Review: Splatoon - Staying Fresh [Update]

Original Review: June 28, 2015

1-up mushrooms mean nothing in modern Super Mario games. If you run out of lives, a negligible 'Game Over' flashes on screen. A meaningless lives counter, like many other Nintendo ideas, shows their stubbornness to change and adapt. It's why their hardware still uses Friend Codes and lacks digital license ownership.

When Splatoon, Nintendo's online third person-shooter, lacks basic party systems, region filters and voice chat, I can't I'm surprised. But just like a pointless lives counter, I grudgingly deal with the unintelligible multiplayer design. Splatoon drips with imagination when you customize Inklings and spread ink everywhere, making the unnecessary restrictions an even greater blunder.

Your Inkling's contribution and effectiveness depends on how much friendly ink spreads around the map. Splatoon's main mode, Turf War, tallies score on covering the most ground with friendly ink. Ink contributes to the win, but it also allows dashing, ambushes and ink refills in the Inkling's squid form. The instant squid transformation benefits from spreading friendly ink, especially since enemy ink slows and kills. If you try to complete the objective and cover the map, expect to dominate firefights.

To track ink coverage and match objectives, the GamePad touch screen displays real-time match information. An an overhead map view shows ink coverage and teammate position, clearing the HUD (heads up display) on the television. While monitoring teammates on the map, you can also launch to their position just by touching their name. Splatoon adds simple actions to the touch screen, but makes the GamePad functions feel like necessity for each mode.

Turf War and Splat Zones (the ranked game mode), diminishes kill importance with rewards for objective competition. Kills still clear areas for smooth ink spreading, yet they don't contribute to overall team score. Objective completion also builds the Special Weapons meter to unlock ink bazookas, ink missiles and ink barrages. You can chase kills with primary weapons, or just complete the objective and build the Special Weapons meter for stronger attacks. Some weapons still excel in firefights, while others support ink coverage.

Splatoon's weapons types and equipment attributes brings the variety and personalization to combat. A weapon like the Roller rapidly paints ink over a large surface, though it can flatten enemies and flick paint for some range. Since you always move forward into enemy fire with the Roller, equipment with increased defence and faster walk speed synergizes well. The hundreds of equipment and weapons combinations mean everyone's Inkling looks and plays unique.

Each item's mystery attributes may ruin your fashion sense. Multiplayer matches award coins to purchase equipment and weapons from store vendors. Pricier items include up to three additional mystery attributes unlocked through usage. The randomness then determines the ultimate value of an item. A pair of boots with two mystery slots may only improve primary ink capacity and damage output. Those boots contain fewer attribute slots, though it doesn't mean it's less valuable than four slots of run speed bonuses. With new items stocked in stores and the randomness of mystery attributes, Splatoon encourages regular customization. The customization only affects the multiplayer, not your Inkling in the single player campaign.

The single player campaign maintains the quality of the multiplayer matches; they don't feel like tacked-on trial levels. Much like the Super Mario Galaxy series, floating platforms lead to the end of the stage where a Zapfish awaits collection. Octarians, the enemy octopuses responsible for stolen Zapfish, hide in ink along each level. When you splatter through each level, the always creative Octarian boss with signature Nintendo 'three hit life meter' awaits your entrance. The campaign's clever boss fights and multiplayer item rewards makes it worthwhile distraction from the online modes.

The Splatoon Amiibos extend the campaign as they alter of the levels to award some exclusive items. In the regular campaign, bosses drop Blueprints to unlock modified weapons for multiplayer. Splatoon Amiibos provide similar rewards with exclusive gear, weapon skins and shop coins. Each Amiibo changes the levels through either weapon type or level limitations. The Inkling Girl Amiibo replaces the Splattershot with a Charge Rifle (sniper rifle) whereas the Inkling Boy Amiibo replaces the Splattershot with the Roller. When you complete a series of three levels, you then unlock a boss fight from the single player again using the specific weapon. Amiibo challenges recycle single player levels, but reward your efforts with a unique item.

Splatoon's exclusion of essential online features and basic options causes most of the game's problems. When searching for online matches, you find games alone. You can't invite friends to your party in either ranked or regular matches. You can join a friend's lobby, but you won't always play on the same team as rosters shuffle each match. Later updates will add a party search feature to compete against other groups, yet no such option exists now. I don't understand the reason for the exclusion of a party system, nor do I understand the exclusion of private matches. The only private match option available allows head-to-head duels. Even if you land on the same team,Splatoon lacks any voice chat options. And since the Wii U doesn't include an out-of-game chat like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, expect to play in silence.

Lag also becomes an issue when many Japanese players enter the lobby. To increase player counts and quicken matchmaking, Nintendo included all regions. It quickens matchmaking, but increased the chance of high latency matches. I'd prefer a region filter to limit the player base to at least local regions, but such refinement options don't exist anywhere in the game. These region and matchmaking restrictions serve no purpose; they don't improve the multiplayer at all.

The simplest options make a noticeable difference, so they stand out instantly when missing. You can't switch weapons during the match, which I don't mind because Turf War matches only last 3-minutes anyway. While searching for the next game however, you can't change equipment or swap weapons. To modify your single loadout, you must leave the lobby, make the changes then search again for another game. The unnecessary requirement to abandon lobbies for character changes wastes time and further complicates matchmaking with friends. The lack of basic multiplayer options and unnecessary character restrictions doesn't ruin Splatoon; it makes simple changes feel tiresome.

Despite all of Nintendo's goofs with the simplest online features, Splatoon still matches up with any of the best shooters. It doesn't need military weaponry or massive battles as a distinguishing feature, it only needs squids and ink. I do wish Splatoon followed the feature set of other modern multiplayer games, since its core game plays so well. If I needed to choose between expanded functionality and great gameplay, I would always choose the gameplay. For Splatoon's case, I wish I didn't have to. 

 

Review Update: August 21, 2015

The cost of cosmetics in some games can match the price real clothes. These egregious micros-transaction prices (though not so much 'micro' anymore), soured many players on DLC. Months after Splatoon's launch, Nintendo stayed away from the digital clothing store business in favour of regular, free content updates. Splatoon's new equipment, weapons and clothing released to players for free alongside multiplayer improvements. And while free content and matchmaking options make Splatoon better, the improvements arrive too late and still unfinished.

When Splatoon launched with a basic multiplayer framework, it killed my enthusiasm to play with friends. The most recent update adds more options, but still not enough. The update brings party matchmaking with friends, which means friends can finally play on the same team every single game. Friends can also create private matches - a feature expected of multiplayer games, but missing at launch.

Despite the improvements, I don't want to give Nintendo credit.  We shouldn't reward developers for patching in basic features both customary and expected of multiplayer games. Even now, Splatoon's matchmaking still lacks essential options. Matches suffer from unstable connections because players can't narrow the matchmaking range through region filters. Nintendo addressed some of Splatoon's issues, yet not enough to modernize the process.

It's frustrating to avoid playing a game you love because its design restricts the flexibility to personalize your experience. Battlefield 4 best illustrates how a breadth of multiplayer options keeps players interested long after release. Before entering a match, I can narrow servers to map rotations, player counts and game modes. From there, I can narrow servers to specific regions, available player slots or custom match settings. Splatoon doesn't even come close to Battlefield's breadth of options, which I think speaks to my tapering playing time.

When other games draw my attention away,Splatoon's Splatfest urges me to return. Splatfest leads up to a weekend event pitting the community against each other in a battle of favourites. Players vote between cats and dogs or marshmallows and hotdogs. I don't how you can compare marshmallows and hotdogs, but I know I must represent the wiener community with my free hotdog shirt. Winners of the Splatfest, tallied through votes and matches won, receive Super Sea Snails to upgrade abilities or reroll slots on weapons. It's a weekend event I take note of; I just wish they'd last longer than a Saturday afternoon.