Nintendo is generally relatively circumspect and cautious when introducing new IPs, but considering the pedigree the company has to uphold it's understandable that it doesn't wish to dilute its iconic brand with a torrent of forgettable franchises. Splatoon is unusual in that sense, then, and it's a game that brings a huge amount of originality, wackiness and ingenuity to the Wii U.
In Splatoon you create and control a member of a species known as Inklings: supposedly semi-liquid invertebrates that can transform into a humanoid form upon development later in life. It's generally best not to think about the science behind it too much and just accept that these are the facts. This unusual biology is one of the most crucial parts of the gameplay, as you can swim through any ink that is the same colour as you in squid form, which is significantly faster than getting around on foot and allows you to swim up vertical walls to reach otherwise inaccessible heights. You are essentially defenceless in this form, but your movement speed is twice that of lugging yourself around on your two standard-issue legs.
As an Inkling you're tasked with several objectives; in the single-player mode you're fighting off the Octarian forces who have stolen the main power source from Inkopolis – the Inklings' home. The multiplayer is a significantly less end-of-the-world situation, where you compete in battles for turf and glory for the purpose of being as 'fresh' as possible. The focus of this game is definitely on the multiplayer, but the single player is also a very welcome addition to the hectic online battling.
Taking place in the decrepit Octo Valley, the single-player campaign pits you against the forces of the Octarian army in all of its various guises. The earlier levels have quite a gentle learning curve to help ease you into the unique gameplay, and it doesn't become too much of a challenge until much later. Having said that, despite the difficulty being a little lacking in areas it is an absolutely enormous amount of fun; all of the levels are designed meticulously to work in perfect tandem with the ink mechanics.
Several levels feature Octolings which, as their name suggests, are Octarians who behave almost identically to Inklings. These foes are an excellent way to become accustomed to how online players behave, and whilst their behaviour is not absolutely identical it's certainly close enough to give new players a jumping-off point. If you're expecting Splatoon to stand up on its own as a single-player experience you're going to be sadly disappointed, though. The entire campaign will only last you between 3-5 hours on average and, as enjoyable an experience as it is, this reviewer was left wanting more than what was offered.
The single player does effectively serve as an extended tutorial, which is useful for getting accustomed to the motion controls utilised on the GamePad - you combine the two sticks with precision aiming from moving the controller. Despite being intuitive and natural once you've acclimatised yourself to this, it can be quite difficult to get these controls fully nailed down in the early stages. You can turn them off, leaving you with the standard twin-stick alternative, but given that the motion controls can give you much more precise movements than the sticks alone you'll be putting yourself at a significant disadvantage online - it's well worth the small investment to really get to grips with them.
The amiibo functionality, meanwhile, lends itself well to extending the single player experience, but won't leave those without the NFC figurines feeling like they've been cheated out of too much additional content. The stages you play through in this challenge mode are set in the same levels as the single player mode, but with the girl and boy amiibo you're given different weapons to try and reach the goal, shaking up the approach that's required. The Squid amiibo offers drastically different challenges, some of which are speed runs or task you with limiting how much ink you can shoot. Upon completing the many missions each amiibo offers you are gifted with extra gear that isn't available through other means, allowing you to strut your funky stuff online. It's a nice way of providing additional content for amiibo owners without leaving those without feeling left out, but we feel that - considering at the time of writing the amiibo are only compatible with Splatoon and not other titles - something more substantial may be a bigger draw given the cost of these figurines.
Also included in Inkopolis is the Battle Dojo: a 1v1 local multiplayer mode that has one person using the GamePad and its built-in screen and the other using the TV in conjunction with a Wii U Pro Controller, Classic Controlle, or Classic Controller Pro. Instead of having to cover the ground with ink to secure points, the objective in this mode is to burst as many balloons as possible while also fending off your opposer and preventing them from doing the same. The objective is sound and realistically feels as though it should have been included with some tweaks as a game mode in the online battles, but the levels have all clearly been designed for eight players and feel barren with only two Inklings running around. The mode generally feels like an afterthought, with slightly choppy performance compared to the particularly slick framerate elsewhere, and doesn't stand up to the same quality as the other areas of the game, but it's perfectly playable and could work as a tutorial for introducing new players into the game without throwing them directly into the fray of online battle.
The primary focus of this game is without a doubt the online multiplayer, and this feature is split into two distinct modes: Regular Battle and Ranked Battle. Regular Battle is always the Turf War game mode wherein your team of four are pitted against another team of four to see who can cover the most ground with your coloured ink. These matches can be frantic and heavily engaging, but generally there's no real punishment for losing rounds; your stats aren't even recorded beyond your level and the amount of experience you have.
Ranked Battle, at launch, only consists of one game mode called Splat Zones. In this mode you only have to cover one or more specific areas with ink in order to initiate your countdown. Your team must cover a significant majority of these areas before they automatically fill in the gaps with your ink, so you don't need to be utterly meticulous in your spraying. The opposing team is attempting to do the same thing, and so a 'tug-of-war' can often ensue with both teams snatching the zone(s) from one another to try and bring their countdown to zero.
Online play is also supplemented with Splatfests, in which you 'pick a side' for a fairly generic question and contribute to that side's score through Turf War battles, while Miiverse is implemented nicely with characters and their messages walking around in the Inkopolis plaza; these features are certainly a smart idea to boost the feeling of connectivity with gamers from around the world. Future updates will also improve how we connect with friends and form teams in online matches, as opposed to the randomised nature at launch; from day one you can try and join the lobbies of those on your Friend List, at least.
To be as efficient a threat as possible in your online battles you'll naturally have to customise yourself with gear, various types of which provide perks and physical alterations to your character. Perks range from increased damage and running speed to an enemy grenade/mine indicator, and even the ability to see a waypoint over the enemy who just splatted you for a limited time after respawning. This customisation allows you to gently tip the game in your favour to the extent that it will certainly have an effect on your abilities and performance, but if you've not unlocked everything you want you won't be at a total disadvantage against those who have, which is a nice way to allow useful customisation without emasculating those of lower levels. You'll of course need to arm yourself with an appropriate weapon as well.
The weapons available in multiplayer are split into four categories: Shooters, Snipers, Blasters, and Rollers. Shooters are your everyday rapid-fire weapons with limited range but easy ground coverage. Snipers are long-range weapons that require you to hold down your fire button for a period of time before a shot of any distance or strength can be fired. They're excellent for taking out foes from range but are extremely lacking in close quarters situations. Blasters are single-shot weapons that fire large, medium-range blobs of ink that explode after a short time, much like a grenade launcher. These have tremendous strength and provide splash-damage to any foe caught in the ink explosion, but their slow rate of fire can leave you defenceless at crucial moments. Rollers are melee weapons with excellent ground coverage and speed of movement. They lack any significant range beyond their ability to flick a wave of ink over a short distance, but their speed at covering ground can be devastating if you can sneak into the enemy's base.
This lineup - whilst initially appearing fairly limited - is expanded tenfold by the variations of these weapon types that are available to you, as well as the Sub-Weapons and Special Weapons that come coupled with them. The variety is enormous, and whilst you're not able to create custom loadouts (likely for the sake of balance) there's more than enough to suit whatever gameplay you fancy.
Picking the right weapon for you is absolutely essential when playing online, and every option is just as valid as another, although usually for differing reasons. The fact that once you have chosen your weapon pre-match you are unable to change until the match is over forces you to understand how best to use it in a multitude of situations, and whilst this may be a hinderance to begin with, it soon becomes the very best way to learn how to use your weapon of choice in the most effective manner possible. This variety in styles means that every single match is completely different to the one before.
Another factor that helps towards this individuality of match experiences is the ink mechanic. Every time you coat the ground with your ink you're changing the battlefield to your advantage so that the enemy is no long able to easily traverse that area until they've claimed it themselves. This results in an environment that is diverse, unpredictable and wholly unique every time you play a match, and it's easily one of the key features that makes Splatoon so incredibly replayable. The overall experience with the online multiplayer is that of pure joy; the ink mechanics as well as the unconventional objectives that go beyond the traditional deathmatch make every single round of Turf War and Splat Zones fluid and dynamic in a way that hasn't been achieved previously in any game of its ilk.
The game upon launch offers five stages, but more have been confirmed to be arriving later in the game's life cycle through the medium of a series of free updates. It's certainly a lower number than would be expected in a shooting game and ideally we'd like to see more, but regardless of this it manages to feel fresh every time you enter a match; that's an impressive feat that we're sure many game developers would give their right arm to achieve. Every level is symmetrical to a point to keep gameplay as fair as possible, but all employ varying vertical platforms and multiple routes to prevent bottlenecking. Each arena has clearly been designed to provide numerous different tactical opportunities to allow you to take full advantage of the geography, covering as much ground as you can as effectively as possible. No single weapon has a great advantage over another in any particular arena, which is a necessity when level selection is limited to one of two random options that are cycled every four hours.
Splatoon's presentation is a mixed if very positive bag. It may not have the highest polygon count, but everything has been stylised in a very modern, urban style that oozes cool. The bold, contrasting colours and glossy finish of the ink are an utter delight to look at, but everything has been created with a level of conservatism that has an added bonus: the loading times are blisteringly fast. The game can load an entire multiplayer map in roughly three seconds, so there'll be absolutely no hanging around once you've found all eight players online. The audio in the game is quite enjoyable, but the background music fits into quite specific genres and may not appeal to some people. The music largely fades into the background once you're in a game, though, so it's not really too much of an issue.
In a sea of rock-solid single-player Nintendo experiences Splatoon is a standout as being an utterly sublime multiplayer endeavour. Everything is knitted beautifully and seamlessly together to create what is quite simply some of the most fun you can have online. Having been built specifically for online play it'll face the challenge of avoiding too many hiccups, but conceptually proves that the Big N is capable of keeping up-to-date with this particular modern gaming trend. The single player elements and the local multiplayer also present a way to enjoy the game when you're not geared up for the chaos that comes from fighting others online, and provide a useful reprieve if your internet cuts out.
Splatoon is easily the freshest shooter in years and delivers superbly on all fronts; we have an inkling you'll love this.