotation at any one time (out of a total of five) means that Turf War can quickly become quite repetitive, whether it’s from simply playing the same stage too many times or getting landed with the same group of players match after match. This is particularly galling, as it looks as though there should be space for three playable stages on the menu screen, so we can only hope Nintendo expands the number of maps post launch. There are Ranked Battles with a different set of rules to help break up the monotony, but these also only have two stages available and are only unlocked once you reach Level 10, which took us almost as many hours to level up that far. That’s a lot of Turf War battles.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the offline single player mode was a more substantial adventure of syrupy goodness, but this too feels more like a soggy side dish than a crispy tempura-battered main. Here, players must face off against the dim-witted Octarians, who can barely hit a target even when you’re standing right in front of them. The levels themselves are well-designed, and at times channel fleeting moments of Super Mario Galaxy, but when each mission is so laughably easy, their charm quickly falls away, leaving you hungry for the leaner, meatier challenges awaiting you in the online battle arenas.

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^ The Octarians are charming and beautifully designed, but we wish they weren’t quite so dense

Yet, when there’s so little variety online as well, it’s not long before Splatoon starts feeling a bit like a one-trick squid. Indeed, during our review period we found a couple of matches was it took before players started drifting away, making it harder to continue battling for long periods of time. Of course, there’s no shame in being brilliant for half an hour bursts, but it does raise some concerns about Splatoon’s overall longevity and lasting appeal.

Fortunately, there is more content on its way, including new stages, new gear and weapons and a new Ranked Battle mode called Tower Control. There will also be a major update in August which adds private eight player matches for anyone on your friends list, another Ranked Battle mode called Rainmaker, and the ability to hand-pick teams of four to battle against other players online. It’s not yet clear what these new Ranked Battles modes will entail, but one thing we do know is that you won’t have to pay a single penny for any of it, as all this is being added completely free of charge. This will be welcome news for anyone who’s had to fork out for expensive season passes in the past for other online games, but it still doesn’t really help Splatoon in its current state.

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^ You can use the GamePad to check your progress or Super Jump to another team mate’s location. Just make sure you don’t accidentally jump straight into enemy ambush

We had a great time with Splatoon, and we applaud Nintendo for, quite literally, slapping a new lick of paint on the somewhat tired and saturated shooter genre. Its slick sense of optimism and boundless pursuit of fun seeps through in every pixel, and we can’t wait to see what Nintendo has in store for us in the months to come. However, when it’s launching with only a handful of maps and precious few battle modes, we feel there’s a lot more work to be done before it becomes a stone-cold classic like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. We might bump it up a star in August after the first big wave of DLC, but right now Splatoon feels just a little too slight to give it a full recommendation.

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