Splatoon is fresh, messy, raucous and brilliant.
Swapping guns for paint, soldiers for squid and gritty grey authenticity for wild vibrant style, it's the best thing to happen to third-person shooting in quite some time and a game that only Nintendo could have delivered. Approaching the genre in a totally different way, it's full of radical new mechanics that are easy to learn yet change absolutely everything about how you play.
In fact, I can categorically state that Splatoon is the most fun I've had with a multiplayer shooter since Titanfall. Which is hardly surprising seeing as both games boast breathtaking new traversal methods, smooth polished mechanics and unique personality.
Unfortunately, they also share something else in common: they're a bit skinny at launch.
In case you don't already know, Splatoon's unique conceit is that you play as an Inkling: a human/squid hybrid armed with paint-based weaponry. Whether a super-soaker or roller, you're capable of splattering almost any surface with ink, which captures territory and damages foes on contact. As such, the focus of its 4 vs 4 battles is less on killing and more on creating crazy collaborative Pollock-esque artwork, which is a delicious change of pace.
However, the twist is that you can instantly transform from a human form into a squid by holding the left trigger, which allows you to swim through the ink. Effectively solid surfaces become bodies of water in which to hide, evade and ambush your opponents. Spray paint up a wall and you can swim up it while recharging your paint supply. Get up some speed and you can leap vast distances before jumping back into your own colour of paint.
This changes everything. Splatoon's unique mechanics are a blast to adapt to, enjoy and exploit, but on a fundamental level, it's also exceptionally satisfying. Splattering things with paint is a genuinely fun thing to do in and of itself, and even makes even being on the losing side an absolute blast.
Naturally it helps that Splatoon is mechanically and visually polished to perfection. Smooth and responsive, even the GamePad's gyroscopic aiming works well, though you can easily disable this in the options menu if you'd rather just use the thumbsticks.
Regardless, the touchscreen displays helpful shortcuts, icons, information and maps, and even allows us to play a fun Doodle Jump-inspired minigame while waiting for matchmaking. Yes, progress is saved between matches. Splatoon is also handily one of the best-looking games on the system courtesy of crisp models, smooth animations, great paint rendering and lashings of colour.
It all starts in Inkopolis, a hub zone thronging with shops, NPCs and asynchronous players complete with their unique gear and even MiiVerse updates. The first thing you'll notice, though, is the game's sense of style. Splatoon feels like a spiritual successor to Jet Set Radio in many ways, from its vibrant street punk aesthetic to liberal use of bright primary colours, graffiti and groovy soundtrack. It feels genuinely fresh, even if the word is criminally overused.
An unskippable (though frankly brief) introductory broadcast also encourages you to "stay fresh" every time you start a new session, but "freshness" is also Splatoon's version of persistent levelling. Your freshness level dictates the potency of weapons, items, equipment and upgrades you can buy from the various shopkeepers with currency won from battles. You'll likely be itching to jump into the lobby and start your first battle, but the singleplayer campaign is the best place to start.
Splatoon's solo offering is one of the biggest pleasant surprises it has to offer. Each level tasks you with reclaiming a
McGuffin Zapfish from the evil Octarians, using the paint-based mechanics as a foundation for some surprisingly engaging environmental puzzles. You'll create paths around obstacles and up walls before swimming through them. You'll inflate floating sponges and splatter fans while under fire, encounter massive bosses to take down and uncover invisible platforms. It's superbly designed and encourages you to think deeper about the skills at your disposal.
Though light on story and slightly on the brisk side, upgradeable weaponry and hidden research notes makes Splatoon's singleplayer campaign a real highlight of the package. You can also get a local friend involved for some fun head-to-head battles in the Battle Dojo, which revolve around popping balloons while griefing your opponent as roundly as possible.
Sooner or later, though, you'll want to head online, which is where the real action lies.
Splatoon's multiplayer is genuinely excellent. Two modes are available so far: Turf Wars (which involve covering as much of a level in paint as possible, with the winner coming down to percentage coverage) and Splat Zone, which is a little like Domination only with more artistic flair and an emphasis on stern defence.
Each team needs to work together to both splatter the stage and protect each other from attack depending on which weapons they've brought , leading to an exciting and dynamic experience as battle lines shift across the map. Which you can see at a glance, of course, being as they're literally painted onto the stage. Maps, meanwhile, are compact without being claustrophobic and designed to encourage you to think vertically as well as horizontally. You can read more details in our Splatoon survival guide.
It's a real pain that you can't swap loadouts mid-match and the lack of voice chat takes some getting used to (make sure to use some of the simple team commands), but otherwise Splatoon's online battles are fantastic fun. The continual stream of freshness and money also means that losing feels like a little victory.
However, Splatoon also lacks a number of features that we've come to take for granted. You can play with friends, but you won't be guaranteed to be on the same team -- and even then you can't talk to them. Custom lobbies will be added in August along with new game modes. It's clear that Nintendo doesn't want to encourage pre-existing teams of shooter fans to descend onto the servers and scare off newcomers, but this is still a rather odd strategy.
Factor in the small compliment of maps at launch, many of which will be subsequently added in post-launch via free DLC, and you've got a game that arguably asks a lot for its RRP.
Ultimately I'm going to err on the side of optimism here, because there's a big difference between the RRP and the going rate. Nintendo are selling Splatoon for £31.49 on the eShop if you participated in the beta, whereas most retailers are charging less than £30, even with change for £25. Considering the upcoming content packs will be free, I'm going to go with my gut.
More to the point, though, I still can't get enough of Splatoon, and suspect that its action will be evergreen. It's a shooter designed to be fun for casual players, even genre newcomers, while still being engaging and enjoyable for old hands. If you decide to play it safe, hopefully we'll still be here when you arrive in a month or two.
- Unique and satisfying mechanics, multiplayer is always intensely enjoyable
- Superb visuals, unique punk art style and bags of personality
- Addictive pursuit of upgrades, weapons and gear
- Excellent if slightly brisk singleplayer campaign
- No voice chat or mid-mission loadout swapping
- Limited number of maps at launch, will be added via free DLC
- Several features arriving via August update including custom lobbies
The Short Version: Splatoon blows third-person shooting wide open with its wildly unique mechanics and uninhibited sense of fun. Approachable for newcomers and enjoyable for old hands, it's an impressive Wii U exclusive, though we'll have to take Nintendo's promises of free DLC and updates on trust.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: Wii U (reviewed)