June 11, 2015

That's A Wrap: Splatoon

warning: may contain colorful information unwillingly shot into your face

Maybe it's just me, but it feels like this is the first, new, AAA I.P. Nintendo has put out in a long time! Splatoon is a colorful, third-person shooter, hot off the press, for the WiiU. It has been praised for its family-friendliness, as Splatoon's cartoon-y nature and lack of communication eliminates the gory activities and unpleasant online experiences usually associated with shooters.

I got my first impressions of Splatoon when it was announced at E3 in 2014. My words on it were as follows:
Splatoon… oh boy. I'm pretty sure we used to play this game in real life when I was a kid. It looks fun but the issue with games like these is that there are usually people who've mastered it (like people who know quick ends to chess or tic-tac-toe) and then it's just not fun to play anymore. Basically everyone needs to jump on at the start and figure it out together, and then never play the game again until everyone's forgotten about it. I don't know, I hope I'm wrong. Playing in teams seems more appealing… I don't know, I'm really struggling to nail down my feelings about this one! But of course it had to be squids.
This was followed by very frequent discussions with some of my friends over our plans to play together online and in time, I became very, very excited for Splatoon. In fact, this is the second game in over a year that I've bought immediately at release (for the record, the other was also a WiiU game, Bayonetta 2)!
Nintendo took a very neat approach to introducing fans to Splatoon. During one of their common Nintendo Directs, they showed video of what's supposed to be a scientist sharing the discovery of a new species, the inkling. A curious specimen which appears to be a gangly child, but with the ability to transform into a squid. As a squid, the creature can travel through ink matching its color with speed and the grace to swim up walls and jump from puddle to puddle. Other colors, of course, have the opposite effect. The video then went on to demonstrate mechanics of the game as though you were watching animals in a zoo.
Nintendo then set up four hour-long "global testfires" in the weeks leading up to the game's release, and the first three seemed to go off without a hitch. The final bout, however, was one very long wait. It seemed the servers weren't operating correctly that day, and the test ended up being delayed an hour while Nintendo sorted things out. I had the pleasure of trying out the game in the earlier testfires, so I backed out of the final one after about 30 minutes of Squid Jump practice.

The design of Splatoon takes on a very juvenile art style. Each of the playable characters are a sort of human-squid hybrid… with awesome, menacing teeth. You get to choose their gender, complexion and eye color, but the game dictates your color based on your team. The scenery is crisp and detailed, and as per the game's theme, colors absolutely pop. Overall the style is very fitting for a Nintendo game. If you can get over the fact that it's not "realistic," you'll find the visuals very detailed, saturated and fun. Even after many hours, it's never hard to look at Splatoon.

A lot of people had less-than-stellar things to say about Splatoon's soundtrack during the testfires, but I warmed to it immediately! Most of the songs are very appropriate for the nature of the game: fast-paced, colorful and obnoxious. Maybe even squid-y. Even more impressive is that they range in genre influence from mellow ska to death metal, all without leaving the aforementioned Splatoon umbrella. Composers Minigishi and Fujii really offer something unique here. My favorite tracks are heard in the single player campaign, which houses a lot of tunes not yet heard elsewhere, but the final boss themes and one of the popular level themes are so catchy that I've actually crawled through air ducts to override my office's P.A. system to blast the tunes into the building. Whether you notice it or not, music actually plays a big part in Splatoon's narrative, and builds up a great deal of hype towards the game's final boss. Regardless, I get these ear worms stuck in my head all the time now, and have since begged Nintendo to expedite the official soundtrack.

By the time this blog is published, the game will be about two weeks old, and in that two weeks of my non-stop play, my experience has been something like a 60/40 in terms of good and bad - keeping in mind there has been a lot of experimentation. For starters, the game has taken a very "worldwide" or "online" approach, in that the whole game was not immediately available for at-release purchasers. Nintendo demands that enough 'tooners reach level 10 (so far, the ultimate cap is 20) before they unlock Ranked Battles and more arenas. This is among my chief issues with the game at release. There were 5 maps available for online Turf Wars - in which, I'm sure you can guess, the objective is to cover as much horizontal turf with your team's color as possible, before the three minute timer calls the match. The catch is that only 2 of the maps are available at any given time, so for gamers like myself who are logging up to 8-hour sessions… you get very bored of the scenery. Other hiccups include the dreaded communication errors, either when trying to join a match or - worse - mid-match, and the game is experiencing some lag issues from time to time, too. As I said though, this accounts for less than half of my opinion on Splatoon, and I expect a lot of my issues will be resolved as more people get involved and more time passes. That is Nintendo's method for unlocking new content: audience participation.
By day four they'd finally unlocked Ranked Battles, and they are bullshit. There appears to be only one type of battle - Splat Zones - in which teams try to take control of a small territory in the arena and hold it for a long enough time, or at least longer than the other team. This is really only fun for killers, and totally defeats the purpose of the game. I expect more battle types will come with time, and thank god, because this is so, so boring. In addition to this, the updates also included one measly new map as well as a new weapon which deeply resembles the classic Nintendo Zapper accessory for the NES (fittingly called the N' Zap 85). A few days later we saw yet another weapon (the ink brush) and another new map, so you can see there is a method to their madness here.

While online play is certainly the focus of Splatoon, it's not all the game has to offer. Upon landing in
The plaza, as seen from the gamepad.
Inkopolis, you're immediately introduced to a sort of plot: the Great Zap Fish has gone missing, and people are worried the power will go out! You'll get an introduction to the available shops and buildings, and even a few of the town's dodgy citizens, one of whom - Captain Cuttlefish - is responsible for the game's single player campaign. When you drop down to see Capt. Cuttlefish, he babbles on about how the Octarians are responsible for the zap fish's disappearance, and dubs you Agent 3. As Agent 3 (with a swanky new get up) you're charged with finding the many Octarian lairs beneath the city and retrieving the zap fish, on your way to saving the Great Zap Fish. There are 27 missions (plus a final boss) in the single player campaign spread across four zones. Each zone is capped with a challenging boss - which may or may not remind players of Zelda games.
Of course, the missions and bosses demand that you use your color and some clever skills to eliminate enemies and conquer the boss, which usually calls upon some puzzle solving and platforming skills.
I really can't fault the single player campaign much... however, I did not enjoy it as much as everyone else seemed to. I found it frustrating to control (and different from online play), very easy to make stupid mistakes, a bit repetitive, and is single-handedly responsible for helping me conclude once-and-for-all: I hate the gamepad. On paper, it truly is fun and well designed, but feels less rewarding than the game's meat-and-potatoes: online play.
Consequently I felt the campaign seemed long, and wasn't very
motivated to finish it. What kept me going was the rewards found within the long mission. While splatting Octarians, you're also tasked with finding the Sunken Scrolls in each of the levels, the consequences for which usually manifest themselves in new (significantly improved) weapons which you can use for your online forays. There are other pros, too: better music, more stages, more colors, the only plot (the scrolls also provide a lot of info!), a particularly epic (and loooooong) final boss and you can't deny there is plenty of content here to help justify the game's difficult-to-swallow price tag, and keep you busy when you're not in the mood for an online battle.

There are a few key characters in Inkopolis, besides your new creation. We've already discussed Capt. Cuttlefish, whose purpose is to manage the single player campaign. He can be found popping up from a sewer near the battle tower. You'll also eventually meet Agent 1 and Agent 2 in Octo Valley. They seem… familiar.
If you snake around the corner, you'll meet a new psychedelic friend, Spyke. He gets you shit. Once you've unlocked Spyke's magical power (by talking to him) you can order the equipment you see on the other inklings in the plaza (the default area in Splatoon). Spyke can only get one item a day, however, so choose wisely. Once you've hit the max level, Spyke becomes an even better friend by allowing you to add ability slots to your favorite equipment. Since abilities are selected at random, you may wish for a re-spin on a slot or two, Spyke can help you there as well. But it's gonna cost ya!
In front of the battle tower you'll find a curious cat named Judd. You'll probably recognize him as the judge in Turf War battles, but while in the plaza, you can consult Judd for advice, and eventually he'll reward you for your vibe meter rating with a little cha-ching! Emphasis on the "little"…
The first residents of Inkopolis you'll meet are the Squid Sisters, Callie and Marie. These local celebrities host Splatoon's news program, in which they announce updates and which maps are currently available for regular (Turf War) battles and Ranked Battles. Remember how I said only two are available at a time? The maps will rotate every four hours, and right on the money, these two will interrupt your game to let you know. They are… I guess the kids call it "fresh" these days? I don't know, Splatoon's youngster lingo mostly goes right over my head.
You'll want to make fast friends with the city's shop owners. Sheldon helms the arms dealership. You should visit him every time you level up, and whenever you find a curious artifact in the single player game. It turns out Shelly's great grandpappy was quite the weapons specialist, and the "blueprints" you find usually make new weapons available after Shel uses his slightly above-average intellect to construct them.
You can test out all of Sheldon's weapons before you buy! Just press Y. He'll send you out back for a little target practice so you can get a feel for the weapon before you commit to it. You can also switch test weapons while you're out there, and reset the messy field, so there's no need to come back inside first. It's these little details that make Splatoon's design easy to appreciate.
Annie & Moe sell headgear. Hats, helmets and assorted head pieces will provide boosts, so check back often to see if there's something better on the market. You can see what your inkling looks like sporting the new gear before you buy, you just have to pound the right stick down.
Jelonzo sells clothes, which follow headgear's lead in every way, and for that matter, so does footwear, sold by Crusty Sean (…get it?).

So now that you're super fresh with gear and practice, it's time to head online. Online play is basically mandatory in Splatoon, because without it, you cannot level up, earn money and unlock most of the aforementioned. This is where general gameplay and combat become the same thing. As of the two-week mark, there are only two online modes: regular and ranked. I've already given you the overhead on what that means, but now I'll fill you in on the details.
In regular mode, you can choose to enter a battle from scratch or select a friend from your "joinable" list (they also have to be in regular battle mode) and in either case, you'll be thrown into a lobby where you'll await the rest of your party. There need to be eight players in total for a Turf War battle to begin. Once everyone has checked in, it's splat time! Loading a lobby (at this time) usually takes less than a minute, and if you join a friend, you may have to wait up to three minutes for their in-progress war to finish, in which case you're in queue for the lobby. The catch is if all eight members of your friend's lobby choose to battle again, you'll be thrown into the line once more and continue waiting. In my experience, this doesn't happen often, though.
One of the two current maps will be chosen at random, and your party will divide (also random) into two teams of four, each assigned a bright color. There's a quick "ready…" countdown and the battle begins with the music! You and your team spread out across the arena and try to cover as much of it as possible in your color. There are a few things to consider here:
-You have three minutes. It feels like a lifetime. 10 seconds is enough for any team to turn the table.
-Your goal is to cover as much ground as possible. You. As though you were alone. You're ultimately ranked on your success, so get painting! Your progress is tracked with the little inkometer in the top-right corner.
-You can paint over the other team's color. In fact, I insist!
-Teams are evenly matched (4x4) which suggests you have a target on your back at any given time. When you encounter a member of the other team, you can "splat" them with your weapon, causing them to disappear from the field and respawn at their original access point after a long pause. But of course, they can do the same to you. You can check the condition of each team with the roster of squids along the top of the screen.
-You have three weapons to do the aforementioned. Your main weapon (usually a gun or roller), your sub weapon, which will need to be charged by covering ground with your main, and a special weapon, usually in the form of a bomb. You'll need a full ink tank to use them. These are all introduced to you when you purchase your weapon from Sheldon, and can be seen in the top-right corner durning battle (along with your active boosts).
-Only horizontal field counts. You can ink walls for the sake of getting around, but vertical turf ultimately does not count toward your score.
-You can super jump to any of your living teammates by tapping them from the gamepad.
-There is also the useless cheer feature. On your screen you will see a prompt showing that you can press up or down on your D-Pad to call out "Booyah!" or "C'mon" in your squid-y language, but it serves no actual purpose. Judd says calling "c'mon!" is supposed to rally your team to you, but they'll almost never respond. Calling "booyah!" is meant to praise a teammate's good work, but honestly I use this more to praise my own job well done. This feature would probably have some worth if you could call out more reasonable things, perhaps "cover me!" or "go another way!"
When three minutes is up, you'll get an over-head look at the arena, and Judd will pop in to clarify what percentage of the grounds each team managed to conquer.
Then you're taken to the ranking screen and awarded points (towards your level) and money based on your success. You will gain points even if your team loses, you'll just get fewer. There is a +300 bonus for the winning team. Points are awarded mostly on how much ground you've personally covered, but your "kills" and "deaths" may also factor in slightly.
After that you're asked if you want to play in the same lobby again, or return to the battle tower to start over.
Heyzoos! Chris has 21 kills! Go play CoD, Chris!!
For Ranked Battles, the method is largely the same, except instead of a Turf War, you're taken to a random map, assigned a team, and expected to hold a small area of ground for 100 seconds, or longer than the other team during the 5 minute match. Whomsoever has the least time remaining at the end of the battle wins (+1000 bonus!) or you can "K.O." the other team by holding the splat zone for the entire 100 seconds. Throughout the battle you're provided on-screen updates on which team has control, and your gamepad's map will reflect this.
In my experience, the current Ranked Battle ("Splat Zones") is just a shoot out. Rollers are virtually useless, and all you do is run to the marked area and try to kill the other team so you can claim the ground. This carries on, non-stop, until the battle is over, and the winning team is usually the team with the best snipers or the team that got there first. There's no real sport to it and it's not fun at all. I genuinely hope Nintendo has more in store for this department.
Afterward, you're taken to the rank screen and awarded points (or ridiculed) which are forwarded to your letter rank. You begin with a C- rank and work your way up from there, but a loss is equal to or greater than a win, so it seems most people are still within the C ranking.

As it stands, you cannot choose your party manually for either battle. This is my other major gripe with this game. I bought Splatoon with the hopes of forming a kickass team with my pals Chris and Ken, and together, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting squid kids. Sadly, it seems my boys and I will have to wait until at least August for this promised feature to be unlocked, and that really, really bums me out. I can't really guarantee I'll have much time for Splatoon several months from now. Furthermore, my friends and I all inhabit different time zones, so getting together is already challenging. As of now, I can still play with my Nintendo Network friends in regular battles only, but more than half the time I'm forced to fight against them, instead of honing our skills as a team as I'd hoped.
Furthermore, the game does not support online communication. This is understandable, considering the game is published by Nintendo, who I'm sure want no business with the copious amounts of angry teenagers out there who just want to go online and spout their newly discovered language and troll others. This would no doubt ruin the experience for many. Also the game is very much worldwide, meaning in any given match, most if not all of your team may not even speak the same language as you (this would be easily rectified with some mapping, though).
However, there's something to be said for being able to communicate with your team. My cohorts and I compensate by using Skype to formulate strategies and watch each other's backs. As I said before, this is only case maybe 30% of the time, since we can't form our own team, but when we are together, we're significantly more powerful due to our communication. There have been countless instances in which I've yelled at my tv over a non-comm'd teammate doing something useless, meanwhile Chris and I could be paired with deadbeats and still swamp the enemy with our tried-and-true strategies.

One of the coolest features in Splatoon takes the form of one of two of the game's only real sidequests or mini games: Squid Jump. This little diddy pops up on your gamepad anytime you're stuck waiting in a lobby, and gives you something to do while you're waiting for the room to fill up. You can also access Squid Jump from an arcade machine in the plaza, if you just want to play uninterrupted.
Squid Jump is literally what you think it is. You're a squid, and your only capability is jumping. You hop from platform to platform, making your way up to a duck at the top of the screen. Eventually, you are chased there by water. Apparently, squids can't swim, so making contact with the purple stuff will cost you one of your 3 lives. You're awarded a score for your success, and move on to the next level. The platforms will get trickier (ice, moving, conveyer and so on) and you'll also find boosts (double jump squid, power jump fish et al.) as the level gets higher. Note that the screen is continuous in Squid jump, so if you jump off to left side, you'll reappear on the right. Rumor has it that there will be more 8-Bit Squid games to choose from in the future. Cool!
The other mini game at your disposal - also found in the plaza - is the amiibo featurette. If you've bought any of the Splatoon-compatible amiibo, you can hit up the amiibo box in the plaza and unlock trials, for which you are rewarded gear.

There is one other thing to do in Splatoon, and that is visit the Battle Arena. This, like the rest of the game at the moment, is pretty underwhelming. It offers the game's local multiplayer experience. You and your P2 (who will apparently have to use a MacGyver'd controller) face off against one another in a battle of balloon shooting. Yeah, that's all this area has to offer for now. Hopefully they'll add more stuff later.


I've already communicated my feelings toward the WiiU Gamepad… I'll get into it a bit more now. But first let's have a look at Splatoon's controller map.
While in the plaza, all you can really do is run around with your left analog stick, and move the camera with the right. You instigate the plaza's many offerings by simply entering the building in question, or tapping the corresponding button on your gamepad. Then, you can check out other inklings by visiting them and pressing A.
You'll get a quick screenshot of what the person is wearing, what weapon they're using, their rank information, as well as their recent miiverse post (where applicable). Splatoon's miiverse community has been especially active, and the game has a very fun approach to displaying these posts (you'll often see them as graffiti or billboard art in the levels!). You can quickly "yeah!" a person's post by pressing Y, or scoot over to Spyke's order menu by pressing X and choose which item you want him to hunt down for you. Back out of the whole thing by pressing B.
While in the arena, the controls are simple, if imperfect:
Move with left stick, cam with right. You may also have "motion controls" enabled, in which case simply moving your gamepad around will affect the screen.
ZR = shoot, ZL = squid mode, but you can only really move in your own color ink. Otherwise you'll stall and slowly die.
R calls forth your special weapon (bombs). Once you've charged your sub weapon, activate it by pushing the right stick. But only for a short time! Then your main weapon will automatically take over.
You can jump in kid or squid mode by pressing X, and pushing Y will realign your camera.

Okay ink people… it's rant time. I hope you've noticed by now that I play many consoles, and use all their native controllers. I consider myself extremely well educated in matters of controllers and you should too. First of all, there is one major problem the gamepad presents right from the get-go, that only affects myself and a small percentage of gamers. Do you struggle to balance a basketball in your open palm? I do. That's how small my hands are. Think 8-year-old. If you've never seen the gamepad before, there is a comparison photo in my Les Dispositifs blog for the WiiU. It's bloody massive, and after my first 8 hour session in Splatoon with the motion controls active, I was actually complaining to Chris about the arthritic-like pain in my fingers, and I couldn't go on due to the pain. Just holding the Pro Controller for a moment actually made my hands feel better. But alas, Splatoon does not support the Pro or any other controller. You must use the gamepad.
Secondly - and I've only just noticed this with Splatoon (bear in mind that I've not played a ton of WiiU at this point) - the responsiveness of the controls seems slow at times. I'm not talking about lag or online delay of any kind. I'm saying that I'm swimming along towards and edge, prepared to make a big jump in squid mode, and just as I get to the edge and mash the X button... I fall off into the pit below... and jump. Gee. Wonderful.
Lastly, and this is largely affected by the oversized controller for me, I just don't like the control map much. The ZL & ZR controls are great, they're very intuitive and easy to use, but the sub and special weapons are so not Lo-friendly that I actually almost never use them. The special weapons are accessed on the R shoulder button. Fair enough, I suppose, except that for me, that button is a slight hand-shift away, and mixed with the slow response... it's just not worth it. The sub weapon on the other hand is something I'd like to use but again, it's difficult. Case in point: there is a weapon called the Krak-On Roller. It's been my most effective weapon in team battles, and the sub weapon attached to it is simply called the Kraken. When instigated, your inkling turns into a nearly indestructible kraken and can wonkily annoy everyone nearby. The catch is that you'll often have to release the kraken in a pinch! Enter slow response time… you're dead, squid. I'd say my "in-a-pinch" kraken calling has been successful about 40% of the time. Dismal.
[/End Rant]
Anyway, after extensive testing, I've decided to turn motion controls off and the sensitivity waaaaay up. It works best for me and hurts my hands the least. I do prefer to turn the sensitivity down when playing in Octo Valley (single player) though, which was an odd discovery.

The difficulty of the game is a very onerous thing to pin down. There are no difficulty modes or settings, you just jump in and hope you get a good team, your favorite field, and people who know how to specialize in their weapons. The only things to be concerned with in the single player mode are your weapon and bomb upgrades, which can be upgraded in Octo Valley by spending the little orange spheres you've collected. Obviously, the better your gun and bomb range, the easier the campaign will be. You may also find armor scattered throughout the mission which will normally provide you a one-hit barrier protecting you from imminent doom. Otherwise all you can do is get acquainted with the controls and practice. Try not to fall off the edge.

Of course the online portion of this game has no time restrictions, but the single player campaign can easily be conquered in about 3 or 4 hours. I did the bulk of the work in one sitting, scrolls and all.

I'm pretty sure I've made it clear here that Splatoon is an imperfect game, but for all of my complaining, it's still quite fun, and gets better with time. Allow my current clock of 40 hours to attest to that. As mentioned, the game hasn't really even finished releasing, and who knows what updates they'll unleash in the future with the mass amounts of feedback Nintendo is getting from the community. The chief fixes I'd like to see? Map rotation, team formation, I'd like the ability to switch my gear in the lobby (you have to return to the plaza to do anything. Once you're in the lobby, you're locked in for good.), mute the bloody Squid Sisters - that is, they'll interrupt your online session to announce the new maps, which is totally unnecessary. The current maps are displayed in the lobby so their appearance is redundant. Furthermore, you have to view the same announcement every time you boot up the game, totally not fresh. Another thing I've yet to mention is the murder-suicides. Oftentimes in the game, you'll splat someone and they'll miraculously manage to splat you at the exact same time, resulting in the death (respawn) of both inklings. I feel this defeats the purpose of multiple weapons, stats and splats... only one inkling should perish, especially in the case of rollers. Lastly? Pro controller support. I understand it probably means giving up motion controls, agreed, and I'd simply keep the gamepad in front of me for warping purposes, much like I do in Mario Kart, to see the map. Speaking of MK, a lot of people have spoken about the need for a Mario Kart TV-like service in Splatoon. I believe, at the very least, the game should afford you the ability to screen cap your high scores and post online. At present, the game bars you from using the home button at all for the better part of the game. Getting captures for this blog was very difficult. Also, spectating when waiting to join a friend's lobby would be cool.

Okay. That was a lot of information to take in, so allow me to quickly summarize:

LOTIPS
  • The first thing you should probably concern yourself with is how your skills affect your team. Are you a sniper? A hunter? A floor mopper? Once you figure out how you fit into a team, you'll start seeing more success, and know exactly which weapons and boosts you'll need.
  • Some of the game's best weapons are the result of the single player campaign. It goes by quicker than you think, so go ahead and give it a shot.
  • Get in some serious practice with your favorite weapon. The best splatters out there know tricks that other have yet to discover. You'd be surprised what you can get away with.
  • That said, switch it up sometimes. Playing with a new weapon can teach you a lot about dealing with opponents, and help hone your own skills.
  • If you're getting lost or confused in any particular map, go to the battle tower and press Y to do "recon". You'll be tossed into the map by yourself, no pressure, so you can take as much time as you want to look around and get acquainted. Also, use your gamepad. Seeing the map on the gamepad can help you navigate.
  • If you notice a weird-looking satellite thing on your gamepad map, that's a spawn point. If it's your color, you can super jump to it just like you would a teammate via your gamepad. If it's the opposite color, it's your opponent's, and you can destroy it by mowing it down with your color ink.
  • Don't do that spastic whippy thing with the ink brush. That's so annoying. Fuck you. 
You may have noticed I mention Chris a lot in this blog. Chris is a long-time pal and permanent Splatoon teammate of mine, and we've basically been playing the game together since its release, so a lot of my experiences involve him. He's a cool dude, he writes stuff for Pietriots.com and you can follow him on twitter and see me make fun of him and his stupid helmet.

2 comments:

  1. That was intensely in-depth! I'm tempted to get this game, but I know I wouldn't get any time in with it and the price is pretty high. Maybe later if it drops in price a little. Great review, Lo!

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    1. Thanks, Ry. My goal was to focus on gameplay mechanics, since it's a new title, and some may appreciate the instruction more than my usual blabbering. It is a steep price, and for an as-of-yet unlocked game to boot. I wouldn't fault ya for holding out, but it will have an affect on your skills when the time comes! ;)

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