Splatoon 2 Review
An incremental, but enjoyable upgrade with a new coat of paint
The original Splatoon on Wii U seemingly came out of nowhere, and stood out as one of the most unique and colorful takes on the modern shooter this side of Overwatch. Many gamers - myself included – that weaned on a steady diet of Halo, Gears of War, and Call of Duty, realized it could be just as fun shooting colored ink at squids or octopuses as it was firing bullets at zombies or militia - maybe even more so. We also dug the idea that we didn’t have to constantly fret about taking out our opponents directly to win. Rather, we could contribute to a victory simply by firing all over the place and dousing our surroundings in ink like maniacal children. Making a mess was now not only encouraged, it was damn fun.
With Splatoon 2 for Nintendo Switch, it’s a little harder to pinpoint what to make of it. On the one hand, the overall experience feels more like “Splatoon 1.5” rather than an all-out sequel. The game doesn’t contain a ton of original ideas or content, but rather, relies on many of the same elements from the first game - right down to its colorfully vibrant aesthetics and an upbeat, cartoony soundtrack. Yet at the same time, it’s these elements that made Splatoon so charming and fun to begin with. This sequel undeniably plays it safe, which is partly understandable since it comes on the heels of the original that was anything but safe in terms of innovation and gameplay. Essentially, if you enjoyed Splatoon, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy its successor at least as much, and perhaps even a bit more. Just don’t expect to be blown away by a tidal wave of ingenuity this time.
Just like its predecessor, Splatoon 2 comes with a few blemishes and strange quirks that hold it back from elite status, yet there are a number of areas which have been refined or expanded upon. On top of some of the tried-and-true stages like the industrial tinged Port Mackerel and the vast Moray Towers, a few new stages like Starfish Mainstage and the chaotic Shifty Station help to keep things fresh. I quite enjoyed Shifty Station in particular, with its busy layout and constantly moving platforms designed to keep you on your toes.
There is also a generous amount of new gear, bombs, and weapons to toy around with, including the Dapple and Splat Dualies, the powerful Clash Blaster, and the shield-like “Splat-brella.” New special attacks hit the scene as well, which include a sort of wrestling style smackdown move, and an ink-fueled jetpack. These additions feel subtle in the grand scheme of things, but they do help to add a bit of variety and a sort of wild-card factor to a game that can otherwise flirt with repetition. You’ve also got the precise motion control abilities of the Switch’s tiny joycons as opposed to a clunky Wiimote, making motion-aided aiming feel more intuitive and responsive. Though, at least in my experience, this becomes significantly more awkward and tricky when attempting to fumble with motion on a unified controller, or when attached to the Switch’s screen. When playing in handheld mode - which is my preferred style - I eventually found it more suitable to opt out of the motion control features entirely.
One of the most profound enhancements can be found in the game’s campaign mode. While at times it continues the habit of feeling a bit lifeless, and resembles a glorified tutorial in the early goings, it manages to get more interesting as you progress. The campaign consists of a couple dozen unique stages scattered across 5 overworld hubs. The single player experience takes on a bit of a “Mario Galaxy meets 3D Sonic” vibe along with traditional shooter gameplay, as you blast from area to area, battle your way through an assortment of Octarians, and glide across streams of ink. Each level more or less comes with its own gimmick or quirk, and - in a departure from the first game - does more to distinguish itself with some more fleshed out gameplay. Just like in multiplayer, you’ll also rake in points throughout, which can be put towards upgrades, such as beefed up weaponry and new sub-weapons. You are given the ability to play with a variety of different guns too, from which the level design is often largely based around. You may, for instance, be tossed a sniper rifle on a stage that consists of an assortment of point balloons and enemies perched high atop distant towers. Or you could be given a Splat Roller as you’re forced to plow through a lengthy walkway crawling with baddies and a coat of enemy ink.
Many of the stages just feel more elaborate - often presenting multiple obstacles and objectives. You may be required to snag several collectibles, gather keys to open chests, or trigger moving platforms to progress. There is additionally a wider variety of enemies; and plenty of hostile inklings too, which serve to make the campaign feel a bit more like multiplayer and thus more enjoyable. The campaign still leaves something to be desired and certainly isn’t the highlight of the experience, but it’s a notable improvement from the first game’s lackluster offerings.
Of course, just like its predecessor, the multiplayer battles are still the primary source of the charm and the meat of its gameplay. Unfortunately, Nintendo’s online features, while at least serviceable, are still somewhat lacking, and I couldn’t help but feel there still remains a large degree of unrealized potential. The online mode continues the odd practice of rationing content through a sort of bottleneck, making you feel a bit less like you own the game and more like you’re taking part in coordinated virtual events. What I mean by this is, only certain stages and gameplay modes will be available at certain times, while some of the content is cordoned off.
Online matchmaking with friends can also be unnecessarily burdensome. Aside from the completely counter-intuitive and limiting voice chat implemented via smartphone app, the process of merely matching up with your friends can be unnecessarily burdensome. The game also sees fit to handcuff you from performing any action when waiting in the lobby. This means - no swapping weapons, viewing player stats, voting on maps, or even backing out until the match has concluded. This is compounded by the fact that the fun little minigame featured in the first Splatoon meant to stave off boredom is also missing. Thankfully, getting thrown into a game is usually a speedy process, and once you’ve gotten lost in several intense online battles, you’ll likely forget about these blemishes anyway.
The simple concept of running around blasting and swimming swiftly through massive globs of ink remains as fun and enduring as ever. Returning of course is the definitive “Turf Mode,” which simply requires you cover as much ground with your team’s randomly selected ink color as possible, while taking out opponents only as means to an end. More nuanced players can jump into ranked, and eventually league battles after hitting a certain level, and can test their skills in either Splat Zones, Rainmaker, or Tower Control. These gameplay modes more or less resemble those in the previous iteration, with some minor tweaks and refinements here and there. Tower Control and Splat Zones are reminiscent of king of the hill, while Rainmaker is the game’s unique twist on Capture the Flag. Each offers its own feel and varying elements of strategy, which makes you sweat a little more. For my money though, the relaxingly mindless fun, pick-up-and-play option of choice is still Turf Mode.
The special events known as “Splatfests” are also back, which force players to ally with a specially themed item (usually food based) as you face off against a rival. Upon choosing a side and jumping in, you’re assigned specific ink colors that represent their respective theme, and can engage in multiple battles with these unique colors until a winner is proclaimed based on a combination of popularity and victories. During a recent Splatfest, I pledged my allegiance to the red “Team Ketchup” as we fought against our counterparts, the white-inked “Team Mayo”. Although we received an overwhelming vote in popularity, our team unfortunately lost by a mere couple of percentage points. I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear this, as our team frequently received a shellacking, despite my valiant efforts to keep my team afloat.
There’s also a mode called Salmon Run, which is probably the standout addition to Splatoon 2. It acts as a sort of Gears of War or Resident Evil style “Horde Mode,” minus the gratuitous blood and guts. This allows for a more cooperative experience, and puts more emphasis on offensive and evasive prowess rather than just spraying ink around like a squid version of Rambo. This mode contains a colorful variety of mini-boss enemies that range from a giant mechanical eel who rains down a long stream of green ink, to a fish piloting a missile launching jetpack - who you must defeat by chucking ink-nades into its engines. The mode is played in 3 wave segments, after which players can trade-in their cash earnings for various rewards including new gear. The emphasis on teamwork within this new mode certainly lends itself to local multiplayer in particular. Unfortunately there is still no split screen functionality to be found, but matching up with friends to take on an assortment of enemies - whether in this new co-op mode, or going head to head, still proves to be a good ol’ time.
Ultimately Salmon Run is a fun little diversion once the steady dose of 3 minute Turf War matches have grown stale, and is undeniably the biggest standout addition of Splatoon 2. It’s just too bad it isn’t readily available at all times; though such is the nature of Splatoon 2’s funky online setup.
At the end of the day - despite Splatoon 2 feeling more like an incremental upgrade than a revolutionary revamping, it’s still an immensely fun multiplayer romp. Wii U owners who have played the first game to death may want to be wary of picking this one up at full price. Newcomers though - of which there figures to be plenty, based on the Wii U’s lack of success - will be in for a treat.