Review: Splatoon 2 is easily the slickest game of the past year
Squid Kids competing and cooperating to cover levels in their team’s colour? This novel twist on the shooter genre is a hit despite its shortcomings
Splatoon 2 gets so much right that it’s easy to ignore the occasionally baffling ways in which Nintendo has failed to score into an open goal (not least the chance to call the game Spla2n).
A sequel to 2015’s third-person, multiplayer-focused, Wii U-exclusive shooter, Splatoon 2 for the new Nintendo Switch will be a wholly new experience for many: the console is already attracting converts who never picked up Nintendo’s previous machine, while the two biggest reasons to own a Switch to date – Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild – are both already out on the Wii U.
For those new to the whole Splatoon concept, here’s a potted history: you are a Squid Kid. That is, both Kid (most of the time) and Squid (whenever you bit a button and morph into a cephalopod). You are armed with ink-spraying weapons, and your job is to cover as much of a multilevel arena as possible with your team’s colour.
That’s partially because when you’re standing in your own ink, you can move faster, recharge your weapons and camouflage yourself entirely; but it’s also because at the end of the tight three-minute rounds, the winning team is the one that has managed to cover the most of the arena with their paint.
It’s a novel twist on the multiplayer shooter, but one which immediately provides Splatoon 2 with a reason to exist in a crammed market. The game is as much about your physical relationship with the levels in which you fight as it is landing shots on the enemy, and in fact, a significant portion of the weapons, from a gigantic paint roller to a literal bucket, are much more useful for dousing large amounts of the map in ink than they are for taking out opponents.
That key mode, Turf War, returns in Splatoon 2. But the game itself is significantly larger. A sizeable single-player adventure reconfigures the action to focus on platforming over gunplay, with the squid-and-ink combination providing players with a number of fun ways to navigate tight levels culminating in a series of boss fights. You won’t be surprised when the first of many falls after exactly three hits, but that sort of reliance on cliché helps develop instant familiarity for what is only ever going to be a side-mode to the main game.
Meatier is Salmon Run, the most significant new development in Splatoon 2. A four-player co-op mode which sees a team of players battle an unending horde of salmon to gather golden eggs – yes, the whole game is themed like this – it’s a welcome change in pace from the competitive modes.
Some of those choices pay off here, in a weird way. For no real reason, Splatoon 2 follows the first game in offering up an extremely limited selection of maps at any one time: for a two-hour period, two levels will be in play, before they’re swapped out for the next period, and so on.
On the downside, that means that you get an obviously limited amount of variety each play session. But the positive aspect of it is in the early days of the game, you manage to avoid the flailing feeling of being repeatedly dumped in unfamiliar arenas and pounded by unforgiving opponents. Instead, after 60 minutes of play, you’ll have had enough matches on one specific arena to put you a good way towards competent.
Others don’t work quite as well. Salmon Run is one of the best multiplayer experiences, not just in Splatoon 2 but on the Switch as a whole. Yet outside of unspecified periods when the mode becomes available online, it’s only playable as a local multiplayer mode, requiring as many Switches and copies of Splatoon 2 as there are players. Oh yeah, that’s right: there’s no split-screen multiplayer in Splatoon 2, for that mode or any other.
The weird thing about these choices, though, is that they all seem to be deliberate. This isn’t a game with a lack of polish – in fact, it’s probably the slickest experience since Overwatch came out over a year ago. Ignoring conventional wisdom has also given us a game where cool Squid Kids load up water pistols with ink and spray shipping containers Day-Glo pink. That feels like a fair trade-off.