Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wii U review: Splatoon

Each time you boot up Splatoon, the celebrity Squid Sisters of the game’s fictional realm will list off the maps currently in rotation for both ranked and unranked playlists, capping their announcement with warm wishes that every inkling girl and boy “stay fresh!” And that is exactly what Splatoon brings to the table – a fresh hybrid of third-person shooter combat, sandwiching platform and action elements between its other major design point of painting the stage in neon ink colors. At its core, Splatoon is a team-oriented shooter where the objective is not so much offing enemy team members, rather attempting to cover as much of the map as possible in your team’s respective color. With perhaps a slight hint of Super Mario Sunshine playing into Splatoon’s inspiration, and certainly more than a small dose of Jet Set Radio, this spunky, upbeat I.P. is a welcome addition to the Wii U, as well as to the online gaming community for the way it manages to shake up so many staples of the shooter genre with simple tweaks.

The novelty of all this, of course, would wear thin rather quickly if the game suffered from lag or connection issues. While this was certainly a fully merited concern prior to the game’s release given Nintendo’s often less-than-stellar performance of online components of Wii titles like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Splatoon has – against all expectations – the best connection record of any multiplayer online game I’ve ever managed to get my hands on. The two or three times I encountered any form of lag were during the first weeks following Splatoon’s launch, and they were marginal, at worst, lasting only a brief few seconds. Occasionally, the game will be unable to connect to matches during server maintenance periods, but these roadblocks are short-lived and only to be expected. And the frequency with which new, free content such as additional maps, weapons, and game modes are trickled into the mix is more than sufficient compensation for these segments of downtime.

Painting the town orange or purple or lime green or whatever your team’s assigned color is remains a constant across the entire experience, though ranked matches do introduce both ‘king of the hill’ and ‘capture the flag’ variants in the forms of Splatzones and Tower Control, with more game modes on the way. Single player has players navigate short but increasingly creative and visually appealing stages as they battle enemy Octolings in order to rescue captured cute and yellow Zapfish. This story mode does not boast the most complex narrative, nor does it last more than a few hours, but the sheer variety of environment designs, thoughtful strategies regarding boss battles, and overall fun factor make it worth diving into. A one-on-one local multiplayer mode is also included, wherein players compete to pop balloons for the most points, but is significantly less meaty and also less enjoyable than the other main modes.

Splatoon does have a couple of significant drawbacks, however. The single player mode, while short and sweet, offers up blueprints for new weapons for those who do a little bit of exploration. The Amiibo functionality for this game works the same way, offering remixed versions of select single player stages with different weapons loadouts, and rewarding players with some of the game’s coolest costumes as well as a couple of extra armament options. However, if you did not purchase these Splatoon Amiibo, you are fresh out of luck, unless Nintendo decides to release these as paid DLC items in the future.

The other big hit against this original I.P. is the fact that, within any given multiplayer playlist, there are only two maps in rotation at any given time. Matches are fast, lasting only three minutes each, and you’ll see a lot of the same environments in rapid succession. Throwing a couple more maps in rotation at a time would have circumvented this issue entirely, though the game does switch up the maps that are in rotation quite frequently, which slightly eases the blandness of being dropped into Blackbelly Skatepark six times in a row.

While Splatoon may not boast an abundance of multiplayer maps, the selection it does offer includes design variations that are greatly appreciated, and work well with the different game modes. The rises and dips of Blackbelly Skatepark provide a reasonably sized outer ring for players to quickly propel through in squid form before taking to two legs and entering the firefight-focused center. The Kelp Dome is one of the game’s larger maps, and allows for players to shoot down from a catwalk on opponents below, albeit at the risk of being more greatly exposed to return fire. Port Mackerel and Arowana Mall provide more traditional symmetrical settings, while the winding ramps and square arena of Saltspray Rig host matches that can drastically shift at a moment’s notice.

Unranked matches will net you experience points regardless of whether you win or lose, while ranked matches only reward experience points to winners and subsequently move your letter ranking up or down based on performance. Leveling up grants you access to new weapons or variants of previous ones with alternate stats and loadouts. Much like the game’s clothing items, these weapons cost experience points to claim as your own.

However wildly different two weapons might be, they will always offer pros and cons, so as to keep the entire experience balanced. As a result, the weapons players choose are bound to be the ones they enjoy and are most confident with. While the roller covers a large area, it has minimal range, and is generally ill-suited for fighting other players. The brush splatters paint rapidly from side to side, but handles in an unusual manner, and drains ink rather quickly. Likewise, building up your charge meter to unleash brief but very powerful and broad range of the Killer Wail plays to a much different audience than the timed free-roam invincibility of the Kraken.

Clothing items grant you bonuses such as the ability to conserve ink, a slightly improved buffer when under enemy fire, faster respawn times, and so forth. These are attributed at random upon earning a set amount of experience points while donning a particular shirt, hat, or pair of shoes in battle. These skills do not carry over from one article of clothing to another, however, the sea snails that are earned as rewards for participating in Splatfests – Splatoon’s poll-based tournaments in which Team Cat is pitted against Team Dog, Team Marshmallow against Team Hot Dog, and so forth – can be exchanged for extra skill slots, or to re-roll slots on pieces of clothing which already have these slots filled up.

Gibberish inkling vocals add a further level of depth to the wonderfully-crafted soundtrack. The game’s musical offerings draw inspiration from electropop, J-pop, punk, and even rock sounds that border on the thrash range. Combine this with the spunky and colorful character models, and a nautical reimagining of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing as the hubworld menu, and you have a recipe for a truly unique and endearing property. Splatoon is a sensory bombardment at every turn, but never to an overwhelming degree. Above all else, Splatoon is exceptionally weird, fun for players of all skill levels, and a welcome break from the familiar.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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