When the original Splatoon launched on the Wii U back in 2015, it was pretty groundbreaking. Nintendo making an online shooter? It sounded like a recipe for confusion, but as they so often do, Nintendo took a formula that had been refined to the point of parody and decided that it would be fun to be able to swim in bullets. Then they made the bullets ink and everything came together.
Splatoon 2 took this bullet breaststroke formula after just a few years and souped it up for the Nintendo Switch. It was an upgrade in every sense, but now we’re reaching the big number 3. So what are we looking at here? The Halo 3, or the Driver 3 of the Splatoon series?
As soon as you boot Splatoon 3 you’ll be met with an instantly familiar experience. Ink the ground to score points, swim in it to move faster, surprise surprise! It’s Splatoon again. What’s striking though is for how familiar everything feels, it also feels almost unfathomably slick in comparison to its predecessors. Nothing’s going to leap out at you from a mechanical standpoint, but almost every possible area where things could be fine-tuned has been addressed.
When you load up the game now you can simply ignore the news update telling you what maps you’ll be playing on. The excellent Salmon Run mode is now accessible 24/7. You can join lobbies with friends and play Turf War on the same team. You can play the single-player missions in practically any order you like (more on that later). Whilst there is no one major inclusion that sets this apart from Splatoon 2, the veritable militia of minutia that the developers have employed is simply staggering.
Weapons feel more balanced, maps feel tighter yet more open, the Tenta Missiles feel like they’ve been nerfed, the list is frankly endless, so let’s break it down into a few chunks.
The single player has always felt somewhat of an afterthought in previous games; it’s always a very welcome inclusion, but it’s apparent that the lion’s share of the focus was on multiplayer, which for a multiplayer game is probably for the best. Things improved notably with Splatoon 2’s Octo Expansion, and we’re wiggling all eight tentacles with glee when we say that Splatoon 3’s Single Player – Return of the Mammalians – is taking reams of notes from that excellent slice of DLC. More cutscenes, more variety in its mission structure, a simple but undeniably charming and engaging plot, it’s just an all-round fun and more fleshed-out time.
To give you an idea of how wild and wacky the missions can get, we jumped from a standard ‘get to the goal’ affair right into another that stripped us of all our weaponry and forced us to simply jump over increasing numbers of shockwaves until a timer finally decided we’d done enough. You’re almost always given a choice of weapon as well, with more outlandish choices netting you a slightly higher reward, so there’s a good deal of replayability as well.
But most importantly your progress is gated only by the fluffy ooze that turns you into a mammal as soon as you touch it. You can clear this by netting enough Power Eggs from missions to bolster your Small Fry Li’l Buddy’s feeding capabilities. Lob him on the appropriate bit of ooze and poof! It’s gone in a flash of mammalian extinction. These can also hide some of the frankly insane number of collectables to be found in the overworld. By no means are these at all necessary, but it’s nice to have something productive to do outside the missions themselves.
We were able to reach the final island of the game before we’d even done half of the missions on the first; the game doesn’t strictly encourage this but, conversely, it also does absolutely nothing to stop you. It’s a shame that thematically each island, whilst being distinct, doesn’t have said theming reflected in its missions; instead, you’re simply whisked away to a mystery zone which could be anywhere. It’s a minor nitpick in what is otherwise probably the strongest Splatoon single player to date, but a nitpick regardless.
One gripe we had with Splatoon 2’s single-player offering was the fact that all the upgrades you unlocked left you overpowered as all hell towards the end, whereas Return of the Mammalians instead strips you down Metroid-style and upgrading merely brings you (as far as we can tell) up to your fighting fit online self that you were before you got mixed up in all this fuzzy business.
The world you explore in single player feels much more cohesive than before, and that sentiment can be extended to the entire game. We were thrilled at just how much has been done to eliminate menus in Splatoon 3, but without making things needlessly convoluted for the sake of immersion. Immersion is still rife though, whether it be the online lobby that reminds us of sports/leisure centre halls with its high ceilings and distant thrumming bass notes, or Grizzco which really does feel about as legitimate as we imagine Mr Grizz’ bookkeeping to be.
No matter where you go in the world, you’ll almost always be given the freedom to move around freely unless doing so would make the experience lesser, such as the weapon and gear shops where – let’s be honest – you’re just going to buy everything up as quickly as you can anyway. Wandering about on two of your many limbs isn’t going to improve that particular shopping spree.
And because we can’t gush enough about the improvements, the online lobby is just to die for. You can bring up a menu at any time to queue yourself up for any one of the many online options available, but as soon as you’ve done so you’re once again free-roaming around the lobby’s interior with your equipment of choice. You can simply stand still (as it won’t be long before you find a game), or practice dealing death and swimming lengths just to keep your hands busy. We’re sure nobody can deny that this is a lot better than a list of names on the right-hand side of an otherwise practically static menu screen.
All of this adds up to make Splatsville the biggest and most alive-feeling of any of Splatoon’s hubworlds. But if the illusion of reality isn’t your thing, you can burrow yourself into the new in-game card game on offer: Table Turf Battle. In this deceptively simple yet dense side game you’ll be laying various shapes down to ink as much of the table’s turf as possible, with each card offering a unique and wacky shape to work with. It’s a surprisingly well-thought-out inclusion and one that we feel many other publishers would release as a standalone product. As it stands here though it’s a hugely enjoyable little freebie added into a game already bursting with content.
There’s more to do in this game than we possibly expected, and we haven’t even mentioned the entirely superfluous custom locker system. Through a set of arguably clunky controls you can stuff a load of things that you own in your locker to show them off to whoever might want a look. It’s limited, it’s time-consuming, and it has no impact whatsoever on the rest of the game, but we can’t deny that it’s fun to try and cram as much Splatoon-related guff into our rectangular prison as possible.
And we haven't even mentioned Salmon Run properly. Gone are the arbitrary time restrictions meaning Grizzco is open 24/7, and in its place is the horrifying notion that after your third wave you might come up against a colossal King Salmonid. Waves feel tougher, but fairer at the same time with the introduction of your ability to throw eggs. That may sound minor but believe us it is anything but.
'Event' waves have also been shaken up. We've had to bus cartfuls of Golden Eggs from the beach to the high tide Egg Basket, throw bombs into the mouth of a giant enemy Salmonid, as well as classics such as using cannons to keep hordes of Cohocks at bay. It's certainly more Salmon Run, but it's more varied, more exciting, more rewarding, and more terrifying.
But despite all this, we can't help but feel that after five long years fans deserve something more. The Table Turf Battle is a nice inclusion, but whereas Splatoon 2 got the excellent Salmon Run to make it truly stand out, Splatoon 3 struggles to boast anything as substantial. That doesn't take away from every one of the countless improvements featured, but it's still lacking that one big addition that is reasonable to expect after so many years since Splatoon 2's launch.
In terms of visuals and performance, it’s the same as the minutia we mentioned prior; small changes but oh so many of them. Ink looks glossier than ever and reflects light in a way that just makes us want to reach out and touch it, the Inkling and Octoling proportions have been lengthened slightly (perhaps these inhabitants are collectively older), and if 59 frames per second isn’t enough for you, we’re pleased to say that just like all previous games we couldn’t shake its rock-solid 60fps. Loading times are also supremely fast, and when combined with the tighter lobby system we were able to squeeze far more games into our hours playing than we ever would have been in Splatoon 2. Nice.
Splatoon 3 is more of the same, but refined to borderline mechanical perfection. It's the most fun we’ve had with an online shooter in years, and for series veterans it makes Splatoon 2 feel entirely redundant for all but its unique single-player content. It feels like the development team has solved every problem the Splatoon community was bleating on about, and then fixed some more that we didn’t even realise were problems until they were fixed. There's nothing revolutionary about it compared to its predecessors, and it's perhaps missing a Big New Idea™ that you might expect after five years, but Splatoon 3 is the pinnacle of the series, and the pinnacle of shooters on Switch.