The ink is stronger than the bullet.
Nintendo has a successful franchise in almost every genre of gaming, but not since Metroid Prime has it committed to the shooter genre with as much gusto as it is with Splatoon, the creatively non-violent shooter coming to Wii U this May. Nintendo isn't scared of small experiments, occasionally introducing lightweight games and new characters (Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, Dillon's Rolling Western), but it's banking big on Splatoon's success in the hope that it will blossom into yet another flagship series.
By taking a wholly wholesome approach to designing Splatoon, Nintendo's created a game that stands out as new and different, bucking the need for direct comparisons to bloody, kill-focused behemoths such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. There are no headshots or kill counts here; the goal in competitive multiplayer is to cover more of the map than your enemy, using guns that are loaded with ink rather than bullets.
Fittingly, you play as Inklings, human-squid, and your dual-species status means that you can walk on two feet, but also swim through puddles of ink, an ability that's incredibly useful and unlike any maneuver seen in other shooters. While swimming through the opposing team's ink slows you down and makes you an obvious target, your own ink is the perfect hiding place; enemies can't see you if you remain motionless in squid form. Given that Inklings move faster through ink than on their feet, you can also take advantage of this ability to reposition yourself on the map, dodge enemy ink, and get to high ground beyond the reach of your modest jump ability.
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The standard Turf War competitive matches are a blast in Splatoon, and while it takes a while to get over the shoot-to-kill mentality, it does sink in, and that transitional moment is when Splatoon's greatness clicks. Even though you aren't racking up kills to win a match, you still want to take out opponents on occasion, because your target can't contribute to the team painting effort during their respawn cooldown timer. However, spend too much time preventing the enemy from spreading ink by going for "kills", and you miss the opportunity to cover the map with your own ink. Thankfully, covering a large area in your team's color feels as good as taking down opponents in other shooters, so you never really miss the feeling of accomplishment by forgoing killing in the name of painting.
The ink swimming mechanic is the most unique and interesting element in Splatoon, whether you're using it to cross the map or to pop in and out of cover. It provides depth and strategy beyond what many shooters offer, which rarely extends beyond weapon choice and positioning. That's not to say those aspects don't matter here, just that they take on a different meaning. Positioning is largely guided by the need to paint, rather than the urge to kill. The same is true for your choice of weapon. There's the standard automatic rifle, which fires ink bullets at a rapid pace, but if you choose the ink roller, you paint large swaths of color across the map, and can easily overrun unsuspecting enemies. You have to sacrifice range attacks with the roller, but if your job on the team is to worry about coverage more than kill-age, you won't worry about your limited reach. Players can also earn currency during matches that goes towards purchasing new weapons and clothing, secondary equipment that comes with stat boosts. You do this from within Splatoon's humorous and charming hub world, which is filled with pun-derived merchants that play on the game's oceanic theme.
Splatoon easily stands apart from other shooters, but it's missing something that every competitive shooter must have if it's going to be taken seriously: team voice chat. Nintendo, for whatever reason (likely to maintain a family-friendly environment), has stated there will not be voice chat in Splatoon. Rather than strategize via direct communication, Nintendo suggests that players use the bird's eye view of the map that's displayed on the GamePad to locate their teammates. Even without voice chat, there are other solutions that Nintendo could have implemented, such as touching the GamePad screen to direct fellow Inklings. Currently, you can only guess what your friends are thinking by watching their movements.
Nintendo has been pitching Splatoon as a competitive game, but there's a single player adventure inside that's fun on its own, offering a unique set of equipment, challenges, and most importantly, level designs. Here, you are fighting to kill, essentially, by gunning for Octarians, your Octopus-like adversaries. There are other objectives which vary between stages, but inevitably, you need to clear a path by firing at your enemies, and this is when Splatoon feels more like the shooters that we all know, and that some of us love. Single player levels also differ quite a bit from multiplayer maps. They offer greater verticality and feature unique elements, such as sponge platforms that grow when hit with ink. I've only played a handful of Splatoon's single player missions, and while they were on the easy side, they were still more interesting and and varied than typical multiplayer matches, which says a lot.
Single player is a fun alternative to competitive play, but it's also a great way to hone your skills before jumping into ranked multiplayer matches. Most people will have plenty of time to practice as ranked matches will come post launch once a certain percentage of players reach level 10 in the standard multiplayer mode. These differ from the standard Turf War setup, one example being a king of the hill mode where you have to cover an isolated area of the map with ink and defend it from your enemies. Everyone starts with a rank of "C" in ranked mode, and it fluctuates based on your individual performance. To keep things fair, Nintendo's going to automatically filter matches based on rank.
Splatoon has come a long way since E3, where it was presented as more of a vertical slice, or a concept, rather than a complete vision. Now, Splatoon has an established world and story, a single player mode that feels distinct from multiplayer matches, and elements, including gear and ranked matches, to lure in fans of other competitive shooters. The lack of voice chat is concerning, but for casual players, it may not matter. I had such a fun time swimming as a squid, trying to sneak around a map and cover enemy territory with ink, that I wasn't as concerned for what my team was doing. Perhaps I should have been, but we were all doing the same thing, and most importantly, having a great time.
Splatoon splashes onto the Wii U in just a couple months, and with it, one of Nintendo's biggest bets in a long time. Its success, both as a new franchise and a multiplayer shooter, will rely on a large and active player base, which isn't something Nintendo's had to rely on in the past. If anything, it will be interesting to see how Nintendo handles all of the new challenges that Splatoon represents, and whether it has what it takes to drive up Wii U sales.
Editor's Note: Travel to the Splatoon event was provided courtesy of Nintendo.