Remember cleaning up Super Mario Sunshine’s colorful pollution using a water pack? Splatoon 2 is like that in reverse, with more aquatic puns.
The hook is that the world of Splatoon 2 is not about killing. Instead, teams of four players each compete by inking territory – cover more ground in your team’s color to win the match. As an “Inkling”, in humanoid form you can use Super Soaker-like blasters, rollers, buckets, and other weapons to paint the town red (or fluorescent yellow, or whatever your team’s color), while in squid form you can dive into your own ink to speed across the map. Not so much a squad shooter as a squid shooter, amirite?!
Ahem. Call Splatoon 2 a high concept shoot-’em-up. Nintendo has created a fresh experience that is welcoming to new players thanks to a brilliant concept, deliberate pacing, and a range of bonkers weapons. There’s clashing neon colors and a distinctive early 2000s MTV skater aesthetic in Splatoon 2, and much fun to be had in the tug of war battles, with territory being inked, counter-inked, and then inked back again. The controls, especially motion control aiming, are as well calibrated as you’d expect from Nintendo, and the game is breezy and enjoyable. A five out of five game then? Unfortunately Splatoon 2 has bucket loads of problems.
More than any other game I can think of, the designers impose odd limitations in Splatoon 2. Joining a battle is straightforward enough, but if there’s any algorithm matching players then it’s broken – eight players thrown together run the gamut from level 5 newbies to level 95 veterans. Team selections result in unfair match-ups, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself on a team armed with short-range blasters, ready to be picked off by opponents with sniper rifles. Like shooting fish in a barrel, you might say. Inexplicably, random team selection means that it’s pure luck if you end up on the same squad as your friends.
This bizarre lack of customization runs throughout Splatoon 2. In Turf War (the main multiplayer game), you randomly cycle through only two maps that will be swapped out for a different set every couple of hours. In Ranked Battle, teams and maps are also out of your control, as are the various game types. Easiest to get to grips with is “Splat Zones” – basically King of the Hill, requiring your team to hold a zone against your opponents.
In “Rainmaker”, teams fight for control of the titular weapon, which delivers devastating shots but slows the owner down; once claimed, you and your teammates have to drive into enemy territory to capture their base. Rainmaker sounds like fun, but battles get too easily bogged down into a tedious war of attrition. In “Clam Blitz”, the objective is to grab clams and throw them into the opponents’ basket. Gridiron football meets basketball meets shoot-’em-up, and bends Splatoon 2’s core gameplay completely out of shape.
Ranked Battle ups the competition and demands teamwork, but communication is limited to an unwieldy companion app and messaging “follow me” to your allies. With no easy way to coordinate, Ranked Battles are beyond frustrating, and this is compounded by an unforgiving rank system that knocks back your progress if you string together too many losses.
In order to unlock the last multiplayer mode, League Battle, you first have to attain a higher rank in Ranked Battle. And League Battle – which features the same modes as Ranked – is the only option to guarantee playing on the same team with two or four (but not three) friends. I don’t mean to carp, but there is no gameplay reason for any of these limitations.
Co-op is a different kettle of fish, but suffers from similar issues. In “Salmon Run”, a team of Inklings are pitted against waves of CPU-controlled “Salmonids”, fishy cannon fodder plus tougher mini-bosses. Your options are restricted even further here – Salmon Run is only available on certain days/times, and weapons and gear are chosen for you. Again, teamwork is throttled by communication issues, and maps that are gloomy and clunky, rendering much of the action incoherent.
So much of the online experience is dependent on the players you are partnered with, and Splatoon 2 has its funny and rewarding moments, especially when your teammate “splats” (don’t say “kills”) an opponent who had you in their crosshairs. Unfortunately, players often appear confused as to which game mode they’re playing – randomly inking territory when they should be defending a tower, or pointlessly charging into enemy camps.
A huge part of a game like this centers on leveling up. By the end of my time with Splatoon 2 I had reached level 20, and still my character felt underpowered and overmatched. No combination of gear, weapons, or specials made any noticeable difference.
Finally, somehow Nintendo has been given a pass on Splatoon 2’s lack of local multiplayer. Yes, you and your Switch-owning friends can play a local networked game, but it’s strange that there is no split-screen mode, not even for two. I stumbled across a comment that suggested the ink physics might be too complex for multiplayer. Folks, over twenty years ago we crowded around GoldenEye N64, delighted with our tiny quadrants and iffy framerates – so don’t tell me split-screen is too difficult in 2020!
Splatoon 2 gets so much right: the inspired core gameplay, solid controls, and the colorful style. But the lack of options, frustrating battles, and sheer imbalance make this a difficult game to recommend. Splatoon 2 is Nintendo at its ingenious best and utterly baffling worst.