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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: Splatoon

It's not everyday that Nintendo releases a new IP...in fact, it's been quite some time. While the WiiU has seen some success, it is still not seen by many as real competition for the Xbox One and the PS4 for serious gamers, despite some really excellent games. As it has almost always been, Nintendo has been the home for extremely solid first-party games that are spread across a console's lifespan, while third party games tend to get bought primarily for other systems that don't have a "gimmick" like the Wii's motion control or the WiiU's gamepad. A few weeks ago saw the release of Splatoon, the game that many hoped would fill the gap in between Mario and Zelda releases, while more importantly creating a new franchise that doesn't depend on the nostalgia factor.
Splatoon doesn't fall into any category cleanly; it's closest to a third-person shooter, but the mechanics are not so deathmatch-obsessed. In Splatoon, you are an Inkling, a humanoid creature that can turn into a squid. In this world, the biggest sport involves teams of four Inklings competing to cover an arena with their color ink. The goal here is not to take out enemy players–although that certainly happens–the goal is to have a higher percentage of the arena covered with your ink than the opponent. Right off the top, this is an interesting new style of gameplay that hasn't really been explored.

Equally new for Nintendo is taking online play seriously. That's not to say the online multiplayer in Mario Kart 8 or Super Smash Bros. Wii is fundamentally flawed, but they certainly don't hold a candle to games like Halo or the Call of Duty franchise. With Splatoon, the game is designed with online multiplayer as the main attraction, with the single player and even local multiplayer seeming put together as bonuses. It's still got many of the issues that all Nintendo online interactions have: there is no voice chat, no way to add someone to your friends list within the game, and limitations with how you can play with your friends online. On the bright side: you don't get the constant earache of trash-talking tweens!

That said, the multiplayer is good–actually, it's pretty fantastic. The matches are short and frenetic and highly addictive. The levels are pretty well designed to give no particular area an unfair advantage, so the game does take some practice to get good. The matches are rarely one-sided, and because the outcome isn't 100% revealed until after it's over, they are usually intense right to the last few seconds. Because the games go by so quickly, the teams and players shuffle for each match, and there is no voice chat, I haven't found myself getting frustrated, even when suffering a big loss–on to the next one, where I might be partnered up with my nemesis from the previous round.

The weapons and gear system is surprisingly well balanced, bringing another level of strategy to the game. The weapons, purchasable as you level up with coins earned in battle, are varied and fair. Each one, from those that shoot long thin lines of ink to those who roll wide swaths slowly, are equipped with secondary and special weapons, and with each great advantage comes the loss of something else. Although you aren't able to switch weapons during a match (in fact, you have to exit the lobby entirely to do so, one of the strangest flaws in the game), the variety of weapons seen online is pretty impressive; everyone seems to have their favorite, and there isn't one that's the overwhelming choice. On top of the weapons are your clothing, each item of which has one bonus (boosting speed, less ink use, quick special charging, etc.) and up to three random bonuses that are earned while playing with that item equipped. It allows for enough strategizing to be fun and make each player unique without giving anyone a huge advantage over others.

Perhaps most noticeable about the game is it's extremely unique visual and aural style. It's colorfully neon and bold, with loads of funky style that could be compared with the Jet Grind Radio series. Nintendo has successfully built a world for this multiplayer sport to exist in, complete with quirky characters and locales. The music and sound are distinctive, too, with energetic rock that urges the battle on with its weird, somehow-squid-like guitar sounds.

Currently there are only two modes of online play: turf war and splat zones. Turf War involves competing for covering the whole level while splat zones (available only in ranked matches, where your rank and rating rise and fall with victories and defeats) is more like king of the hill with only a single area up for grabs. While certainly the biggest argument against Splatoon is the extremely limited selection of modes, I've found so far that these two provide a near endless amount of competitive, addictive fun–you tend to forget that they more or less comprise the entire game when you're sucked into a 15 match run.

Nintendo promises updates and additions frequently–and so far they've delivered with new levels, more level rotation, and several weapons–but for the average user the limited gameplay will not seem worth it for $60. However, I'm here to tell you that, skeptical though I was, the game is damn fun. I've put more hours into it than anything else on my WiiU since Super Mario 3D World, and I find myself dying to play when I've gone more than a day or two. The game is simple enough for anyone to pick up and enjoy, but has enough depth to satisfy the most hardcore gamer. So far, it's not a 100% home run, but it is definitely the new IP launch that Nintendo has desperately needed and it's well worth adding to your game library.

 Splatoon is available now for the WiiU on Amazon or in stores. 

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