Splatoon: “The Shooter for Everyone Else”
Online gaming has developed its fair share of problems over the years. The words “online shooter” tend to evoke images of a frustrated male angrily screaming racist, homophobic and/or misogynistic abuse down their mic into the ears of other players. These are spaces where the word “raped” is synonymous with conquered, and where it is common practice to virtually “teabag” your opponent’s defeated avatar as a sign of dominance. Think of the world’s worst road rage; then imagine how the safety of anonymity and distance would make it much worse. You now have a pretty good idea about the kind of experiences competitive online gaming environments tend to create. The hostility of these online environments has done a lot to turn people away from both online games and competitive shooters. Nintendo’s new Wii U game Splatoon is set to change all this.
It’s useful to think of Splatoon not as ‘Nintendo’s online shooter’, but rather as Nintendo’s answer to the online shooter. Stripping both the ‘twin stick shooter’ and online gaming back to its most basic components. Nintendo seem to have created Splatoon through a process of rebuilding the genre, in a way that makes it accessible and inclusive, both in terms of skill and in terms of social behaviours. I must admit I wasn’t actually sold on Splatoon right away. After a quick rundown of the controls the game just kind of dumps you in the menu without much in the way of advice of what to do. It tells you how to play the game mechanically, but not really much in the way of playing it socially. For my first few hours of playing I completely didn’t get Splatoon. But it turns out Splatoon actually has a lot of different things going on. Lots of different ways to play with lots of strategic layers for you to reach and discover. It’s going to be tough to cover them all sufficiently, but first let’s start with the very basics.
In Splatoon you create and control your own inkling – a kind of squid person who can shapeshift between human and squid forms on the fly. You can choose the gender, eye colour and skin tone (read: ethnicity) of your inkling, as well as the kind of weapons and clothing you’d like to wear. All the weapons disperse ink of a certain colour associated with your team. Ink is basically used to paint the level in your colour, and surfaces coated in your paint can be swam through in squid form for quick mobility around the level. Enemy paint slows you down and makes you vulnerable. As you cover new ground and claim enemy turf you fill a special gauge that, when full, will allow you to perform a special move to gain an extra advantage. Whenever your character is killed you take a reduction in your special gauge as a penalty. From this core idea the game branches off into several different directions, including: the single player campaign, local 1 vs 1 multiplayer, online Turf Wars, and a Ranked Battle Mode.
I would say that Splatoon’s main attraction would have to be the online Turf War mode, so let’s talk about that. Turf war is a 4 vs 4 mode where your team is randomly allocated a colour and you have 3 minutes to cover more ground than the opposing team. As the battle unfolds, the coloured paint helps tell a story; where major conflict is occurring and which areas are safely yours. The clashing colours serve as a stark reminder of how much ground is being gained, or lost, in the battle. And there’s nothing quite like sneaking off behind enemy lines on a solo mission to wreak havoc in an area painted in the colour of your foes. Visually, this game is pure paint porn. Ink comes in rich, deep Dulux colours and slops about viscerally in a lovely thick, glossy coat as you gain ground across the map. It’s a fantastic mode that works incredibly well on a number of levels. Because the priority of the game is painting the world rather than killing, precision aiming and finely-tuned twitch reflexes are no longer necessary for play. Aside from generally making players less tense and angry, this type of design allows less experienced shooter players to contribute to the game in a way that is meaningful and fun. Support and covert roles are just as much fun, and just as important, as frontline assaults. The fact that timing and precision are no longer necessary also opens the game up to players with less-than-optimal internet connections, because lag won’t mess up your ability to spray ink everywhere. Even when Australian internet is being it’s usual, crumby self it doesn’t really lessen the experience of playing.
The nature of play in this mode means that targeting players has no benefit and actually detracts from the overall goal of painting the level. Because of this, and because there’s no voice chat, the game has become a far more hospitable environment for welcoming players who wouldn’t normally play in competitive shooters. Voice chat means no sleaze, homophobia, sexism, or hostility towards players who are new to the game and still trying to figure things out. It creates a safe space for learning to play. It is also a more welcoming environment for women. There is a long and well documented history of female players having to mask any and all feminine traits in online shooters (including names) in order to avoid unwelcome attention. But here in Splatoon female names are appearing regularly. In any other online shooter, playing with and against players called Jazmin and Angela is completely unheard of. Another more inclusive addition is the implantation of motion controls for aiming. Whilst I personally found it less intuitive than the twin stick option I’ve grown used to, the motion controls seem like a promising alternative to using a second analogue stick for newcomers who have less experience with twin stick controls. The design of modern shooters comes loaded with a lot of assumptions about who is playing the game. The design of Splatoon questions these assumptions and does an excellent job of making a game everyone can enjoy. Splatoon is an online shooter without the machismo.
Ranked battles play in a very similar way, but instead favour a more aggressive style of play, as you are tasked with helping your team hold a location in the middle of the level. I suspect it’s something to appease more traditional shooter audiences – but honestly I think its assertive play style makes it a little less fun. Local 1v1 multiplayer provides a lot of fun – and matches are short enough to allow for frequent controller swapping if you’re playing with a group of friends or family. In this mode you have to get to certain areas in the level to pop balloons. Balloons are finite and give you 2 points each, whilst getting killed means you lose 5. So the trick is to control space, gain the lead quickly, and avoid your opponent until they sneak into the lead and you need to knock some points out of them. As you play in these multiplayer modes you earn coins to buy new gear and weapons – each catering to a very special set of tactics and play styles. Different weapon types allow for people to participate as part of a team with very diverse levels of experience. Each weapon is specialized in a way that makes it effective against some, and weak against others. This ensures there is a nice balance amongst the range of weapon types and no one weapon will reign supreme over the others. It all comes down to personal style and taste. The game is a steady, drip feed up levelling up, unlocking abilities, earning coins, and buying weapons. It’s addictive, rewarding and will keep players coming back to experiment with new ways to play.
The single player presents a series of levels to navigate by painting paths to swim through and shooting out with enemies. It’s got a Super Mario Galaxy kind of vibe, but a lot shorter, and unfortunately, in most places a lot less interesting as well. I didn’t find myself having much fun with it at all until I got up to the boss battles towards the end of the game, which presented a more invigorating challenge. But really the single player serves as more of a primer for the rest of the game than a main attraction. I also hear that the Inkling amiibos can be used to unlock fun challenge modes for the single player, but I haven’t had the money to fork out and buy any just for this extra content.
Speaking of extra content, Nintendo have done a fantastic job of introducing new weapons and levels to players at no extra cost. This is promising to see happening so early into the games release cycle, where many lesser companies would gladly hold off on such content in the hopes of charging money for it.
Despite my initial reservations about the game, as I played more of Splatoon I grew to both understand and love it more and more. As is evident by the length of this review, there is a lot of stuff going on in Splatoon, and every time I play it I feel like I have learnt something new. If you are patient with it, and go into it with an open mind you might just find yourself having a great time. But Splatoon isn’t just about having a lot of fun, it’s also about reimagining an entire genre. Making it just as fun for newcomers as it is for people who have been playing games online their whole lives. While year after year another Call of Duty will come out to meet the needs of online shooter fans, Splatoon is the shooter for everyone else.
Splatoon is available now on Nintendo’s Wii U console.