When Splatoon launched on Nintendo’s Wii U in 2015, it should have shipped with a “wet paint” sign. This was Nintendo’s first major online shooter in nearly a decade, and despite the obvious innovation and fun on offer, it wasn’t ready for online prime time. Weapon balancing, content, modes, and matchmaking with friends were all in short supply.
Splatoon 2, out this week on the Switch, could very well have ended up being the “gussied-up port” I expected when the game was announced earlier this year. It sure looks and sounds the same as the Wii U version, and with two years of patches under its belt, that wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
But in the odd tradition of other beloved online shooters, Nintendo has opted to not only slap a “2” onto the title but also revisit enough of the series’ nuts and bolts to merit the numerical bump. Splatoon 2 is a bona fide sequel, if barely, but that jump in number matters when I offer it as an unqualified recommendation for the next purchase most Switch owners should make. The game has its glaring issues, but Splatoon 2 absolutely executes on the promise and innovation of the original game.
Paint up, paint down, paint all around
Splatoon 2 has a few disparate parts: an eight-hour single-player campaign; a range of ranked and unranked multiplayer combat modes; and a brand-new, “Horde”-styled multiplayer challenge mode, in which you and up to three others team up to take out waves of enemies. The campaign and multiplayer modes largely resemble what I described in my 2015 review of the original. That means the game continues to operate in a universe dominated by Japanese-hipster “squid kids” who dress in “fresh” outfits and shoot paintball guns all of the danged time.
The series’ default multiplayer mode, the “Turf War” team battle, returns as the touchstone Splatoon experience. Your team has three minutes to cover an arena’s floor with more of your paint color than the opponent’s, and any ground smothered in your color becomes “swimmable.” Every player can tap a button to switch between a gun-toting teenager or a fast-swimming squid. Squids can hide or swim through their corresponding color of ink.
The first great thing about Splatoon 2 is that its new arenas have all been better tuned for paint-and-swim maneuvers. Squids can climb up the sides of walls and through grated surfaces as shortcuts, and this verticality is brilliantly emphasized with a variety of different-height paths that criss-cross at the midway points of certain maps. A heightened vantage point may seem like an unbalanced advantage, but S2‘s higher paths usually don’t have the inkable floors that players need to swim through to “reload” their paint guns. This is a clever, organic way to dampen campers’ plans.
Other highlights include a construction-themed map with zamboni-like machines regularly blocking various paths; an attractive, curvy-floor “skate park” with walls and height differentials that break up paint-covering paths; and the incredible Moray Towers arena. The latter refines a similar concept from Splatoon 1 in which two teams start at opposite ends of the level in tall towers. They can either paint or jump their way all the way to a midway battleground point, and this wild descent feels much more fun in S2‘s version. (This is helped by, among other things, a cool series of rideable zip-line rails that either team can capture.)
S2 ships with only eight arenas (two more than S1 debuted with, if you’re keeping track), but Nintendo’s dev team clearly has a better handle on what makes for a memorable paint-shooter arena. The developers promise more levels to come, but even if we only get a few, we’re still in better shape than we were with the last game.
Weapons, too, have seen a general wipe, as opposed to the original game trying to patch its way to enjoyable balance. One beef I had with S1 was its lack of long-range, combat-focused guns, and the new game answers that concern in a very Splatoon-like way. That means you’re still not getting sniper rifles, but you have a few more options if you want to deal with distant threats.
For starters, the “Charger” gun returns, and while it’s still not a real sniper rifle, its range has definitely grown. The Gatling gun is a personal favorite, because it trades speed and charging time for range and some sustained firepower. Certain versions of the Gatling come with a special attack (which can be activated once your special meter fills up) that shoots a destructive laser through walls, a tide-turning ability that is balanced by some serious limitations in speed and aim.
In fact, all of the game’s charge-up special attacks have been revamped, and most of these have longer-distance impact in mind. One of these lets you send out a slew of about 10 “curling puck” paint bombs in all directions, while others lob paint rockets from the sky. These don’t always kill your opponents, but they do always slosh paint at more distant ranges, which can be more important to actually winning matches.
The other new “distance” weapon is a funky one: an umbrella. At short range, this works like a shotgun, but the umbrella portion can be held up as a defensive shield or launched in a long, straight line to spread a line of paint and pester distant foes. (Doing this leaves you shield-less for a brief waiting period.) However, I didn’t encounter this one in online multiplayer, so I’m unsure if it’s a high-level unlock or if it’s only for the single-player campaign.
(As in the last game, weapons and perk-loaded gear can be purchased with a currency that’s accrued from playing multiplayer games, and options get better as you grow in experience rank. Your outfit’s perks add very slight tweaks, and online matchmaking appears to be generally careful about keeping better-geared players away from weaker ones.)
The new “octobrush” resembles the previous game’s splat-roller (which has also returned) but runs faster and adds a quicker melee attack that is like waving little paintbrush daggers all over the place. And the “splat dualies” operate like some of the other short-range, uzi-like weapons from the original, only with a wider spread and a unique “dash” maneuver.
So far, Splatoon 2‘s range of weapons, powers, and balance tweaks feel like they’ve learned lessons from the original game’s years of active play. My online testing time was too limited to declare the new suite fully balanced or immune to exploits, but I did like the distinct feeling that some weapons were meant for paint spreading while others were tuned more specifically for enemy targeting. Most importantly, each weapon came with appropriate and apparent compromises between power and drawbacks.
Modes, friends, and performance
After roughly six hours of online play, you’ll earn enough experience points to reach level 10 (out of a 30-level cap, currently). Doing so will unlock Splatoon 2‘s other modes for “ranked” online play. All three of these originally landed on the first Splatoon via downloadable updates.
The best is Tower Control, which resembles Team Fortress 2‘s “Payload” mode but offers more symmetrical strategizing. Teams must try to cover a small tower in their own ink, then swim to its top to claim it, at which point the tower slowly moves along a prescribed line across the map. The opposing team can claim the tower in order to move it in the opposite direction, and both sides compete to move it the farthest in their own direction by the round’s end. The tower will momentarily pause at various checkpoints, which helps the underdog team rally to the point and try to take it back.
Rainmaker is the most unique mode, and it makes great use of Splatoon‘s unique mechanics. Teams fight to grab a slow, powerful weapon that shoots enormous paint clouds; it’s a great crowd-control weapon, but anybody who swims smartly can sneak around and splat the Rainmaker-er. Thus, teams have to collaborate smartly to keep the weapon and then win by running it into the opposing team’s base. Meanwhile, Splat Zones is a paint-loaded version of the usual “take control of spots on the map for long enough to win” mode. I would have liked to see Splatoon 2 mix these existing modes up a little, since they don’t get their own dedicated maps, but they still go a long way toward keeping Splatoon 2 fresh.
Should you wish to play any of the game’s modes with friends, you will have a much easier time of it than last game. (Once you get over Nintendo’s friend-code hurdle, anyway.) Setting up private matches among friends is simple enough, but the real treat here is that Splatoon 2 lets you join your friends in ranked and unranked multiplayer queues. Meaning, if you boot the game and any friends are mid-match, you can elect to wait however long needed until their combat is over, at which point the two of you will automatically queue up to play the next match together. Seeing as how these public queues are the only way to accrue the game’s experience points and in-game cash, this is a really welcome tweak to having some friends around during normal online play.
My biggest online-matchmaking complaint persists from the last go-round: it is a pain to swap weapons and other gear between matches and impossible to swap gear in the middle of a match. Should you equip a giant roller brush, then land on a random online team of all-brushes, your side is stuck with this limited arsenal for a full three-minute round. If you want to switch loadouts, you have to fully quit out of the matchmaking queue to load the respective menus, which can suck up a good 2 to 3 minutes even during prime online hours.
A pre-release period is by no means a good chance to gauge an online game’s real-world networking performance. Still, during Nintendo’s pre-release “testing period” hours, matches would take anywhere from 10 seconds to 5 minutes to successfully populate with the hard minimum of eight players per match. This may not last with thousands of concurrent players from around the world logging in after the retail release, but the delays were long enough to have us wondering if something odd was going on.
In good news, I never faced a single hard drop or disconnect in the middle of a match once I connected. General latency has improved across the board (at least in pre-release play), though Splatoon 2 still fudges a noticeable amount of its paint-bullet impact. Certain attacks and impacts register a full half-second after they appeared to happen on my screen, but that’s still an improvement over the regular one-second fudges from the original game.