Still Fresh: A Splatoon 2 Review

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Developer: Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Platform: Switch

Genre: 3rd person squid simulator

Number of Players: 1 local, 8 online

Price: $60

 

When Nintendo first revealed the Switch back in October 2016, one of the first games they used to demonstrate the portability aspect was Splatoon. Obviously, we all assumed this was going to be some kind of fancy port like they were doing with Mario Kart 8. After all, Splatoon was a great game with a small audience because the Wii U wasn't exactly flying off the shelves. But it turned out Nintendo went above and beyond with a full-blown sequel, or at least it was in name. The debate for the last six months has been whether Splatoon 2 is a worthy sequel to the original or a marginal upgrade with a number slapped onto it. While it may not be the most incredible sequel ever made, it definitely has enough new content to stay fresh.

For the uninitiated, Splatoon is Nintendo's take on competitive shooters, which means it's just as wacky as you think. The main mode, Turf War, tasks you with painting more ground than the opposing team... and that's it! While that may sound incredibly lame, it's actually incredibly fun. Not surprising when you consider Nintendo is all about fun gameplay over anything else. What really strikes a cord with me, though, is how accessible the game is, which again is pretty obvious considering it's Nintendo we're talking about here. It's literally impossible to be bad at Turf War since all you have to do is shoot ink at the ground. Even if you're not shooting ink on the ground, you'll end up doing it anyway by accident. You're either helping your team more or less than other players, but you're always contributing. For me, it's a relief. I'm pretty bad at most online games. There's a number of them that I find fun and would probably play more, but I feel a certain amount of performance anxiety when playing them. I'm almost always terrible and holding my team back. But Splatoon's simple objectives paired with the lack of voice chat means I don't even have to worry about the rest of my team complaining about me behind my back. It sounds stupid, but it's such a relief to me.

The new splat brella is a shotgun that doubles as a shield. You can shoot off the umbrella part to leave a trail of ink you can safely swim through.

Splatoon 2 does also feature ranked modes with objective based gametypes: Splat Zones (king of the hill with ink), Tower Control (escort the payload!), and Rainmaker (think Halo's assault). These require more skill and coordination than Turf War, and Nintendo wants to make sure players have a firm grasp on things by making ranked modes only accessible to players level 10 or higher. These modes are also really fun, if a bit too short.

If I were to strip Splatoon down to it's core, I'd say it's actually a role playing game about youth culture. Nintendo goes above and beyond here when it comes to justifying the game's features into the fiction. See, in the post-apocalyptic future, all human life is dead and sea creatures rise from the ocean and take over the land. Among them are the squid-like inklings. In Splatoon, you play as a teenage "squidkid" of your creation and take part in the ink-based battles that are so popular among that age group. You can acquire the latest fashions which give you abilities in multiplayer games, buy food from a truck that boosts your gold or experience gained, all the music is performed by in-universe fictional bands, and the multiplayer matches are hosted by pop music icons. Even the game's cooperative mode, Salmon Run, has you taking a part time job collecting fish eggs for a grizzly bear. Splatoon is really an experience that you immerse yourself in. The game's hub area is just shy of something like Destiny in that you can't directly interact with other players, but their avatars walk around and display messages or doodles. I remember back in the day I'd play a shooter and just be "a guy" who "shot other guys just because". But here, I am a squidkid.

Pearl and Marina, the ladies of the band "Off The Hook", are the game's new hosts. Marina is notable for being an octoling rather than an inkling.

The single-player campaign, likewise, seems unnecessarily fleshed out with lore. They could have just thrown you into some levels and called it a day, but the first Splatoon's campaign was a surprise highlight with how deep it was. Here, you'll definitely get more out of it if you played the first game since you'll be interacting with a number of previously established characters, but it's a simple enough premise that anyone can enjoy it. Nintendo even pokes fun at the fact that Splatoon 2 will have tons of new players when they introduce your single-player guide Marie ("You've never heard of me? For eel?"). Speaking of Marie, she's on a mission to track down her missing cousin Callie, the other half of the Squid Sisters duo that served as the first game's hosts. In an absolutely bonkers move, the campaign's story was completely influenced by the outcome of the final Splatoon splatfest (periodic events where you pick a side between X and Y and battle for prizes) which was Callie vs Marie. Marie won and thus wound up as the central character of the second game. Crazy, right? Anyway, Marie suspects foul play by the octolings, the mortal enemy of the squids (and for good reason, since the squids forced them underground), and their leader DJ Octavio whom you captured in the first game but has evidently escaped again with the great zapfish, a giant electric catfish that powers Inkopolis.

The campaign this time around feels both better and worse to me. Well, maybe worse isn't quite the right descriptor. It's definitely not as fresh as the first one, but that's probably because I knew what to expect. In terms of length and progression, you'll ink your way through 27 stages and five bosses that took me between 7 and 20 minutes each to complete, so the whole thing felt just meaty enough without feeling too short. Unlike the first game which exclusively used the splattershot as a weapon unless you unlocked the amiibo challenges, Splatoon 2's campaign is designed around using the entire arsenal of weapons. The first time you play a stage, the game will usually supply you with a specific weapon that the stage is designed around. However, after you've beaten a stage once you can replay it with any of the other 8 weapons. If you're really insane, you can clear every stage with a specific weapon type to unlock it in multiplayer. I honestly don't think it's worth it, as several variations of all the weapons already exist for you to buy. But hey, if you really want the "hero" variant skin, then go ahead!

For me, the bosses are where this game comes up short. Again, it might be because I knew what to expect, but compared to the ones from the first game they're just not that exciting, not to mention that two of them are repeats. In fact the world four boss is probably one of the most frustrating and least fun boss fights I've ever experienced. The final boss is a lot more fair compared to the original game's, though, and has a really great premise despite being what most people would consider "less epic". Overall, the campaign is a familiar but satisfying experience filled with interesting puzzle platforming reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy and lots of secrets to find. It's too bad all those trinkets aren't more useful than just upgrading the weapons in the campaign. I used my collectibles to buy different types of bombs, max out my ink tank, and upgrade the hero shooter once before the final boss, and that was it. I've got plenty of cash left to upgrade the rest of the arsenal, but why would I? I wish something besides the meal tickets you find in the single player could be used for the multiplayer.

The octolings come in all sorts of crazy varieties, and bosses are no exception.

Completely new this time around is Salmon Run, a cooperative horde mode (thanks Gears of War!) where a team of four players slaughters armies of salmon armed with cookware to collect golden eggs for some sketchy grizzly bear guy. This mode, predictably, is a lot of fun, although it's pretty Nintendo'd up. See, Salmon Run, for some inexplicable reason, is only available at certain times unlike the game's other modes, and it's also unlike splatfests in that it's not a "limited time" event. It might be available for 12 hours one day and then not again for two days and then for an entire weekend straight. Experts have been working 'round the clock to try and figure out why exactly it works like this, but have so far yielded no results. Salmon Run basically has it's own "seasons" that run for a month each, where player progress and rewards reset. Maybe they didn't want people playing 24/7 so that they'd come back again next month? Your guess is as good as mine. Regardless, each of these Salmon Run "blocks" has a random assortment of four weapons paired with one of two maps. Each game has three rounds, and each round you'll be given one of the weapons at random and be tasked with collecting a particular amount of golden eggs from boss characters. Each round also has the chance of triggering a random event like high tide, which shrinks the play area, or heavy fog, that reduces visibility. Squash some salmon, level up, and get better rewards! I'm definitely looking forward to new maps being added before the two available ones get stale. Thankfully, there's enough random variables for me to keep things feeling exciting, at least for now. I love how the variation forces you to adopt new tactics on the fly each time you play, although this is a mode that I actually really wouldn't mind being able to talk to my teammates a little bit beyond the canned "this way!" and "help!" text bubbles.

Tips For Staying Fresh

Splatoon is all about decking out your inkling in the freshest gear, and the more your progress the better gear you'll gain access to. As soon as you hit level four, you'll gain access to the gear shops which will sell you some pretty basic stuff. Each piece of gear (hat, shirt, shoes) can have up to one primary and three secondary abilities that are chosen at random when you level up the gear. At level four, you'll only be able to buy gear from shops with one sub ability, but there are ways around this!

Your ticket to early high-quality gear is Murch. While wandering around Inkopolis Square, you'll notice other players populating it. You can walk up to them and examine their gear, and if you find something you like you can place an order for it and buy it from Murch. Likewise, accessing Splatnet 2 from the official Switch mobile app will give you access to an exclusive store where you can place gear orders. This stuff is the same for everybody, so the inventory is not level-specific, and sometimes there's some really great stuff. If you don't have the money for that sweet piece of gear yet, don't worry! Murch will hold these orders for you as well, and continue to hold them until you purchase the stuff or make a new order.

Having said all that, if you're not a loner like me who just likes to play alone for fun, you might be frustrated by the options available for playing with others. Splatoon 2 isn't nearly as polished in this respect compared to other AAA shooters. You can't talk to your friends without a convoluted mobile app, you're not guaranteed to ever be teamed up with them in standard battles, and the version of ranked you can play with friends is blocked off by a level progression requirement, among other things. None of these things ruin the game for me, but be warned.

Overall, in terms of content and polish, Splatoon 2 is pretty much all you'd want from a sequel. Unfortunately, though, there are some little changes that feel like a step backwards due to the change in platform. Since the tablet controller is gone, you can no longer use it to play mini games while waiting in the lobby or glance down at an overhead view of the map while in a multiplayer game. The latter omission is probably my biggest problem with the game's competitive modes. Now you have to press and button to pop up the map which takes up the entire screen. It's not such a big deal if you're super jumping from your base because you won't be immediate danger, but just to check who's winning is a big hassle now. What the game really needs is a minimap in the corner that updates in real-time so I can tell what needs inking. I'm honestly kind of surprised this wan't even included as an option you could toggle on and off. In the long run, neither of these things (or the omission of text posts-- RIP Miiverse) are going to ruin the game, and newcomers won't even care, but it's kind of disappointing knowing what could have been based on what was before. The lack of local play, however, is a huge bummer.

Despite the missing tablet, the game at least controls just as well as it ever did, although the joycon are not the most optimal way to play for me. I thought at first that the best control method would probably be to hold one in each hand and aim with the right one as if I were playing Metroid Prime or something. It turns out, I'm not a fan. I think it's probably because when I hold the joycon separately my automatic reaction is to completely relax and rest my arms in weird ways which doesn't really work for this game. You have to keep your aiming hand pretty straight and steady if you're using motion controls. Likewise, although I don't usually have an issue with it in other games, the joycon grip feels cramped here. The Pro controller is definitely my preferred way to play, but the game is 100% fine without it, so don't go running out and buying a Pro controller unless you really want one!

Final Thoughts

With a wealth of content variety, add-inkting core gameplay, and updates planned for at least a year, Splatoon 2 has plenty to offer now and into the future. In fact, Nintendo has already updated the game every week since launch with new content and has promised splatfests until mid 2019. My only hope is that Nintendo streamlines some of the more frustrating elements to bring it more in line with other shooters. Regardless, this is a game people are going to be playing for a long time, so it's never too late to super jump in. Splatoon created a shooter experience that could be enjoyed by pretty much everybody whether or not you liked shooters or competitive games, and Splatoon 2 has refined it even despite some quirks with the change of platform. It made a believer out of me, and I can't stop playing!