Splatoon's multiplayer feels promising for casual and hardcore shooter fans, but will people buy it?


Ranked battles are confirmed, but are coming post-launch

Nintendo isn’t exactly known for its online experiences. With the exception of a few recent titles like Mario Kart 8, the public is typically clamoring for some form of online support. Games like Mario Party 10would probably be more enjoyable with the feature, and games like Splatoon, coming in May, are predicated on a strong online infrastructure.

While the core of Splatoon‘s multiplayeris very fun, I do have a few concerns specifically stemming from Nintendo’s inexperience in the market.

Splatoon(Wii U)Developer:Nintendo EAD Group No. 2Publisher: NintendoReleased: May 2015MSRP: $59.99

The concept that Splatoon“isn’t just about kills” is exemplified in Turf War, the 4v4 mode that everyone saw last year at E3. In short, it’s a lot like “Graffiti” from the Tony Hawkseries — two teams must ink up as much territory as possible, and whoever has the most when the clock strikes zero wins. The game keeps track of kills and deaths at the end of each match, but it’s all about who covers the most territory, not a skill-based ratio.

Nintendo notes that even without voice chat the gameplay facilitates organic teamwork, and after quite a bit of playtime with it, I mostly agree. The emphasis on four-person squads ensures that no one gets lost, and there’s a major feature that instantly allows players to teleport (by way of a rocket-like animation in the sky) to teammates by tapping their icon on a map on the GamePad. It’s a cool concept to get people constantly in the action without feeling left out. The layout of each map naturally helps this concept as well, with the three on display themed like a skate park (Blackbelly Skatepark), warehouse (Walleye Warehouse), and oil rig (Saltspray Rig).

I noticed that each arena has two to three forks almost immediately and throughout the spoke-like design, allowing players to naturally fan out and start taking over different areas. Like a MOBA you’ll meet other players in your lane at the start, and will have to adjust for one-on-two or teamfight situations. I really like this ideology, as it allows newcomers to the shooter genre to participate without becoming overwhelmed, all while providing familiar territory for hardcore veterans. Nintendo notes that it’s “bucking the trends from other shooters” with this design philosophy.

That wouldn’t mean anything if the gameplay weren’t fun, and thanks to a wide array of weapons Splatoonkept my interest. While there are plenty of standard loadouts similar to rifles, pistols, and snipers, the Roller in particular is definitely my favorite. It’s as simple as you’d expect — it’s literally a paint roller that allows you to squish enemies or “flick” the attack button to fling paint as a miniature projectile.

Rollers change the flow of a match quite a bit, especially if you’re going up against an opponent who is also rocking one. Jousting matches were commonplace, and you always have to be aware of another Roller coming up from behind. It also holds a number of therapeutic qualities to it, since the only action you need to perform is holding the button and moving around. Thankfully, the weapon is balanced, even if it can cover a lot of ground in Turf War.

For those of you who crave a less casual experience, Ranked Battle has been confirmed. It’s described as a “completely separate mode” that will be released “post-launch.” To unlock it you’ll have to reach rank 10 in standard multiplayer, at which point you’ll gain access to a new ranking system. Everyone will start out with a letter grade (in this case a C-), and you’ll rank up dynamically by winning matches. There will be multiple supported modes, and I was able to try out one of them — a King of the Hill-esque gametype called “Splat Zones.”

Much like the popular aforementioned mode, each map will have one static “zone” to capture. Teams will be required to ink up the majority of a zone to claim it, and then fend it off against their opponent while a team timer counts down to zero. All you have to do is protect it and you win — there’s no “crazy” modifier that shifts the zone around. While the lack of a moving hill sounds boring on paper, it’s here in Splat Zone that I really started to see Splatoon‘s tactical depth.

Weapons that felt useless in Turf War were suddenly being cycled in by players in my session. Snipers and shield loadouts were particularly popular, especially on Saltspray Rig, where the zone was open to errant long-range shots. My favorite strategy that was kind of adopted on the fly by my winning team was to deploy multiple Bubblers, which are one-way shields that allow you to fire out, while suppressing enemies who fire at you.

We locked down multiple choke-points to prevent the enemy from encroaching on our territory, and won a few games handily. Our opponents eventually adapted however, arcing grenades over our shields and into our zone. If all this sounds pretty advanced that’s because it is — developer EAD has created a cool little meta-game with all eight loadouts we were able to try, and Nintendo promises more will be in the final build.

One thing I took issue with however was the way that loadouts are handled. Apparently once you’re locked into one, you cannot switch to another mid-match. Also, you can’t even see what other players have picked with the current build. This can create issues where everyone picks the same weapon, such as a Roller, and the team has significant problems winning a match. When asked about whether or not either of these concerns would be addressed, the rep didn’t seem hopeful, noting that “it wasn’t a priority at this time.”

While it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, I can see quite a few frustrating matches were everyone picks the same weapon and loses by a landslide. The rep even noted that while “all the weapons are balanced, you will find certain advantages and disadvantages to specialized weapons like the Roller on specific levels.” This is Nintendo’s first real foray into the shooting world, so hopefully everything will be balanced in the final build.

Nintendo hasn’t shared any details regarding split-screen play — when asked, a rep stated that “we are focusing on the GamePad at this time, not other control methods.” While I did have a lot of fun with Splatoonin a closed environment, the combination of a lack of Wii U sales and the risk of launching a new IP isn’t exactly a winning formula for a thriving online community. If split-screen isn’t available come launch, I think a lot of people are probably going to wait for a sale.

[Both lunch and dinner were provided at the event at Nintendo’s offices in Redmond, Washington.]