The original Splatoon proved that Nintendo could still dream up fresh new franchises without leaning on Mario and Zelda. It was so cool that it even found success on the forgotten Wii U before eventually stepping up to the Nintendo Switch with Splatoon 2 in 2017. Five years later, Splatoon 3 (A$79.95) once again reminds us why we fell in love with this creative cocktail of competitive painting and team-based shooting. It doesn’t feel like there’s half a decade of innovations and upgrades here, though. Like Splatoon 2 was to the original Splatoon, there isn’t much new in Splatoon 3 besides a fresh coat of paint and a few features. However, for fun, family-friendly online shooting (or a surprisingly still-energized competitive scene), that might be all you need.
You’re a Kid Now, You’re a Squid Now
The Splatoon games are set in a post-apocalyptic world (seriously, it’s in the in-game lore) inhabited by evolved, stylish, street-savvy cephalopod children called Inklings and Octolings, and they compete to see which team can cover the most ground in ink. Splatoon is ultimately a team-based, competitive, third-person shooter, but beyond the anime spin on the SpongeBob-like underwater aesthetic, the whole “you’re a squid/octopus person” concept helps define the gameplay.
After you use your various weapons to ink (paint, really, and in bright colors) the ground, you can hold ZL to swim through it. This lets you move faster and with a lower profile, while recharging your ink supply. You can even ink walls to scale them. However, you can’t resume shooting until you reemerge, creating the rhythm of offense and defense.
Different weapon types alter how just how that inking works. Your primary ink-blasting weapon can be a handheld blaster, a machine gun, dual pistols, a bucket of paint, a person-sized paint roller, an umbrella (that shoots paint), or one of many other tools. Each weapon also comes with a sub-weapon so you can throw bombs, set mines, or even just detect enemies as they swim through their own ink.
Splatting enemies helps you take over their territory, but Splatoon shines as an accessible multiplayer game where even less skilled players feel like they’re contributing. As long as you get paint on the ground, you’re helping your team. This is especially important in the standard game mode, Turf War, where your entire mission is to ink more of the map than the enemy team can.
Besides Turf War, you can enjoy other game variants. Splat Zones and Tower Control force teams to rethink their strategy for claiming and controlling space. Rainmaker is like capture the flag, but the flag is a powerful weapon. Clam Blitz introduces more arcade-sports elements, as you compete to deposit clams in enemy goals.
Play by the Playlists
These different game modes provide a nice bit of variety, but you can’t just jump into a game with a specific variant in mind. You must join an Anarchy Play lobby, which is locked to a single mode that rotates every few hours. There are two Anarchy Play lobbies, one with solo games and one with best-of-five sets, so you at least have two chances to play the type of game you want at any given time.
This arbitrary limitation of how you can play extends to Turf War, too. At any given time there are only two Turf War maps available from a pool of twelve. You can “recon” any map or game mode to see how it plays, but that doesn’t make up from the simple ability to jump into a game with a specific mode or map in mind. On the bright side, you don’t have to sit through cutscenes every time you start the game, or when the maps or game modes change; you can press a button and listen to the “Splatcast,” which gives you the same information the unskippable vignettes do in a small text box while you run around.
On the bright side, you can pick and choose what modes and maps to play if you want to play only with friends, or over local Wi-Fi. You can set up a private room to suit your tastes, but you need seven other people you know (or who are at least nearby). That’s better than nothing, but it would have been good to simply choose the modes and maps you want to play online with others, without needing a full compliment of friends for the privilege.
As another nice touch, the cooperative Salmon Run mode is now accessible at any time and not perplexingly locked outside of certain time windows, as it was in Splatoon 2. This mode lets you join with three other players to fight waves of enemy fish creatures and collect golden eggs from bosses. It’s still fun, and hasn’t been changed much besides just being able to play it whenever you feel like it.
Slick Squid Style
Like in the previous Splatoon games, Splatoon 3 lets you deck out your Inking or Octoling in a variety of different outfits and accessories. As you play online matches, you level-up your character and gain in-game currency used to buy headgear, clothes, footwear, and other items. The first three directly affect your character’s appearance, and provide different buffs like using less ink or swimming faster. Each clothing item starts with one skill, but most have multiple slots you can fill with additional, randomly selected benefits by leveling them up like you would your character (by playing with them equipped).
Of course weapons are a big part of the experience, as well, and Splatoon 3 has several dozen that unlock as you level-up your character. You start with a simple blaster, then get access to a few other weapons, then steadily more and more become available. Several weapons share the same general mechanics, but different stats sub-weapons make them all feel at least a bit different.
You can also get your own space to further show off your style, though it isn’t as apparent as your character’s threads. It’s a locker in a locker room, ready to fill with items you find in the single-player game or buy at the general store, Hotlantis. You can cover it with stickers, hang your favorite clothes in it, or just load it with doo-dads. Your locker appears next to others online, whether they’re just random players or friends you’ve played alongside. You must actively look for these lockers, though, so it’s mostly customization for your own satisfaction than something to show off to anyone else. Fortunately, there’s still the Miiverse-like Splatoon posts feature that gives you a simple white canvas you can draw and write messages on, that pop up when players come near you (again, when you randomly appear in their cities and lounges).
Go Solo, for the Squidbeaks
Splatoon also has a delightful single-player player mode where you take on the role of a special agent learning more about this absurd world. As in the previous games, Splatoon 3 lets you get recruited by the crotchety Cap’n Cuttlefish to join the New Squidbeak Platoon and recover the zapfishes that power the city. At first it seems that rogue Octolings are the culprits like before, but it turns out more complicated and interesting than that.
The story is ultimately an excuse to send you running around a mysterious complex and play through the obstacle courses and battles inside. These abstract, Mario-esque levels challenge you to make the most of your abilities as you blast enemies and navigate platforms. It’s not the most substantial game mode, and mechanically mostly feels designed to get you prepared for multiplayer fun. However, it has a few dozen different levels to play through across six zones, and like Splatoon 2’s Octo Expansion, it provides some fun looks at the series’ wider world.
What’s New in Splatoon 3?
Splatoon is a wildly creative and entertaining remix of traditional shooter tropes. However, everything we just described applies pretty much the same to each game in the Splatoon series so far. Footage of Splatoon 3 without context is pretty indiscernible from footage of Splatoon or Splatoon 2 unless you’re already very familiar with the maps and weapons, and the additions feel more like tiny tweaks to an established formula rather than sequel-worthy upgrades.
Splatoon 3 launches with 12 maps, some returning and some new. New weapons include the Splatana, a sword that sprays paint like a windshield wiper, and the Stringer, an arrow-like weapon with multiple firing modes. Splatoon 3 also adds advanced movement options for quickly bursting up walls (Squid Surge) and nimbly turning around in ink (Squid Roll). Both of these feel great, and enable faster-paced tactical repositioning.
While there are still plenty of frustrations in the game’s interface, there are some new improvements, such as the aforementioned ability to skip cutscenes. You can also access and immediately jump to any game mode’s area (the Lounge for online play, the Shoal for local play, Grizzco for Salmon Run, and Alterna for the single-player mode), and open a quick menu in each area to immediately set up your next game. Also, you and your friends can now always stay on the same team when playing multiple matches.
Beneath the Surface
Splatoon 3 is extremely similar to Splatoon 2, which itself felt like an enhanced version of the first Splatoon. We could forgive Splatoon 2 since it launched so soon after the original and saved the game from a dying platform, but it’s five years later and Splatoon 3 still doesn’t offer much new. Nintendo even expects Splatoon 2 to live on in parallel (though we’ve heard that before about the Switch itself and the 3DS).
Splatoon 3 also continues the franchise’s trend of dabbling in live service elements, and then limiting how you can engage with them in baffling ways. It’s inexcusable that we’re three games in and we still can’t simply create our own playlists or even just choose the maps and modes we want to play online unless we have seven other friends to play with us at the same time.
Despite these frustrations, Splatoon 3 is an excellent game. Of course, so was Splatoon 2, and so was Splatoon. If you just want a really fun and unique take on online shooters, Splatoon 3 is one of the best choices out there. And considering how Splatoon has a thriving esports scene, people who spend their time in ranked battles will appreciate the improvements, and how the new weapons impact the meta.
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