Going into Splatoon 2 after the excellent first entry in the series, expectations were high; arguably too high to be properly realised. The original showed an incredible level of ingenuity, clever design, and almost boundless creativity, so could the sequel match up or suffer from a case of the Final Fantasy IIs?
First off, let’s talk about the single player, which we’ve already covered in detail in our preview. If the original had one significant drawback it was the fact that although Hero Mode was good, it didn’t fully stand up to the quality of the multiplayer. It largely felt like the developers had somewhat struggled to fully integrate the mechanics of the stellar multiplayer into a solo experience, but somehow managed to make it just about work, leaving a game mode that was enjoyable with some incredible stand-out moments, but had a lack of refinement and variety in certain instances, and wasn’t as long as many had hoped.
Luckily almost every single complaint about the single-player has been resolved; it still isn’t gigantic in scope, but every level is now notably longer, larger, and is much more varied. Splatoon 2’s Hero Mode is also much tougher as well, despite the inclusion of a more typical replenishing shield system that’s so common in modern shooters. The supposedly evil Octarians have much better AI, there are new foes to contend with, and most importantly they more often than not serve as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a necessary method of progression. This in turn helps to make things feel more organic and grants the user more choice.
The single player on the whole offers roughly 6 to 10 hours of content as a rough estimate, but thanks to the new weapon system you could probably quite easily add a zero onto the end of both those numbers. As you progress Sheldon will gift you a number of weapons to be used, with one of the many being mandatory the first time you complete each stage. However, once you’ve completed a level, you can then go back and replay it with any weapon available to you, and to any Splatoon aficionado that should be music to your ears. The weapons all vary so much that playing through one level with a Roller will feel completely different if you switch up to the Charger, or the Slosher, or the Dualies.
By playing through levels with different weapons the game logs your progress and should you complete a stage with every weapon the game offers you unlock a superbly powerful Crusty Sean Ticket that provides bonuses online - but more on those later. If you’re even more dedicated and you play through every level with one of the many weapons you unlock that weapon for use online. They don't appear to offer any different effects to the basic versions of the weapons they emulate, but as far as bragging rights go, it’s pretty hard to top.
The only notable criticism we hold in regards to the single player is the fact that in each Sector you have to find each stage individually. This seems like a good idea on paper, but it can often be frustrating when you’ve got just one level to find, you don’t even know where to begin searching, and all you want to do is take on one of the many fantastic bosses. Thankfully, once you’ve found each level you can quickly super jump to them whenever you feel like it, so it’s not too bitter a pill to swallow.
Now let’s move on to the brand new ‘horde mode’, called Salmon Run. You’re tasked with teaming up in a group of four and taking on wave after wave of relentless Salmonids who want to fry you up into squid rings. You’re not there to just lay waste, however; you’re there to take out oversized and overpowered Boss Salmonids and steal their golden eggs to be deposited and forwarded onto your employer Mr Grizz, who is basically the Nintendo equivalent of the Elusive Man from Mass Effect.
To begin with, each wave feels fairly straightforward. The Salmonids arrive from somewhere on the shore, Boss Salmonids show their heads, you kill them, steal their eggs, deliver them, rinse and repeat. However, shortly after rising through the ranks (known as pay grades) things rapidly became more difficult. Salmonids arrive in greater numbers, but then at the start of another wave the tide changes, growing or shrinking the landmass. Then fog falls, making it difficult to see anything at all, while on another wave night descends and enemies move at double or possibly even triple speed. It’s an exciting wrinkle to the formula that keeps you on your toes.
Salmon Run has an excellent way of lulling you into a false sense of security, and then immediately changing things up to make your life ten times harder than it was. As a lover of severe challenge this really piqued this writer’s interest and made every successful run with the Salmon all the more satisfying and rewarding. Furthering the reward motif, each match will gift you with points towards your next ‘bonus’. These bonuses take various forms, such as Crusty Sean Tickets, Ability Chunks, hard cash, and even unique gear, meaning working for Grizzco can easily give you an edge in the main multiplayer mode.
There are three different ways to play Salmon Run. You can matchmake with other random players online, band together with a group of friends over the internet, or play to your heart’s content over local wireless. Speaking of matchmaking, there is one additional option we unfortunately were unable to test prior to press time for this review: Nintendo’s Online Lobby. This lobby is the method through which Splatoon 2 interacts with the yet-unreleased smartphone app for voice chat. In theory, the app will let you organise a party and communicate with them through your phone. We’re told the app will be made available at launch, and we’ll update in a separate post with a rundown of how it works once we can test it.
Returning to Salmon Run, it initially seems strange that this mode is limited to select hours at a time, but after playing it extensively it became clear that although it’s tough, wonderfully enjoyable and very rewarding, it could easily be forgotten when paired side-by-side with the standard online multiplayer. By restricting the times you can play it it becomes more of an event when it is online - much like a Splatfest - and giving players more reason to make the most of what it has to offer. It’s also possible that its reward system could be abused by players farming from it constantly, so that’s another good reason for limiting its availability. It would still be nice to have the option to play just for fun with friends online much like the local wireless, but unfortunately that’s not something the game offers.
So what about the main event? Well, the online multiplayer is probably fairly well known among those that played the recent Splatfest and Testfire demos, but they only showed a fraction of what the full game has to offer. Much remains the same as the original, but it's the small details and refinements that show how closely Nintendo has been listening to its fans. Gone are the myriad different Special Weapons that provide invulnerability, gone is the need to use a second screen; instead, everything has been streamlined so that your focus is never away from the action.
Some of the weapon changes may at first seem overpowered, such as the Charger weapons allowing users to maintain a charge for a short time when in squid form, but the real balancing comes from the new stage design. There’s an awful lot more cover for people to make use of, there’s less verticality for the most part (with exceptions such as Moray Towers), and overall allows people to be a little bit less aware of exactly where the entire enemy team is. It does result in levels that are arguably a little bit more vanilla and straightforward than Arowana Mall and Walleye Warehouse, but the end result is a scope of maps that do not favour any one kind of weapon, which is no mean feat. The trade off is worth it, and although some of the stages aren’t perhaps as iconic, they’re much more suited to the hardcore, serious gameplay that Nintendo is clearly trying to push with Splatoon 2.
What’s more, the level rotation is now every two hours instead of every four, providing a much greater variety and allowing almost dangerously long play sessions to happen without becoming fatigued with the same maps and game modes repeatedly. And yes, when this rotation occurs you will be booted from any party or group you may be in, but instead of being shown the arguably tedious newsflash with the arguably wonderful Squid Sisters, you’re just thrown back to the Lobby ready to start all over again without missing a beat. We do despair at the fact that you still can’t change weapons between matches in Regular Battle without exiting the lobby - an oversight that is genuinely frustrating, if only for how simple a fix it would be.
Speaking of game modes, the classic three ranked modes are back once again. Splat Zones remains essentially unchanged, but Rainmaker now sports a new kind of titular objective, which now shoots an explosive projectile rather than a giant whirlwind of ink. It’s not clear why this change was made but it seems to work well and doesn’t interfere too much with the mode’s dynamic. Tower Control has probably changed the most, now requiring those on the tower to hold off at various checkpoints before they can progress to the final objective. This is a very welcome addition as it forces more defensive strategies from teams rather than just attempting to charge through as quickly as possible, but it still feels very much like Tower Control.
There’s also an interesting new addition courtesy of the footwear guru Crusty Sean, who has shut up his shoe shop in favour of flaunting freshly fried foodstuffs. By exchanging a ticket you can receive a buff that increases your experience or coins earned in online battles, as well as increasing the likelihood of grabbing the sub ability you want for your gear. The nice thing is that this applies to 20 battles and as far as we can tell does not expire at any time, meaning you can use these bonuses without worrying that you might waste them.
You’ll also want to talk to Spike’s replacement Murch, who does pretty much everything Spike did and then some. You can now save up Ability Chunks in order to apply a specific ability onto a specific item of clothing, meaning you’re no longer constantly rolling the dice on what you want from a particular bit of gear. This is by no means a quick and easy thing to do, however it is reliable, which is more than can be said for the original reliance on random number generation.
As far as performance goes it’s difficult to find anything to complain about, everything just sort of works. Everything’s displayed in a gorgeous 1080p resolution for the most part, occasionally stepping down seamlessly during high-pressure moments in order to maintain 60fps at all times, which it does absolutely flawlessly. We didn’t experience a single drop in frame rate at any time online or offline, and considering how good the game looks that’s a chuffing impressive feat. Naturally, when played in portable mode the visuals drop to 720p, but the silky-smooth performance remains.
The art team have done a wonderful job of making the game visually stunning without hampering performance, something we didn’t fully appreciate when we first picked it up. It was only when we went back to the original we realised just how basic things look on the Wii U, and the various clever workarounds that were employed to make it look as good as possible without affecting how the game ran. The textures, bump mapping, lighting, the endless popping colours, it all boils down to a timeless art style much like the GameCube’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. There’s also charm by the Slosher-load with each character having their own unique and likeable persona. Even the new Salmonids look as hideous and terrifying as they should do for a band of murderous mistakes of evolution.
Splatoon 2 is just about everything you could ask for from a sequel. It builds on everything the original set up and then some; almost every single major issue people had with the first game has been resolved, showing that Nintendo is genuinely listening and wants to deliver the absolute best experience possible. It maintains the freshness you’d expect and throws in countless big and small changes and additions, every one of them for the better. Anyone who says Nintendo can’t do online should be eating their words right now; Splatoon 2 is simply inkredible and continues Nintendo's trailblazing first year of Switch stunners.