A crazy and clever co-op mode helps this team-based shooter make a splash.
[Editor’s Note: Because Splatoon 2 depends on servers for matchmaking, and because Nintendo’s Switch mobile app will launch alongside it on July 21, this review is in progress until shortly after it’s released to the public. Read on for our full impressions of Splatoon 2 as it exists in its pre-release state.]
It feels as if the paint had just begun to dry on Splatoon after its release on the Wii U in 2015 when Nintendo applied a fresh coat and relaunched it with Splatoon 2 on the Switch. That may be why this sequel feels less like a whole new game than a new version of the first one that rolls up the best post-launch updates to the colorful and adorably non-violent team-based shooter and adds some new toys. Of course, considering the first game is a lot of fun, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you missed it for lack of a Wii U. And despite some questionable choices that can leave you trapped in matchmaking purgatory, the addition of a standout and clever take on a co-op horde mode provides some seriously addicting fun that has me coming back for more.
Like its predecessor, Splatoon 2‘s emphasis on using vibrant, ink-based weapons to splatter both enemies and the ground alike in your team color to control territory makes it a distinctive kind of visually rewarding fun. Controlling the ground is more than just a way of keeping score, though – you’re far more mobile in your own territory, creating lots of opportunity for strategies around creating a highway to an objective and cutting off your opponents, and also setting up areas to submerge into the ink and replenish your ammo. The key to victory on the eight distinct and symmetrical maps currently in rotation often lies in being aware of terrain, ink management, and the opposition’s plans.
Between the original arsenal, the guns added in post-launch updates, and the new ones introduced in Splatoon 2, there’s plenty of ink-based weaponry to choose from, and yet each type has distinct uses. There’s the fast and furious Inkbrush that covers ground quickly, contrasted with the Slosher that manages to turn a literal bucket of ink into a deadly close-range weapon. One of my favorites of the new batch is the Dualies, dual-pistol style weapons that have a great rate of fire and also let you quickly dodge-roll when firing to strafe enemies and release a concentrated burst of ink. There’s also a brand-new array of special weapon powerups, many of which work well with proper coordination to break stalemates. The protective Ink Armor shields your entire team from harm, while the Tenta Missiles can lock onto and fire a salvo of ink strikes on multiple enemies.
Obtaining new gear is a smoother process than in the first game.
Going hand in hand with Splatoon 2’s wealth of weapons is a set of gear that provides both style and bonuses in combat, with the added twist of over 20 random secondary abilities that unlock after you’ve battled with them equipped enough times. These range from practical effects, like increasing ink recovery rates, to highly specialized abilities that can track the enemy who last splatted you or players you’ve recently hit. Obtaining new gear is a smoother process than in the first game, too – you can now order any gear you’ve seen on other people in-game using currency earned from battle, though the abilities attached to yours might not be the same due to random generation. Paying to scrub unwanted extra traits to make room for new ones leaves chunks of those abilities behind to apply to other gear, letting you mix and match from your inventory, or you can try your luck at unlocking different bonuses to replace the old ones that better align with your playstyle. This is a good way get value out of gear you earned but don’t plan to wear: by scrubbing enough ammo-conserving bonuses from gear I wasn’t using, I was then able to apply that trait to my favorite jersey (for a hefty price). Offering the chance to craft the perfect gear for your playstyle to give you a better edge in the more competitive Ranked Battles has kept me more invested than I was in the first Splatoon.
With a world this colorful and fun, it’s great to see how much better people and places look on the Switch. Characters like the weapons dealer Sheldon and clothing merchant Jelfonzo look better than ever with more detailed models and textures, and the various forms of street art and graffiti scattered around the maps pop. The ink itself shimmers and glints with shiny flecks. Despite it all, Splatoon 2 never failed to maintain a smooth 60 frames per second in battle even with ink flying in all directions in a fully populated eight-player match. In handheld mode, things look great, and the option to set sensitivity for both modes of play helped immensely when switching between handheld and docked mode. I actually ended up swapping between motion and non-motion controls with surprising ease (though not being able to use the control stick to look up and down with motion and controls does take getting used to every time).
Splatoon 2 brings back a very familiar and simple 32-mission single-player campaign that, with some exceptions, follows the style of its predecessor almost to the letter. There’s a fair amount of hand-holding and will only take six or so hours to run through and find most collectibles, but missions provide some pretty fun ideas to play around with. There are places to stylishly grind on ink-rails like a squid version of Tony Hawk, and elsewhere you can lure giant, ink-vacuuming Squee-G robots into your enemies’ path. Spraying ink to activate expanding sponges or moving platforms gives it a light Super Mario Sunshine feel, but it rarely challenges you the way co-op and multiplayer do. The most significant improvement over Splatoon is that the sequel’s campaign lets you try out each of the weapon types, which is a great way to learn about their potential and how they can be used in multiplayer before jumping online. This focus on weapon research greatly extends replay value, as you can head back into levels you’ve already conquered to discover new challenges based on the weapons’ strengths and limitations.
Heading into Splatoon 2’s main lobby lets you queue up for an engaging variety of online modes. Each mode automatically drops you in one of two maps that change up every two hours, which keeps things feeling fresh and doesn’t let a map wear out its welcome as quickly as in other games, where the community often picks a favorite and plays it to death. The standard Turf War mode, which carries over from the original, is welcoming for beginners and veterans alike with the simple yet entertaining concept of competing to ink the most territory in three minutes. No two matches ever feel the same because the battlefield hotspots – dictated by the competing colors of ink – are constantly changing, and several times being at the right place at the right time was what narrowly pushed our team to victory. This is one case where I actually miss the Wii U gamepad – without the second-screen map or an always-on-screen minimap, you have to hold a button to overlay a map to see how things are going or jump to a teammate’s location. This means you’ll need to be that much more alert to the status of your team and the terrain, and finding a safe spot to check the map overlay took some getting used to.
Being at the right place at the right time was what narrowly pushed our team to victory.
Besides Turf Wars, Ranked and League Battles are where more precise and objective-based modes await. The king-of-the-hill-inspired Splat Zone, a tug-of-war style payload mode called Tower Control, and a spin on capture-the-flag where you carry a powerful but movement-impeding weapon to the enemy base called Rainmaker. Unfortunately, these modes aren’t well populated yet, so I’ll have to wait until Splatoon 2 goes live before I can effectively test them out.
The only real problems I’ve encountered so far are the lobby’s matchmaking system and the lack of a between-match loadout screen. Like in most games, once you’ve picked your mode of choice you’ll be sent to a room awaiting seven more players to begin. The catch is that nobody can cancel out or do anything else (such as the minigame the first Splatoon gave us to kill the time here) until either the match fills up or the timer runs out a couple of minutes later. Even if your group does fill up fast (which we can assume will be more likely after launch) and you get to play a round, you’re still left with the problem of being unable to swap out weapons and gear between matches. I don’t mind not being able to switch during a match because that makes you carefully consider your choices and commit to the role your weapon fills, and the matches aren’t that long to begin with. But after playing with a great group and leveling up, the last thing I want to do is ditch them just so I can put on a new pair of shoes.
Where Splatoon 2’s single-player campaign gently guides you through Octoling enemies, the new Salmon Run mode is an excellent cooperative foil. As hilarious as it is addicting, this mode puts you and up to three other players up against three timed waves of relentless enemies while collecting a quota of golden eggs from boss creatures and depositing them in a basket. Unlike other horde modes, Salmon Run deftly uses Splatoon’s ink and territory mechanics to ensure you’re not only splatting fish but also struggling to maintain control of the ground as enemies try to stifle your movement. The Boss Salmonids you face are some of the most memorable enemies I’ve seen in a horde mode since Left 4 Dead, wielding trash as makeshift weapons and armor and shooting beams of ink from atop a tower of pots and pans. Their distinct looks help you assess threats quickly, which is essential because your team must neutralize them before being overwhelmed.
When playing online, you’ll be given one of four random weapons to use for every wave, and I love how it challenged me to adapt and fill new roles on my team: In one wave I was sniping bosses with the Splat Charger, but in the next wave I had to clear a path to the egg basket with the Roller instead. Difficulty can be set when playing locally, and steadily grows when online thanks to the randomized nature of enemy waves and weapon loadouts, boss configurations, and special events like rising water levels or egg-stealing mothership invasions. Those shifting conditions kept me coming back to see what would happen next.
The Boss Salmonids you face are some of the most memorable enemies I’ve seen in a horde mode since Left 4 Dead.
Playing locally with friends is a blast – my teammates and I frantically screamed out boss names and locations of golden eggs to direct each other to counter problems and capitalize on opportunities. But this also highlights how key communication is to survival, something that doesn’t currently translate well in random online matchups, where you can only give basic callouts. That’s something that will hopefully improve with the launch of Nintendo’s mobile app, which will allow voice communication (one of the things we found lacking with the original Splatoon on the Wii U). Co-op is also the only mode that can only be played online on certain days for specific amounts of time, which is truly frustrating considering just how fun it is. I get that Nintendo wants to ensure full rooms on the days Salmon Run is active, but I’d rather have the option to queue up with friends online or have a way to easily back out if nobody is around to play with (going it alone is pretty much a death sentence). Luckily, you earn rewards much faster online; if you choose to play locally you can play as much as you want, but it takes much longer to earn bonuses.
That’s it for now, but check back after Splatoon 2 and the Nintendo mobile app launch on July 21 for the final review. But if I had to score Splatoon now, I’d give it an 8.3.