By Luke Summerhayes
It’s fair to say Splatoon had an awkward launch. For me personally -- the lorry containing my Game pre-order was stolen so I ordered instead a simple game-and-Inkiling-Girl-Amiibo from Tesco which I unfortunately ended up waiting until almost a week after the game’s release for -- and for the game in general. Released without a few key online features and with maps, weapons and more promised but not included, the game was met with some pretty unfair criticism from the usually calm and understanding internet.
I don’t think the traditional review structure fits this game; the game launched on release day is quite different from the one I played this morning, which will be as different again from the game I’m playing next month and almost unrecognisable from the game I’m playing at the end of the year. That said, when you put a disk on shelves and ask for people to pay money, you have to be prepared to face scrutiny. I’d argue the same to anyone who says games on Early Access or similar shouldn’t be reviewed; as long as one reads a review of an up-to-date version, it’s pretty fair to want know what they’re paying for.
Thankfully, even though it looks like it can only get better, the Splatoon available today is very, very good. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the best new game I’ve played so far this year.
A lot of negative reviews complained about the length of the single player campaign. Obviously, this mode isn’t the primary reason anybody is buying the game but it is top notch; a hub area that can be enjoyable to explore hangs beautifully in a surreal underground world. Missions capture that classic Nintendo flavour brilliantly; each one introduces a new trick or toy, plays it out in a clever way and saves the cleverest twist for a bonus scroll that more obsessive players will want to hunt for.
Killing the final boss and collecting every scroll along the way took plenty of doing, and I enjoyed every minute. The shooting is slick, quick and rarely frustrating. The level design is imaginative and bright, drawing comparisons to Mario Galaxy. The story is slight but engaging, with a deliciously grim backstory played out in snippets written on scrolls.
All of this feeds satisfyingly into the multiplayer which, let’s not beat around the bush, is why we were all excited about Splatoon. At the moment there are two modes, regular battles and ranked, with an option to join friends’ games in the regular mode but no real match-making, lobbies or team mechanics at this time.
The two options actually feature entirely different game modes, with alternative levelling systems and mechanics. Regular Battles feature the Turf War mode seen in the earliest trailers; two teams of four battle to cover the most surface area in a three-minute exchange. Victory, match ranking and experience are all powered by spreading ink; a kill-death ratio is shown at the end of a match but doesn’t save anywhere or really affect anything. The only real advantage to shooting the enemy is impeding their ability to spread ink.
The moment-by-moment play is really fun; combat is quick, with respawns never long enough to get in the way of fun. Matches can have a phenomenally satisfying back-and-forth but even one-sided games are over soon enough to avoid major frustration. Different classes and rolls and tactics emerge before long after you start playing. Everyone spreads ink as much as possible at the start, then quickly the shooters in the team head to front lines to control the centre of the map and stop the enemy team spreading their ink too far while rollers, paint-brushes and the like concentrate on filling any gaps in controlled space. Every weapon can be used, in the right hands, for either roll.
Although it seems simplistic at first, the depth is undeniable once one gets to know the game. With two TVs and two Wii Us set up, myself and a friend were able to talk tactics and give advice on the fly. When we were on the same team like this, we almost never lost, being able to pretty competently cover the map between us. Once I’m able to form a team of four friends, with a skype chat ongoing, and play this to win it will be a revelation.
In Regular Battle, points earned in matches fill an experience bar and the player climbs from the initial level one up to level 20, earning the right to buy more weapons and cooler clothes as they go. After level 10, the option opens to play Ranked Matches.
In Ranked, battles are fought on the same cycling selection of maps but by Splat Zones rules. A king-of-the-hill type match, with designated areas captured by colouring them in with ink. When your team controls the area, a timer ticks down from 100, the winning team either getting to zero first or having the lowest score after five minutes of play.
Though it might not seem it, this makes for an entirely different game. Splatting the enemy becomes so key that at the end of the match, players on your team are ranked by kills. While less unique than Turf War, the controls, weapons and tricks still mean this plays unlike anything that has come before.
Wins in Ranked mode add points, losses detracting them, to a letter-based rank. Everybody starts at a C- and has the potential to climb up to an A+, a heady height I’m still playing for. Matchmaking here feels tighter than in Regular Battles, where anyone can bang their head against the wall for long enough to reach a level 20. At each rank, I felt I was improving my play style at a similar rate to my team mates and opponents, whereas in Turf War I was sometimes able to win almost entirely by myself, with five times the score of anyone on my team and 15:1 kill-death ratios. It’s rare to so completely dominate a Splat Zone, or to be so completely outgunned.
The game’s graphical style is detailed and crisp, but bright and colourful and chunky enough that it should have a certain timeless quality. Ink effects are glorious, with splattering and dripping making the act of splashing the floors very visceral. Miiverse artworks appear as graffiti on the walls and customised outfits give the inklings a great sense of personality and individuality. Enemies and bosses in singleplayer are also memorable, with the Octolings in particular making you wish for a playable deathmatch and a much more in-depth backstory.
Far more impressive than the visuals, though, is the sound. An eclectic mix of songs tied together by the genius idea to have lyrics sung in the game’s nonsense squid language. Bright, breezy SQ-Pop mixes with heavy mollusc and drum and sea bass to make one of the most memorable and unique soundtracks in years.
Splatoon is a hilarious, beautiful fun experiment which has absolutely paid off. An engaging singleplayer campaign does much more than train you for the amazing multiplayer which has quickly knocked Titanfall from its perch as my “I just came home from a long day at work and need to shoot people online” game. I’ve definitely had my money’s worth so far, but come back in a couple of months to see if the game still holds up, and whether it’s been improved by changes or drowned in overcomplications.